Defenders of Commons, Indigenous Peoples, and Community Conserved Territories Subject to Oppression and Extra-Judicial Killings

November 3, 2015

This report is shared by GCCM co-founder Lou Arsenio in the Philippines.  See other blog articles about similar happenings in Africa and Latin America.  Thank you all for sharing what is occurring on the front lines!

This document is a compendium of information from different sources and aims at providing a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by Defenders of the Commons and of Indigenous peoples’ and community conserved territories and areas (ICCAs) in one of the most critical regions of Mindanao (Philippines) which ranks amongst the highest in terms of extra-judicial killing and
escalating oppression perpetrated against indigenous communities. The latter are the inhabitants of ancestral territories which are increasingly contested by agribusiness enterprises and mining firms.
This paper aims at framing the issue of extra-judicial killing of Defenders of the Commons and ICCA’s within the wider Philippine political context so to facilitate a better understanding of the phenomenon and to identify some of the priority-needs and objectives on which the ‘Solidarity Fund’ – being proposed by the ICCAs Consortium ( – should focus. The recent massacre that took place on September 1, 2015 in Lianga, Andap Valley, Caraga Region has been of further encouragement and inspiration to the preparation of this report.

About the Philippines

The Philippines, with a population of 101,024,100 is an archipelago of over 7,000 islands lying about 500 mi (805 km) off the southeast coast of Asia. Only about 7% of the islands are larger than one square
mile, and only one-third have names. The largest are Luzon in the north (40,420 sq mi; 104,687 sq km),
Mindanao in the south (36,537 sq mi; 94,631 sq km), and Visayas (23,582 sq mi; 61,077 sq km). The
islands are of volcanic origin, with the larger ones crossed by mountain ranges.

The Philippines is both a hotspot and a megadiversity area, making it a priority for conservation.
The country’s forests are habitat for more than 6,000 plant species and numerous bird and animal species.  Of the 1,196 known species of amphibians, birds, mammals and reptiles in the country, nearly 46 per cent are endemic. Among plants, the number is around 40 per cent. Only about 5 per cent of the
Philippines land area is under some form of protection. In the Philippines, two particular species of animals, the Tamaraw (the wild buffalo), and the Philippines eagle are almost extinct due to massive deforestation.

Forest destruction

The plundering of forest resources in the country by local and foreign firms has had disastrous consequences on the nation’s economy in general, and specifically on the life of thousands of
people who have been either displaced or killed by floods. Properties and infrastructures worth of
millions have been washed away by flash floods, often being defined by government authorities as
‘natural disasters’ although these events must be largely attributed to decades of rapacious
exploitation of the natural environment.

Former President Arroyo called for total log ban while declaring the remaining forests of the Davao
Provinces, Zamboanga and the Caraga regions – the only remaining ‘loggable’ forests in the country.

Forests also serve as home to some 12 million indigenous peoples. Many of them inhabit areas that
are now highly sought by large corporations engaged in extractive industries and industrial agribusiness.

The Philippines is among the countries that are losing their forest cover fast, ranking 4th in the world’s top 10 most threatened forest hotspots. If the deforestation rate of 157,400 hectares per year continues, the country’s remaining forest cover will be wiped out in less than 40 years.

The area lost to deforestation every year is twice the land area of Metro Manila.  According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, 25.7% or about 7,665,000 ha of Philippines is forested. Of this 11.2% (about 861,000) is classified as primary forest, the most biodiverse and carbon-dense form of forest. Philippines had 352,000 ha of planted forest. According to estimates of the same organization, between 1990 and 2005 the Philippines lost a third of its forest cover.

The fast destruction of forest cover has been the cause of disasters such as floods and landslides that result in loss of life and livelihood and represent the most tangible examples of the consequences of forest destruction nationwide. The most unforgettable of these events is perhaps the Ormoc flood on Nov. 5, 1991, which killed almost 8,000 people.

Human rights violations related to deforestation include land grabbing, militarization, abuse of the free and prior informed consent requirements and escalating killing of defenders of commons and ICCAs. The ‘holders of traditional rights’ (the indigenous people) are the most common victims, because their ancestral domains are generally found on forestland.

A Democracy in trouble

The Republic of the Philippines achieved its independence from Spain on June 12, 1898 and on July
4, 1946 from the US. The constitution was effective as of February 11, 1987. President and vice president are elected on  six-year terms. Therefore the next election will be held in May 2016.

Nowadays, the country could be defined as a vibrant democracy led by an elected president, Benigno S. Aquino III, but – in reality – the Philippines has been unable to overcame a long history of patronage politics, poor governance and corruption. In spite of recent economic gains, poverty remains widespread, fostering the long-running Communist and Islamic insurgencies as well as
terrorism (Human Rights Watch Report 2014/2015).

In spite of the succession of five ‘democratic’ presidents since the fall of Marcos dictatorship, the
country as a whole, is still entrenched in a well-established pattern of patronage at all levels of the society, which finds its most vivid expression in the electoral cycle. With reference to this, Walden Bello (2004: 2) has argued: “the beauty of the system is that by periodically engaging the people in an exercise to choose among different members of the elite, elections make voters active participants in legitimizing the social and economic status quo.  (Editor’s note:  similar patterns have been described by Chris Hedges and Sheldon Wolin, in the US)  Thus has emerged the great Philippine paradox: an extremely lively play of electoral politics unfolding above an immobile class structure that is one of the worst in Asia”.  In the Philippine cycle of elections, powerful families, powerful political oligarchies, powerful companies succeed in paralysing the legal procedures that could guarantee the protection of the weakest in society. Thus private interests persist to the detriment of millions of Filipinos (Bernas 1992: 4).