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Is there light at the end of the tunnel? The realities environmental activists face in the Philippines

Marco Zaplan|

We are the known as the Pearl of the Orient – a proud nation of 100 million people, 7,107 islands, 16 billion metric tons of metallic minerals, 66 billion metric tons of nonmetallic minerals, and about a million and a half metric tons of ironies.

We are considered the fifth most mineralized country in the world. We are one of the world’s few mega biodiverse countries. We have an estimated $840 billion worth of minerals on top of oil and gas, fisheries, lumber, and other natural resources. Yet in the first semester of 2015, about twenty six million people live in poor conditions. The irony goes on.

The Mining Act of 1995 provides for engagement of civil society and local communities in decision-making. Rights of indigenous peoples in the mining law were recognized even before the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act was passed in 1997. The 1987 Constitution guarantees state encouragement of civil society under Article II, Section 23. Call us progressive if you want. Yet, we are Asia’s most dangerous country to be an environmental activist in 2015. According to a 2015 Global Witness Report, globally we rank 2nd to Brazil. The report cited the numerous killings of anti mining activists and indigenous peoples as a reason for the spike.

We have the most transparent government budget in 2015 in Southeast Asia; 21st in the world. We are one of the four recipients of the 2016 Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative Chair Award. We are one of the eight co-founders of the now 70-member Open Government Partnership. We introduced an innovation in state auditing called citizen participatory audit in 2012 and the world noticed. Call us the developing world’s poster child in terms of transparency leading the forefront. Yet, our public sector is also recognized as the world’s 95th most corrupt out of 186 according to Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index. Our score did not change much since 2012 ranging from 34 to 38.

In the Philippines, you face the risk of being hit by a police car for protecting what is rightfully yours since time and immemorial. This happened just recently to our lumad brothers and sisters last October 2016. One faces risks of being killed for exposing corruption. This happened to Gerry Ortega after exposing the governor’s misuse of their share from the state oil fund. One of the biggest irony here is that when you are fighting for the integrity of your ancestral domain or the environment, you are sometimes branded anti-development.

The Philippine case demonstrates what is good in paper but sometimes ugly in reality. Policies after policies have recognized the rights of people to participate and to know. The state, however, failed to protect these rights in many cases. Lives are lost. Impunity persists. Genuine participation will ever be a distant light at the end of the tunnel until there are gunshots fired when a community says no to mining.

It will take time to reverse decades of deterioration of our institutions they say. May the fallen hear this in their graves.

We have a long way to go. We should not stop with patches of bright spots like stars in the night. We need sunlight. It is the best disinfectant. The government must do more to protect civic space for environmental activists and rights defenders.

We are a proud nation of 100 million people, 7,107 islands, 16 billion metric tons of metallic minerals, and 66 billion metric tons of nonmetallic minerals. In these islands, we mine nickel, gold, copper, limestone, and irony.

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