Michelle Campos, daughter of murdered land activist Dionel Campos. Photo: AP

Relatives of executed Philippine land rights activists hope campaign for justice will gain ally in President Duterte

Activists claim current laws governing mining and the rights of indigenous people contain gaping loopholes that firms exploit.

When 18-year-old Michelle Campos last saw her father, Dionel, they had little time to chat. He was busy with an uncle’s wake and ­Michelle was caught up celebrating her school foundation day.

“The only thing papa told me was to do well in school,” she told the South China Morning Post. “No matter what happens, I should continue my studies.”

The next day during class, news reached her that her father had been killed. The gruesome details she learned later.

Before dawn on September 1, 2015 some 20 heavily armed men swooped on the village of Diatagon in Surigao del Sur. Two community leaders were singled out for execution. Dionel was one of them. He was shot in the face, the back of his head blown off.

Michelle’s uncle, ­Juvello Sinzo, a tribal chief, was also shot dead after his bones were broken. Later, the school director Emerito Samarca was found dead, his throat slashed from ear to ear.

One of the armed men – identified as belonging to Magahat-Bagani, a paramilitary force – shouted at terrified residents that the killings would not have happened if the leaders had signed the consent form to allow mining to operate in the community, according to Dr Natividad Castro, the area coordinator for Karapatan, a human rights group.

The Philippine army denied any role in the deaths but branded the village a communist-controlled enclave.

The three slain men were among the 25 Filipinos killed last year for defending their land, ­ Global Witness said in its latest report, “On Dangerous Ground” . The London-based NGO documented 185 such killings worldwide. Brazil led the list with 50 deaths, followed by the Philippines (33), Colombia (26), Peru and Nicaragua (12 each).

“Major drivers were mining (42 deaths), agribusiness (20), logging (15) and hydropower (15),” the Global Witness report said.

Nearly a year later, Dionel Campos’ killers have not been ­arrested. Michelle, though, is “more optimistic” of resolution under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte.

Duterte – a student of Jose ­Maria Sison, who founded the Communist Party of the Philippines – has vowed to end decades of rebellion with a peace agreement. He has warned miners: “Making money out of the precious metals of the earth that ­belongs to the people, you have to do it right. If you can’t do it right, get out.”

He has appointed Gina Lopez to the post of environment secretary. Lopez described her stance as “100 per cent against mining”. She vigorously campaigned for the resolution of the 2011 murder of environmental activist-journalist Gerry Ortega.

Castro, the Karapatan activist, is now cautiously optimistic that killings of environmental activists like Campos and Ortega will stop.

However, Castro insists current laws governing mining and the rights of indigenous people ­contain loopholes mining companies exploit to the detriment of owner-communities.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Photo: Reuters

“If the laws are not reviewed, these killings will continue,” Castro said. “Our mining laws guarantee profit for mining corporations but destroy the ecological system [and] give back very little to the community.”

Inday Espina-Varona, a freelance journalist, said those who have died, including lawyers and journalists, were “the only people standing between those who sought in many instances to wrest control of entire communities and the people who wanted to fight back”.

Espina-Varona, who has visited Michelle’s village, noted that the area attracted miners because it “was so rich it has almost surface coal”.

The Mines and Geosciences Bureau said Caraga, Michelle Campos’s home region, has at least 14 mining firms operating and 15 more conducting exploration. Besides nickel, gold, copper, chromite and coal deposits, Caraga contains the biggest iron ore deposits in the world.

However, the bureau’s statistics show the mining industry contributed only 0.5 per cent to the country’s GDP last year and a mere 2 per cent of its earnings to the government, while retaining 98 per cent.

Patricia Ortega, wife of slain Philippine environment activist Gerry Ortega. Photo: AFP

The Philippines has a long list of executed land defenders – the most famous was tribal chief ­Macliing Dulag, who stood up to the Marcos dictatorship’s plans to build a dam on the land of his ancestors. Dulag’s murder sparked a rebellion among the indigenous tribes in the Cordillera mountains on the island of Luzon.

For Michelle Campos and her group Mapasu (or Persevering Struggle for the Next Generation), the fight for indigenous people to exercise control over their land continues.

“The fight that my father, my grandfather and my teacher started is far from over,” she said. “The right of the indigenous people to make decisions for themselves is not yet recognised.

“The destruction of the environment is continuing and this has cost the lives of those wanting to defend it. So while these things continue to happen, we will not let up in the fight that my late father, grandfather and teacher started. I will not stop until we attain true justice for all the victims of human rights abuses.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: philippineactivists inlong fight for justice