Anti-mining activists killed in alarming numbers under Duterte
May 12, 2024

Despite the former president’s supposed anti-mining stance, Altermidya found out that most of the reported killings of environmental defenders during his administration were linked to mining.

MANILA, Philippines — Chad Errol Booc, 27, had a following on X (formerly Twitter). A cum laude graduate in Computer Science from the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman, he constantly posted about his environmental and human rights advocacies to his followers of more than 18,000 on the social media platform.

But more than that, he walked the talk: Chad was a volunteer teacher in a faraway Lumad (indigenous peoples of Mindanao) school.

Bakwit school teacher Chad Errol Booc. (Photo by Save Our Schools Network)

On February 23, 2022, Chad and four companions – fellow volunteer-teacher Gelejurain “Jurain” Ngujo II, as well as Elegyn Balonga, Tirso Añar, and Robert Aragon – were in Barangay Andap, New Bataan town of Davao de Oro province (formerly Compostela Valley) in Southern Philippines to conduct a community visit for research.

They were traveling to Davao City when the five were accosted by members of the Philippine Army’s 10th Infantry Division, according to witnesses. By the morning of February 24, Chad and the others were dead, their lifeless bodies riddled with bullets.

Following the incident, the Army claimed that Chad and his companions, collectively called the “New Bataan 5,” fought it out with government soldiers, before being killed as combatants of the rebel New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines. But witnesses and experts insist they were unarmed civilians and were, in fact, environmental defenders.

An autopsy of Chad’s remains by prominent Manila-based forensic pathologist Dr. Raquel Fortun revealed multiple gunshot wounds, implying an intent to kill. It was clearly a case of homicide, she said.

“(The) internal injuries are not compatible with life. I doubt even if he had been attended to medically and surgically even, he would have survived. So it must have caused a fast death,” Fortun added.

A six-month investigation by Altermidya has compiled data from disparate sources including  Global Witness and Kalikasan-People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan) to understand who is behind the unrelenting violence against the Philippines’ environmental defenders, what issues and what associated business interests have become most dangerous to stand up against and why the justice system is powerless to stop it.

The two sources have different time frames and methodologies which resulted in disparate figures but similar conclusions.

Global Witness “identifies cases of killings by searching and reviewing reliable sources of publicly available online information” and must be supported by “credible, published and current online sources of information.” The organization also gets information on killings from local organizations in different countries like Kalikasan. 

Since Global Witness started documenting attacks against environmental defenders in 2012, they have recorded 281 killings in the Philippines. This made the country the third most dangerous in the world for people who oppose projects and activities detrimental to the environment.

Meanwhile, Kalikasan employs a monitoring network consisting of their 22 member grassroots organizations across the Philippines to keep track of environmental defender killings. Their reports of human rights violations come directly from their members on ground and are cross-referenced from multiple sources such as news reports, official documents, and government sources to enhance the reliability of data.

From 2001 to 2022, Kalikasan said that there have been at least 328 individuals killed in the Philippines, purportedly for their environmental and social advocacies. According to their data, Davao de Oro, the province where Chad and his companions were killed, recorded the most killings with 38.

In denial

The United Nations (UN) defines environmental defenders as “individuals and groups who, in their personal or professional capacity and in a peaceful manner, strive to protect and promote human rights relating to the environment, including water, air, land, flora and fauna.”

Chad and the rest of the New Bataan 5 certainly fit the definition. As volunteer teachers in Lumad schools, they advocated for sustainable agriculture, and campaigned to defend the Lumad ancestral lands from intrusion by big mining companies.

However, the Philippine military insisted they were armed rebels. Then-Col. Ramon Zagala, who was Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesperson at the time, claimed that Chad was an “NPA armed fighter, and he died with members of the NPA fighting government troops who were just doing their jobs.”

This has also been the case with other environmental defenders killed under the Duterte administration. The AFP insists that they do not target unarmed activists, and that those who were killed were armed rebels fighting the government.

And yet it was President Duterte himself who in July 2017 publicly threatened Lumad communities with aerial bombardment.

“Leave those areas. I say to the Lumad there, leave those areas. I will bomb you. I will destroy your structures. I will use the Air Force,” said President Duterte on July 24, 2017, following his second State of the Nation Address. “You are operating illegally and you are teaching the children to rebel against the government,” he continued.

By 2017, military presence heightened in other Lumad communities in Mindanao. Catherine “Katkat” Dalon, a Lumad student, joined other Lumad evacuees from other schools in other Mindanao provinces, in a cross-country caravan to Metro Manila. There, they stayed in several evacuation areas and established makeshift schools called “Bakwit (evacuees) school,” where she met Chad and Jurain.

Katkat said they were kind and patient volunteer teachers who taught them practical knowledge about organic farming, as well as social issues from gender issues to imperialism.

“I admired that because they were not just teachers. They were one with us in defending our ancestral lands against imperialist plunder. Teacher Chad and the others had the opportunity to work in the cities because they had diplomas. But they chose to teach in Lumad schools full-time,” Katkat said.

Lumad student Catherine “Katkat” Dalon speaks during a protest to demand justice for the killing of five individuals in New Bataan, Davao de Oro, including her teacher in Bakwit school Chad Booc, on February 26, 2022

Acceleration of killings

Altermidya’s analysis of data from the local environmental group Kalikasan found that most of the killings, or 205 out of the 328, happened under the administration of former President Rodrigo Duterte. Eighty-nine out of these 205 killings happened in his homeland in Mindanao.

In 2016, the first year of his presidency, the killings of environmental defenders in the Philippines reached 35, the highest annual record since 2001.

Altermidya’s data analysis further shows an uptick in killings of environmental defenders after Duterte’s speech in 2017. That year was the deadliest for environmental defenders in the Philippines, with 56 killed. By 2018, 29 were killed. But this picked up again in 2019, with 46 environmental defenders killed.

Chad and the rest of the New Bataan 5 were some of the last environmental defenders killed before Duterte stepped down from office on June 30, 2022.

Multiple killings

Altermidya also found that some killings occurred in a single day in the same province. From 2001 to 2022, Kalikasan recorded 41 incidents in 27 provinces.

An example of this were the two incidents of multiple killings in Lianga town of Surigao del Sur province, located in northeastern Mindanao. The first one happened on September 1, 2015, when Lumad tribal leaders Dionel Campos and Juvello Sinzo, and executive director of Lumad school Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development, Inc. (ALCADEV) Emerito Samarca were killed.

This was the same Lumad school where Chad volunteered to teach after the massacre.

Lumad leader Eufemia Cullamat speaks during a protest in front of the Philippines’
 Department of Environment and Natural Resources in commemoration of the 29th anniversary
of the Philippine Mining Act of 1995 on March 4, 2024.

Lumad leader Eufemia Cullamat was one of the witnesses to the Lianga massacre.

Various independent investigations, including one done by local human rights group Karapatan, point to a paramilitary group called Magahat-Bagani as the culprit.

“I saw with my own eyes how they shattered the head of my cousin Dionel,” Eufemia said.

She also heard the paramilitary group ordered them to stop with their advocacies for the ancestral lands, or suffer similar fates as that of Dionel, Juvello and Emerito.

“This was how the military protects the mining companies: Through fear-mongering and violence, so that the community will be forced to accede to the mining company’s entry and all that we could do was accept meager salaries from the company,” she added.

The second multiple killings happened in Lianga on July 15, 2021, during the Duterte administration, when two Lumad farmers and a 12-year old Lumad student were shot and killed by alleged elements of the 3rd Special Forces Battalion of the Philippine Army.

The death of Chad and the rest of the New Bataan 5 was another case of multiple killings.

In total, 137 environmental defenders in the Philippines were killed in these multiple killings, or what some human rights groups often refer to as “massacres.” Of the 137, 93 were killed during the Duterte administration.

“These kinds of attacks can only really be done, I think, under a regime or state machinery that is oriented towards silencing those who oppose the destructive projects,” said Kalikasan’s former national coordinator Jon Bonifacio, in an interview with Altermidya.

Mining and killings

Often, mining projects and deaths of environmental defenders are closely linked. Altermidya discovered that out of the 66 provinces with mining tenements, as listed by the Mines and Geosciences Bureau as of June 2023, over half have witnessed mining-related deaths of environmental defenders. Davao de Oro had the highest number of killings linked to mining with 26 out of 38. From 2001 to 2022, nearly half of all killings can be traced back to their opposition to large-scale mining, based on Kalikasan’s data. And half of the killings of environmentalists opposing mining operations occurred during the Duterte administration alone.

During the past few decades, ancestral lands of indigenous peoples in the Philippines have been subject to large-scale mining operations. Many of these communities, like that of the Lumad in Mindanao, have organized themselves to protect their lands, including the far-flung areas in Surigao del Sur and Davao de Oro provinces.

According to the Mines and Geosciences Bureau, there are 137 mining tenements in Mindanao as of June 2023. These are composed of Mineral Production Sharing Agreements, Financial and Technical Assistance Agreements, Exploration Permits, and Mineral Processing Permits.

Chad, who volunteered for Alcadev Lumad School in Lianga, Surigao del Sur, was also involved in the campaign against mining operations in Lianga that would displace the Lumad. He was also active in the campaign against the mining operations of Apex Mining in Maco, Davao de Oro – the province where they were killed.

Ironically, Duterte publicly stated that he opposed large-scale mining during the first year of his presidency. During that time, he appointed environmental advocate and anti-mining activist Gina Lopez to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Lopez, in her one year as environment secretary, ordered the closure of 26 mining operations due to violations in environmental regulations.

But in 2017, Lopez’s appointment was rejected by Duterte’s allies in the Commission on Appointments. The President began walking back on his statements against mining, as the number of killings of environmental defenders increased. By December 2021, Duterte had lifted the ban on open-pit mining.

‘Two years without justice’

Environmental and indigenous peoples’ rights groups light candles on February 24, 2024,
the second anniversary of the ‘New Bataan 5’ killing.

Like the 323 environmental defenders who were killed between 2001 and 2022, Chad and his companions continue to be denied justice. Two years after their brutal killings, their families and loved ones remain mired in prolonged uncertainty and frustration.

Environmental and human rights lawyer Antonio La Viña, legal counsel for Chad’s family, lamented the lack of progress in the investigation, which he said illustrates the state of impunity in the country.

“First of all, the police are not serious about investigating because it should be the police who are investigating. [They] even justify their actions. So right there in the investigation, you already have a problem,” said La Viña.

In the country’s judicial system, La Viña said corruption and inefficiency are “inherent” and manifest in prolonged legal battles.

Environmental, human rights, and media groups protest in front of the Philippines’ Supreme Court
on January 24, 2024, the 13th anniversary of the killing of environmental activist
and journalist Gerardo “Gerry” Ortega.

He cited the case of Gerardo “Gerry” Ortega, an environmental activist and journalist, who was gunned down in 2011 in Palawan, briefly after his radio program.

La Viña said the Ortega case exemplifies the severe repercussions of judicial fraud, where legal proceedings are not just delayed but derailed, leaving families and communities in a perpetual state of uncertainty and injustice.

Key witnesses in Chad’s case either disappeared or succumbed to fear, unable to challenge the dominant narrative imposed by the military – a narrative later contradicted by autopsy findings, according to La Viña.

He said this is one of the significant obstacles to achieving justice for Chad and his companions. This case, he said, illustrates the daunting barriers to justice when powerful entities control the narrative and witnesses are silenced by fear.

Chad’s family and legal counsel also could not access the area where they were killed because it was “too dangerous.”  While forensic science disproved the military’s narrative of Chad’s death, the probe still needs witnesses to corroborate that the deaths were the result of unlawful actions by the military and not a legitimate combat encounter as initially claimed.

La Viña, former Dean of the Ateneo de Manila University School of Government, said the country urgently needs to implement robust protection mechanisms for environmental and human rights defenders against state and non-state attacks and attacks from business interests that are often the subject of their advocacy work.

“All development aggression activities, such as mining, reclamation, and land conversion, contribute to the increasing number of environmental defender killings. Why are they being killed? Why are they being attacked? Because they are effective in fighting development aggression,” he said.

Jonila Castro speaks during the press conference for abduction survivor and environmental defender
Francisco “Eco” Dangla III (middle) on April 26, 2024.

Meanwhile, Kalikasan’s advocacy officer Jonila Castro, said that the state of impunity against environmental defenders continues to worsen due to the absence of accountability and continuous denial of the Philippine government that human rights violations occur.

“If there’s no recognition that environmental defenders are being attacked, how can we achieve justice? How can the perpetrators be accountable?” she said.

Continuing attacks

Under the Duterte administration, Bonifacio said that the crackdown against dissent “was apparent,” adding that killings during his strongman rule “were more severe compared” to previous administrations.

Bonifacio warned against the continuation of the Duterte policies under the administration of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. He said, “There is no doubt that attacks on environmental defenders will not cease.”

Based on the recent data from Kalikasan, the killing of environmental defenders has continued under the present administration. Since Marcos Jr. assumed office in July 2022, a total of 23 environmental defenders have been killed.

Castro said that aside from killings, environmental defenders in the Philippines are also subject to other forms of attacks, including red-tagging, abduction, and trumped-up charges.

She experienced a similar ordeal. On the night of September 2, 2023, Castro and her fellow environmental activist Jhed Tamano were abducted by armed men in Orion town in the province of Bataan. Before the incident, they worked with the fishing communities in the province that are threatened by reclamation projects in Manila Bay.

The two were later presented by the National Task Force to End Local Communists Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) in a press conference as “rebel surrenderees.” During the press briefing, Castro and Tamano revealed that they were held captive by the military and coerced to sign a handwritten affidavit stating they “voluntarily surrendered.”

Weeks after Castro and Tamano revealed their sufferings with their abductors, the Department of National Defense filed perjury charges against the two. Although these charges were eventually dismissed, an oral grave defamation charge was later pressed against them.

“We were abducted under the Marcos Jr administration. That’s why we cannot say that the situation of environmental defenders in the country has improved. Our experience proves that attacks persist under the current administration,” said Castro. Kalikasan pointed out that it was former president Duterte who came out with various executive orders that militarized several parts of the Philippines. He also created the NTF-ELCAC and pushed for the enactment of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020.

United Nations Special Rapporteur Irene Khan shares her initial findings and recommendations
 regarding the situation of free expression in the Philippines during a media briefing
 on February 2, 2024.

In January 2024, Irene Khan, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, urged the Philippine government to repeal the controversial Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, which she called a “law of concern.” She said it threatens freedom of expression in the country.

She also urged the Philippine government to abolish NTF-ELCAC. She described the agency as “outdated” and one of the “critical drivers of red-tagging.”

Red-tagging is the practice of labeling individuals or groups as members or supporters of communist insurgents without due process or basis. It is with the intent of vilifying or shaming these individuals in public. According to experts, this vilification, in many cases, precedes physical and legal attacks, from trumped-up charges to killings.

The Legal Division of the country’s Commission on Human Rights (CHR) did an investigation on the situation of human rights defenders in the country in 2019. The probe observed that the red-tagging of activists indeed often preceded more serious attacks.

“You know, in some cases, when you are red-tagged, you are dead the following day,” said lawyer Jolet de la Cruz of CHR Legal Division, in an interview with Altermidya.

Like Castro, Chad was also a victim of red-tagging. Before being killed, he was repeatedly tagged as a “terrorist” by the NTF-ELCAC.

According to Castro, laws and policies that allow the implementation of projects that bring harm to the environment also contribute to the continuing attacks against environmental defenders. She cited the decades-old mining law in the Philippines called the “Philippine Mining Act of 1995.” The said law eased foreign restrictions on mining operations in the country, which environmental groups like Kalikasan denounced.

Recently, the Philippine government also said that it will release guidelines to expedite the release of mining permits in the country.

“As long as these policies exist, many environmental defenders will speak up. But what usually happens to them when they air their demands? They are being attacked,” Castro said.

Environmental and indigenous peoples’ rights groups amplify calls to junk the Philippine Mining Act of 1995
through a protest action in front of the Philippines’ Department of Environment and Natural Resources
on March 4, 2024.

Carrying on

What has also continued – despite the killing of environmental defenders like Chad – is the advocacy work of environmental defenders, especially in vulnerable communities like that of the Lumad.

Katkat said that they will continue to resist large-scale mining operations such as those in Mindanao and Lumad ancestral lands.

“Just because they killed Teachers Chad and Jurain does not mean that we cannot reopen our schools and they can already mine our ancestral lands. No. We will persist. We will reopen our schools,” she vowed.

Displaced from her Lumad community, she is now a student in the University of the Philippines (UP)-Diliman in Quezon City in the nation’s capital.

Like Chad and Jurain, Katkat wants to be a teacher to her fellow Lumad. “I hope we can return one day to our ancestral lands. I really dream of becoming a teacher in a Lumad school,” she said.

As a tribute to Chad, Jurain, Elegyn, Tirso, and Robert, kamagong (Diospyros blancoi) trees were planted in a parcel of land at UP. As they were planting, Katkat recalled something Chad once said: “If I die, I do not want to be buried. I want to be planted.”

Catherine “Katkat” Dalon visits the Kamagong trees they planted
as a tribute to the ‘New Bataan 5,’ on February 10, 2024,
days before their second death anniversary.

Reporting for this story was supported by the Environmental Data Journalism Academy - a program of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network and Thibi.

Methodology

The data of global environmental defender killings was sourced from the London-based non-profit organization, Global Witness. Meanwhile, the data of environmental defender killings in the Philippines was requested from the local environmental group, Kalikasan - People's Network for the Environment. For verification, the locations and dates of these incidents were cross-referenced with data provided by the Philippine human rights organization, Karapatan.

The raw data provided by Kalikasan was cleaned and analyzed using Google Sheets. Both Kalikasan and Karapatan requested to maintain the confidentiality of the data due to security reasons.

For the mining tenements throughout the Philippines, the data was scraped from the official website of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau. Subsequently, this data was cleaned and analyzed using Google Sheets.

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