Working in the forestry industry, especially in the Philippines is dangerous.
This would always be a reminder for students like me taking this program. But I was already acquainted with that idea even before I went to college. The countless reports on the Philippines being one of the most dangerous countries for environmental defenders that I've read may have oriented me on such a reality. Still, my first-hand experience on that solidified my belief in such a claim. My flimsy cardboard suddenly got squeezed by my never-been-sweaty hands as I held on while being crowded in. Somehow, a four-worded statement on my cardboard would bring in flocks of men in military uniform and a woman from DSWD. The experience leaves you with paranoia that will last for years. I mean no harm, I just wanted to see something change.
But this is the reality of so many more here in the Philippines; most of the time, their experience would be worse than mine. Unfortunately, their anger with the fact of ingrained corruption affecting the environment and their communities cost them their lives.
I do not share the same burden with people who are directly affected by first-hand encounters of tensions against mining, mass migration, or displacements. My pursuit of fighting for change amidst an unstable climate was sowed by my traumatic experience in Yolanda. But foremost, I felt compelled to bring attention to environmental issues because I had privilege.
Something about privilege makes people like me, be more likely attuned to the issues of society. Sometimes, we use this as a tool to bring these problems into the spotlight. But some who are passionate in the pursuit of environmental reforms do not bear the same luxuries as I do, they simply do because they have no other choice but to stand in the frontlines as their lives depend on it.
Most of these people targeted come from underprivileged backgrounds, indigenous folks, and are community leaders who are forced to defend their rights. And it is unbelievably frustrating that we are slowly acquainting ourselves to the idea that outspoken individuals questioning the state of our society and environment are automatically terrorists, or, in Juan’s layman: NPA, komunista, or just bad people. This narrative plays a manipulative gymnastics on the reality which leads to endangering environmentalists, limiting the progress of true systemic change.
Take the case of the recent release of Jhed Tamano and Jonila Castro, two environmentalists from Luzon who were abducted by the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC). There is a mass practice of gaslighting within the government that puts activists such as Tamano and Castro on the same list as terrorists. As they said during an interview, they are not the only ones who disappeared. Who knows if they are still alive? This case is only a crumb of the truth and only one of the thousand stories of environmentalists that are left buried in the same lands they are fighting for.
People literally die fighting for a dying planet. Yet, this information is not well known. We cushion this reality by advocating for the environment on smaller scales without ever acknowledging the problem with the system itself. This fact should be enough to wake the sleeping that environmental issues are inherently political. True environmental advocacy requires acknowledging activism as a way of demanding for solutions to real-life environmental dilemmas that affect us on a daily basis.
For 10 years straight, the Philippines is reported to be one of the most dangerous countries in the world for environmental activists. Our country consistently remains on the list of disappointing statistics. We should be more outspoken with this reality: check our privileges and use that to make efforts to change the current narrative and approach to environmental issues. Because in the end, defending the planet should also compel you to defend its defenders.