What Duterte’s new anti-terror law means for the Philippines’ environmental movement

By Ceadda Grant

IT’S business as usual for the suppression of Filipino environmental defenders under
Duterte’s new anti-terror act.

A new anti-terror act was signed into law in the Philippines last month amid concerns that the bill would grant sweeping powers to an already oppressive regime led by Rodrigo Duterte.

The Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 includes a broad definition of terrorism, powers for wiretapping and surveillance , and the ability to hold suspects for up to 24 days without charge.

Environmental activists are concerned that the Act could be used to validate the ongoing intimidation and murder of environmental defenders in the Philippines.

In 2019, independent watchdog Global Witness reported that the Philippines had overtaken Brazil to become the most dangerous country for environmental defenders.

According to Global Witness 48 environmental defenders were killed in 2017 and there were 30 killings in 2018.

A new report released in July shows an increase to 43 killings in 2019, making the
Philippines the most dangerous country in Asia and the second-most dangerous in the world for land and environmental activists.

“Even before it was passed as a law we are being silenced in past years,” said Jefferson
Estela, co-founder and convenor of Youth Strike 4 Climate Philippines, in an interview with Redaction Politics.

“Seeing this law being implemented in the next couple of days is very dangerous,” he said.

In a statement, Filipino anti-mining group Alyansa Tigil Mina said: “With the implementation of the recently-passed Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, more harassment, threats and killings will happen.”


Intimidation of activists in the Philippines is often a result of ‘red-tagging’, where activists and legitimate causes are labelled as communists or terrorists in an effort to undermine them.

In 2017 activist Renato Anglao was aboard his motorcycle with his wife and child when he was shot dead by unidentified gunmen.

Anglao was a member of the Tribal Indigenous Oppressed Group Association (TINDOGA), an indigenous peoples’ organization which opposed a plantation on their ancestral land.

TINDOGA was accused of supporting the New People’s Army, an armed wing of the
Communist Party of the Philippines.

But Global Witness pointed out that at the time of his death, Anglao was leading indigenous families in defending their ancestral land after attempts were made to seize it.

Xian Guevarra, Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines (YACAP) co-convenor, said: “When the government says that you’re a communist you’re automatically branded as someone who is bad, who is evil.

“They either arrest you or make false charges, some actually get killed.”

Rachel Cox, campaigner on the Land and Environmental Defender team at Global Witness, said: “This is incredibly dangerous, the people that we work with and communities understand that by having their names posted up on a billboard or on a poster, and having that distributed across a city, the likelihood of there being a legitimate arrest is very slim.

“Because of a culture of impunity that exists and underlying corruption within localised
institutions, there’s a likelihood of people being killed as a result of that.

“That’s the way that this is dealt with when they’re accused of something.”

New powers under the Anti-Terrorism Act

The Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 now gives authorities the power to categorise terrorists under a broad definition, which includes anyone who has possession of weapons, causes “bodily injury to any person”, or “destruction to critical infrustructure”, where the purpose is to intimidate or influence the government.

The Act also allows sentencing of 12 years for anyone who incites this definition of terrorism through “speeches, proclamations, writings, emblems, banners or other representations.”

Rachel Cox said: “You have anti-terrorist legislation that is enabling the state to basically criminalise critics that are speaking out against the government, and it’s very vague as to what terrorism they’re talking about.

“If you’re already seeing a trend of them calling environmental activists terrorists, it puts some of the most vulnerable communities at even greater risk.”

Jefferson Estela said: “It’s taking a toll on our mental health being red-tagged as part of rebel groups or being silenced at this crucial time, where in fact we need to become more vocal.”

Climate disaster in the Philippines

The Philippines is one of the most susceptible countries to climate disasters, and many communities are directly impacted by nearby coal power plants, mines, or agribusiness land grabs.

“[Filipinos] are forced to confront the direct impacts of climate change, so it goes beyond this kind of abstract push for lowering global temperatures,” said Rachel Cox.

There is a global trend where environmental activism is suppressed as a result of tensions between economic, social and political interests, and the Philippines is a perfect storm of these intersecting concerns.

Land and environmental defenders have often come to loggerheads with developers who want to build on or near ancestral land occupied by indigenous peoples, and the political system in the Philippines has been accused of favouring business interests over indigenous rights.

As a result of opposition against the Act, the Philippines Supreme Court will hear at least 25 petitions in September arguing to scrap the bill.

Several international environmental activists, including Greta Thunberg, have also signed a petition in solidarity against the Act.

Though the new bill poses a significant threat in the Philippines, this hasn’t stopped environmental activists from campaigning.

“I guess it is frightening, but the problem is if you give in to the fear, if you give in to that, you basically let them win,” said Xian Guevarra.

Ceadda is a British journalist writing on politics, environmentalism, activism and the intersection of culture and social issues. Follow Ceadda on Twitter @cgreggor

Featured Image: Pixabay

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