In Southeast Asia, protecting the environment is itself dangerous – Environment

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In September, environmental activists Jonila Castro and Jed Tamano planned to take a night bus to the village of Orion on Manila Bay in the Philippines to protest construction work that threatened to displace residents. Ta.

As Mr. Castro and Mr. Tamano prepared to ride, a military SUV suddenly approached from behind and six masked men jumped out and grabbed them.

The women, about 5 feet tall and in their early 20s, screamed for help and tried to fight back. However, they said they were quickly subdued, bound, blindfolded, gagged, forced into a vehicle and taken to an unknown location.

“Actually, while I was in the car, I was thinking, ‘Oh, it’s over,’” Castro, 23, told Radio Free Asia, a news service owned by Benar News.

This is a fear that environmental activists across Southeast Asia can relate to. Cases of harassment and abuse similar to the ordeals of Mr. Castro and Mr. Tamano occur regularly in the region, even as countries seek large amounts of foreign investment to address the growing threat of climate change. ing.

In fact, the two young activists are among the lucky ones. They were eventually released and continue their activities, but are facing defamation charges for saying the military was responsible for their abductions.

Global Witness, a London-based NGO, said 281 activists have been killed in the Philippines since 2012. In 2022, at least 16 environmental activists were killed in Asia, including 11 in the Philippines and three in Indonesia. Additionally, environmental activists are under threat in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam.

“Protecting the environment is a very dangerous activity in Southeast Asia,” said Ria Mai Torres, executive director of the Asia-Pacific Environmental Defenders Network, based in Manila.

“We have enforced disappearances. There is bombing in our communities, there is militarization. We are killing farmers and indigenous people just because they work the land.”

“Red tag”

Mr. Castro and Mr. Tamano worked with AKAP KA Manila Bay to advocate for coastal communities in Bataan province facing displacement due to land reclamation.

The Bay’s more than 770 square miles (2,000 square kilometers) area is home to the nation’s largest freight hub and is experiencing growing commercial activity, including an increase in tourism-oriented businesses and new luxury residential construction.

The two women said the development is having a devastating impact on the people of Bulacan, where they grew up. Dredging has drastically reduced fish catches, destroyed mangroves and forced more than 700 families to relocate. Floods, including inland areas, also increased.

Philippine military officials have denied any involvement in the abductions, claiming they were taken by the leftist New People’s Army.

“They continued to associate our organization with communist organizations,” Castro said. “No matter what we said, it didn’t matter.”

The activists said they agreed to “voluntarily surrender” to military authorities as communists and were released after 17 days of detention. In the Philippines, this widely used tactic is known as “red-tagging” and is used to undermine or silence dissenting voices.

Tamano and Castro said they will continue their environmental work despite the threat.

Reclamation work progresses in Pasay, Manila Bay, Philippines, February 14, 2024.

Work progresses on a land reclamation project in Pasay, Manila Bay, Philippines, February 14, 2024. (BenarNews/Subel Rai Bhandari/RFA)

quiet support

In Laos, police issued an arrest warrant and forced Joseph Akarabong to flee the country after he posted a video of villagers complaining about land lost to a hydroelectric dam. Huayheuang “Muay” Xayabouly remains jailed after assisting flood victims and alleging corruption.

“In Laos, we don’t see any more activists publicly defending environmental rights,” says Emily Palamy Pradichit, founder and executive director of the Bangkok-based feminist human rights organization Manusha Foundation. “Everyone is very paranoid and we are very afraid of repercussions from the government.”

In neighboring Cambodia, authorities in Preah Vihear province allegedly forced activist Hiem Kimhong to sign a statement on February 27 agreeing not to criticize them in an interview with RFA Khmer Service. He supported villagers fighting to protect their land from developers and criticized the apparent inaction of local authorities.

“If the authorities cannot resolve the issue and people are still complaining, I will respond to their views,” he said. “I’m not afraid.”

Phuong “Keo” Kioraksmy is another Cambodian environmental activist who has been targeted by the government.

In 2020, she joined Mother Nature Cambodia, a youth-led environmental movement. Several of its activists were arrested, and founder Alejandro Gonzalez Davidson was forced to flee the country.

Kioraksumi himself was detained four months after joining the group while marching to the Prime Minister’s Office to protest development in Phnom Penh’s Boun Tamokklak neighborhood.

She ultimately served 14 months for sedition. Upon her release in 2021, Ms. Kioraksmy resumed her activities even though she is facing her second trial on conspiracy charges. If she is found guilty, she could be sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Kioraksmy said she has been buoyed by the quiet support she has received from members of the community. She said more people would speak out, but fear being punished by the government.

“Sometimes the local river hawkers give us clams for free,” Kioraksmy said. “When I asked them why, they said they admired my work and wanted to support our cause in their own way.”

Officials in Laos and Cambodia did not immediately respond to RFA’s requests for comment.

Phuong “Keo” Kioraksmy (undated photo) protests during an environmental rally in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Phuong “Keo” Kioraksmy (undated photo) protests during an environmental rally in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (BenarNews/Courtesy of Phuon Keoraksmey)

mixed message

The arrests and harassment come as the region faces serious threats from climate change.

Approximately 77% of Southeast Asia’s population lives along its 234,000 kilometers of coastline. Many are vulnerable to rapid sea level rise and more frequent extreme weather events.

The region’s economy is resource-dependent, making it vulnerable to climate change. The Asian Development Bank said Southeast Asia faces greater potential losses from climate change than most regions, noting that the region’s GDP could decline by 11% by the end of the century.

The Philippines, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam are among the top 20 countries in the world for climate-related losses between 2000 and 2019, according to a study published in 2021.

But Vietnamese authorities have arrested at least 12 people with a history of environmental activism, mostly on false tax evasion charges that critics have cited, according to rights group 88 Project.

Many of the activists are actually helping Hanoi develop its climate policy, which is widely seen as ambitious and has attracted tens of billions of dollars in international aid.

Pradichit of the Manusha Foundation said repressive governments such as Vietnam use environmental activists to secure subsidies from developed countries and international financial institutions.

“But once they secure funding, the government puts them behind bars,” Pradisit said.

She said that while the activists are not necessarily pro-democracy or anti-national, authorities fear the kind of open-door policy they support. In addition to profits, they value public participation, access to information, and consideration of environmental issues.

A spokesperson for Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security said there was “absolutely no truth to the allegations” that the country was targeting environmental activists.

Concerning rise

In December, Vietnam signed an agreement to provide US$15.5 billion in funding for the transition away from fossil fuels under the Just Energy Transition Partnership, in which rich countries help poorer countries prepare for climate change.

Ironically, the push for clean energy can also contribute to the pollution problems activists are fighting. A boom in mining for minerals needed for batteries, such as lithium, nickel and cobalt, is encouraging “an extractivist development model that puts frontline communities at risk,” said Hannah Hindström, a senior researcher at Global Witness. It is said that they are doing so.

She said she was seeing “an alarming increase in the criminalization of environmental activists in the region”.

Hindström said donor countries for the Just Energy Transition Partnership and similar projects should require governments to uphold certain fundamental human rights and include local and indigenous communities in project development efforts. Stated.

“We cannot have a ‘just’ transition without protecting environmental defenders,” she said.

Torres, of the Asia-Pacific Environmental Defenders Network in Manila, said activists have appealed to donor countries to pressure governments to stop exploiting environmental defenders, but to little effect.

“When I speak to audiences, when I meet with diplomats, they always say they sympathize with environmentalists and want to make things better,” Torres told RFA. “But I think what’s missing here is the political will to actually do something.”

He said countries were reluctant to pursue the issue for fear of damaging diplomatic relations.

A difficult job has become even more difficult.

Mr. Castro and Mr. Tamano, both Filipinos, were held captive for eight days without their friends or family being informed of what had happened.

In the end, they were forced to act as if they had voluntarily surrendered at a military camp in Bulacan province, Tamano said. The country’s Supreme Court issued a protection order in February, saying their confinement was a clear violation of their rights.

However, the Philippine Department of Justice recommended that the two be charged with defamation for “taking advantage of the public’s charity.” [Philippine military] This is to embarrass them and give them a bad impression. ”

Castro said the government is threatening and attacking its own people instead of listening to and cooperating with environmentalists.

“Confronting climate change and environmental issues is obviously difficult, but government repression has made it even more difficult.”

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