(New York) – The Philippine government’s failure to address threats and killings of environmental advocates worsens a climate of lawlessness just as the Aquino administration is pushing for new mining investments.
On July 2, 2012, President Benigno Aquino III signed Executive Order No. 79, which aims to institutionalize reforms in the Philippine mining sector by “providing policies and guidelines to ensure environmental protection and responsible mining.” However, the executive order is silent on the issue of human rights abuses arising from mining investments and on the deployment of paramilitaries at the mines.
“President Aquino has enacted decrees to encourage mining investment in the Philippines but has done little to stop attacks on environmental advocates,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director. “He should recognize that respecting human rights is crucial for economic development.”
The government should redouble its investigations into attacks on advocates, particularly when evidence points to the involvement of the military or paramilitary forces, arrest and prosecute all those responsible, and protect witnesses at risk.
Human Rights Watch has documented three cases since October 2011 in which critics of mining and energy projects have been killed, allegedly by paramilitary forces under military control. The activists had been vocal in opposing mining and energy operations which they said threatened the environment and would displace tribal communities from their land.
Margarito J. Cabal, 47, an organizer of a group opposing a hydroelectric dam in Bukidnon province, was gunned down on May 9, 2012. Relatives allege that the police have not investigated the killing, and no suspect has been arrested. Cabal had told relatives that he was under military surveillance and had been called to meet the military regarding his activities.
On March 5, a leader of a paramilitary group with a dozen of his men allegedly shot dead Jimmy Liguyon, a village chief in Dao, San Fernando town, Bukidnon province, in front of family members. Relatives said he was killed because he refused to sign an agreement needed to secure a mining investment, and that he had been under military surveillance. The main suspect, the leader of a group called the New Indigenous People's Army for Reforms, faces a warrant for his arrest, but has been seen going about his usual business in the village.
The local paramilitary group Bagani (“tribal warriors”), reportedly under military control, was allegedly responsible for the fatal shooting of Italian priest Father Fausto Tentorio, 59, in Arakan, North Cotabato province on October 17, 2011. Fr. Tentorio was a long-time advocate of tribal rights and opposed mining in the area. No one has been arrested for the killing, although the National Bureau of Investigation has recommended charges against four suspects. Tentorio’s colleagues have alleged that some suspects with military ties have been deliberately left out of the case, and two witnesses and their families are in hiding while others have been threatened.
“While mining and other environmentally sensitive projects promise economic benefits for Filipinos, they should not come at the expense of basic rights, particularly the lives of environmental advocates,” Pearson said. “The Aquino government should ensure that those responsible for these attacks are brought to justice.”
Many mining investments in the Philippines are in areas with large indigenous populations or are controlled by tribal groups. Philippine law requires the “free and prior informed consent” of the local tribal communities for these investments to proceed. This often has divided tribal communities, some of whom back investors with the support of the military to acquire the necessary permits, while tribal factions opposed to the investments sometimes get support from the communist New People’s Army or other armed groups. This has resulted in proxy conflicts pitting tribal groups against each other, resulting in numerous rights abuses.
Media and local human rights and environmental groups have reported other attacks against anti-mining and environmental advocates. Sister Stella Matutina, a Benedictine nun who led a grassroots campaign to oppose destructive mining in Davao Oriental, told Human Rights Watch that she continues to fear for her life as the military persists in vilifying her as a communist. She and her fellow advocates say that she is being targeted because of her opposition to mining in the province.
And even in cases where suspects have been identified and face an arrest warrant, they may go unpunished. For instance, former Palawan governor Joel Reyes remains at large despite an arrest warrant for his role in the killing of journalist and environmentalist Gerry Ortega on January 24, 2011.
On July 9, the United Nations special envoys on human rights defenders and on extrajudicial executions issued a joint statement criticizing the Aquino administration for the attacks on human rights and environmental defenders, saying these abuses “have increased significantly over the past few months.”
Human Rights Watch reiterated its call to President Aquino to ban all paramilitary forces in the Philippines because of their long and continuing history of serious human rights violations. Aquino has backtracked from earlier pledges to dismantle paramilitaries, saying that getting rid of military-supervised groups “is not the solution.” The government claims that paramilitary forces are now better trained and better regulated than in the past. Until such groups are banned, Aquino should revoke a 2011 directive that permits these forces to provide security for mining companies.
“Aquino should disband paramilitary groups that are being used to divide tribal communities and instill fear among the residents,” Pearson said. “The government crucially needs to hold accountable the military officers who are behind these abusive forces.”
Killings of Environmental Advocates Investigated by Human Rights Watch
Anti-Dam Activist Gunned Down
At approximately 6:30 p.m. on May 9, 2012, Margarito J. Cabal, 47, was shot dead by two men riding a motorcycle near his boarding house in Kibawe town, Bukidnon province. According to a police report seen by Cabal’s relatives, one of the assailants wore a motorcycle helmet, and the other a balaclava that covered his face; their motorcycle had no license plate.
Cabal was an organizer for Save Pulangi Alliance, which opposes the construction of a hydroelectric dam in the area, and a government employee for the mayor’s office. He is survived by his wife and three children.
Cabal’s son, Marjolie, told Human Rights Watch that prior to his father’s killing, the military’s 8th Infantry Battalion in nearby Maramag town had summoned Cabal on suspicion that he was working for the New People’s Army (NPA). “His job with the town mayor required that he would often go to hinterland villages. That might have given them the idea that he was an NPA,” Marjolie said. He said his father had told him he was under surveillance by the military.
The general secretary of the Save Pulangi Movement, a tribal leader named Datu Petronilo Cabungcal, said that the area has been the subject of military operations and that the military suspects his group is supporting the NPA. “We are just fighting for our land, our livelihood, that is threatened by this project. Why would that make us communists?” he said.
Cabal’s widow, Rosalie, told Human Rights Watch that the police never approached the family about any investigation and that, aside from a police report on the killing, there has not been any effort to investigate her husband’s death. “They never bothered to talk to us,” she said, adding that she did not know what would happen to the case.
Village Chief Shot Dead in Front of Family
Jimmy Liguyon was the village chief of Dao in San Fernando town and vice chairman of Kasilo, a tribal group opposed to mining and plantations in Bukidnon province. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that on March 5, 2012, at around 6:40 p.m., they saw Alde “Butsoy” Salusad, a known leader of a local paramilitary group, fire an M16 assault rifle at Liguyon point blank. Salusad had arrived at Liguyon’s home accompanied by about a dozen men.
Liguyon’s widow, Sharon, told Human Rights Watch that the morning before the killing, Liguyon had reiterated his refusal in a village meeting to sign an agreement with a tribal group called San Fernando Matigsalog Tribal Datu Association. Liguyon feared the agreement would facilitate the entry of big mining companies into the tribal areas, where small-scale mining is a major source of livelihood.
In her sworn statement to prosecutors, Sharon said her husband had told her in October 2011 of a phone call he received from Benjamin Salusad, Alde Salusad’s father, in which the elder Salusad threatened to have Liguyon killed for not signing a document that would allow mining companies to operate in their village.
Days after the killing, Salusad’s group, the New Indigenous People's Army for Reforms, issued a statement claiming responsibility, alleging that Liguyon was a communist. Credible media reports also said that Salusad, in a radio interview in Malaybalay City, had admitted to killing Liguyon.
Leah Tumbalang, a colleague of Liguyon in Kasilo, told Human Rights Watch: “Since we started protesting proposed mining projects, we have been getting threats and have been followed around by men.” Tumbalang said she received a text message on October 3, 2011, warning her and Liguyon to make sure to bring their coffins when they went home that day.
Leaders of local groups said Salusad and his father, Benjamin, are the leaders of a tribal group that serves as a paramilitary force for the army in that part of Bukidnon. Both father and son are known former members of the New People’s Army; they surrendered to the military last year and, according to Liguyon’s colleagues, became members of the CAFGU, the official militia under the command and supervision of the Philippine Army.
The police have investigated the killing and a murder case has been filed, naming Salusad and 14 unknown “John Does” as the suspects. A warrant of arrest was issued against him on April 30, 2012, but has not been served. The Bukidnon police chief, Supt. Rustom Duran told journalists [media reports] that his men tried to arrest Salusad a month after the killing but failed. The governmental Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines has likewise promised to investigate the case but no official report on the investigation has been released.
According to residents interviewed by Human Rights Watch, Salusad continues to reside in Dao village, often accompanying individuals known to be close to the military.
Since Liguyon’s death, Salusad’s forces have allegedly threatened Liguyon’s relatives. Tumbalang, Liguyon’s colleague in Kasilo, claimed that she heard Salusad say in a radio interview that she “would be next” after Liguyon. The threats would come through text messages and, in some cases, Salusad’s men allegedly directly confronted Liguyon’s family members, threatening them with violence.
Italian Priest Known for Tribal Advocacy Killed
In the early morning of October 17, 2011, Father Fausto Tentorio, an Italian priest, was about to get into his vehicle inside the Catholic parish compound in Arakan town, North Cotabato province, in Mindanao, when a gunman shot him to death. Tentorio, 59, was a well-known advocate of tribal rights in Arakan and opposed mining in the area. He is the second Italian priest from the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) to be murdered in the Philippines. As in the case of Father Tullio Favali in April 1985, who was killed by the Civilian Home Defense Forces militia, the suspects in Tentorio’s killing are allegedly members of a paramilitary force.”
The Tentorio case remains under investigation. The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) has asked government prosecutors to file cases against four individuals – Jimmy Ato, his brother Robert Ato, Jose Sampulna and his brother Dimas Sampulna – but so far prosecutors have not sought arrest warrants.One of the suspects, Jimmy Ato, is currently in NBI custody after he was arrested for an unrelated case.
The two Atos are known in Arakan as members of a group called Bagani (“tribal warriors”). Bagani is a paramilitary force controlled and supervised by the 57th Infantry Battalion and has been based in the same military camp, according to government documents seen by Human Rights Watch. A former Bagani member told Human Rights Watch that Bagani operates in cooperation with local businessmen and tribal leaders who support new mining and other business projects. Witnesses have made sworn statements to the authorities stating that members of Bagani were responsible for Tentorio’s killing. However, other members of Bagani have not been included in the government’s investigation, despite witness accounts of their involvement in the killing.
According to government documents seen by Human Rights Watch, the military considered Tentorio an enemy for allegedly aiding the NPA, such as by helping wounded insurgents get medical assistance. One NBI “intelligence report” said Tentorio was an “oppositionist” to energy and mining projects that affected the tribes: “He was a respected leader by the Lumads [tribes], a very influential person who enjoyed the sympathy of the [communists] in the area. In short, he was a man of God that is hated most by those with evil motives.”
Father Peter Geremia, an Italian priest also with the PIME, said that various members of Bagani and businessmen who supported the group were not included in the NBI’s original charge sheet despite eyewitness evidence linking them to the killing. For instance, one witness told prosecutors that businessmen and the military provided a local tribal leader with a 50,000-peso “budget” for carrying out the killing. In his sworn statement filed with prosecutors, the witness said the leader of the Bagani, Jan Corbala, met with his men days before to plot the killing. Another witness said in his sworn statement that he saw Corbala and the Ato brothers fleeing the crime scene moments after Tentorio was shot. He said Jimmy Ato told him that “killing that priest was rather easy.”
Fr. Tentorio had previously faced intimidation from the military, including a June 2009 raid in which army soldiers barged into the church compound without a warrant and with no clear purpose.
For years, the military and Bagani vilified Tentorio and Geremia as NPA supporters. For instance, during a briefing for journalists in May 2006, military intelligence officers from the 40th Infantry Battalion in North Cotabato accused both priests of being communists who taught “revolutionary courses” to the tribal population. The Diocese of Kidapawan complained several times to the authorities, including then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, about the military’s harassment and alleged attempts on Tentorio’s life by Bagani. “We cannot overemphasize the need to stop this baseless accusation of our priests and lay workers,” Kidapawan Bishop Romulo Valles wrote to Col. Isagani Cachuela, then commander of the army’s 602nd Brigade, on March 24, 2004. “And this must be done soonest, before name-tagging could claim another life.”
Officials from the Philippine military and the NBI, in separate interviews with Human Rights Watch, denied allegations of military involvement in the killing and a cover-up. Col. Cesar Sedillo, commander of the army’s 602nd Brigade that covers North Cotabato, said no military personnel was involved in Tentorio’s murder and denied the existence of Bagani.”
Angelito Magno, the NBI’s regional director in North Cotabato who is leading the investigation, said, “We are continuously investigating who are the masterminds” of the killing. He also denied that the bureau is protecting the military, saying it is guided by the evidence.
The witnesses in the case feel threatened by Fr. Tentorio’s killers. Those who entered the government’s Witness Protection Program have been compelled to leave Arakan with their families and go into hiding. Fr. Geremia said that he has repeatedly written to the Justice Department urging action, to expedite the case by forming a special investigation, to protect the witnesses. “The witnesses are about to give up hope and feel that your WPP [Witness Protection Program] is causing them to be like prisoners while the accused roam around freely threatening their families,” Geremia said in a May 29 letter to Justice Secretary Leila de Lima.