“Stunning limestone cliffs, lagoons with turquoise waters and long stretches of untouched beaches.” Palawan, one of the world’s most beautiful islands, home to the Philippines’ last remaining forests and an internationally recognised biodiversity hotspot.
But this seeming paradise is also the setting for greed, corruption, even murder – and jaw-dropping heroism. Meet the PNNI, the Palawan NGO Network Inc, a strangely grand title for a small band of ragged flipflop-wearing underfunded environmental crusaders, many ‘baptised’ with scars from sharp-toothed chainsaws at the hands of illegal loggers .
50 year old ‘Tata’ Balladares has already led his small band of six environmental para-enforcers up and down the steep mountain slopes of Palawan for 15 hours, searching for signs of illegal logging, only stopping once for 30 minutes sleep on a mountain path. Reporter Kari Malakunas stands by as they stealthily close in on what the whine of a chainsaw gives away as a crime scene – a site of illegal logging.
Completely unarmed, their only weapon in these dangerous situations is surprise. This time luckily, caught in the act of felling a giant apitong tree, are only two young men. Tata asks if they have a permit for the timber, and if the chainsaw is registered. They don’t, and it isn’t. His little band confiscate the men’s chainsaw and machetes, and search the area for possible concealed homemade pistols and rifles.
Tata, though ‘only’ a civilian para-enforcer, wraps up the brief skirmish with calm unflappable authority. But afterwards, during a short break for a meal of rice and dried fish, he breaks down in despair at the enormity of the task the PNNI is facing.
“This should be the work of the government but they are not doing their job. Who else is going to stop this if we’re not here,” he says.
Traditional campaigning has failed to prevent corrupt businessmen, politicians and even the security forces from pillaging the rich resources of this beautiful island. So the PNNI goes for direct action – confiscation and citizen’s arrest – against illegal loggers, miners and cyanide fishers, however many and whoever they may be.
On display at their small HQ in Puerto Princesa is a ‘Christmas tree’ standing two storeys high, made entirely of chainsaws. The organisation has confiscated more than 700 in its 20 years of life, along with a boat used for transporting illegally-logged timber, two drills used for illegal gold mining, and a number of firearms.
Tata and his men may be unarmed themselves – besides being overworked and underfunded – but they have the support of local communities, as anxious as they to stop the despoliation of their island home. Nevertheless, they are ill-matched against their greedy and powerful opponents. It’s an unequal contest.
And though many small and not so small victories are won, as witnessed by the chainsaw ‘tree’ at HQ, there is no end in sight to the war being waged over the paradise of Palawan. It would be demoralising for the best of us. Add to that these men, passionate about preserving their environment though they are, live daily with the inescapable knowledge that the supremely taxing task they have taken upon themselves also puts their lives on the line.
Twelve of their courageous fellow-enforcers have been murdered since 2001. In 2004, PNNI’s founder and leader, environmental lawyer Bobby Chan was out with his team when they discovered the body of Roger Majim, one of their own, on a beach. “The loggers put his flip flops on the mound where they buried him. When we unearthed him he had, I think, 16 stab wounds. His eyes were gouged out. His tongue was cut off. His testicles were cut off and placed in his mouth,” says Chan.
“The government does little to stop the violence and rarely holds anyone to account for the killings,” says Global Witness‘s environmental and land defender campaign leader, Billy Kyte.
The most recent murder was last September. 49-year-old father-of-five, Ruben Arzaga was shot in the head as he was approaching an illegal logging site. Earlier in the year Arzaga, during another mission to confiscate chainsaws from illegal loggers, had told AFP “If this illegal activity is not stopped, I think before my youngest daughter becomes a young adult and has a family of her own, all the big trees here will be gone.”
On their way to Ruben’s funeral, Tata’s team stopped to confiscate another chainsaw. For them it’s simple: forest lost equals their priceless paradise lost. That also means inevitably, extinctions.
These are some of the animals the PNNI are fighting to protect –
Some of the most endangered species of the Philippines. L to R, Top to Bottom: the Philippine eagle (critically endangered), Palawan forest turtle (critically endangered), the rufous-headed hornbill (critically endangered), the Philippine tarsier (near threatened), the bleeding heart mindoro (critically endangered), the Nicobar pigeon (near threatened)
The Palawan purple crab, only discovered in 2012 and already critically endangered by mining, and the Philippine crocodile also critically endangered
The waters surrounding the Philippines have the highest level of marine biodiversity in the world. It is estimated that half of the species that live on Palawan are endemic ie. unique to the island – existing nowhere else in the world.
The hawksbill turtle (critically endangered), the lionfish, and the flamboyant cuttle fish
Those are just a few of the treasures for whom these heroes are risking their lives on a daily basis. “It’s a selfless, courageous task that should be celebrated,” says Billy Kyte, Global Witness.
The country of the Philippines is not just a biodiversity hotspot, but an environmental murder hotspot, one of the most dangerous in the world. Last year in this country, environmental activists were killed at a rate of one every 12 days.
But such egregious violence is not unique to Palawan, or to the Philippines. The problem is worldwide. This is Global Witness’s record of environmental activists, men and women, murdered in 2016, “some shot by police during protests, others gunned down by hired assassins.”
- Brazil 49 men and women
- Colombia 37
- The Philippines 28
- India 16
- Honduras 14
- Nicaragua 11
- DR Congo 10
- Bangladesh 7
- Guatemala 6
- Tanzania, Mexico & Peru 3 each
- South Africa, Myanmar, Peru 2 each
- Ireland (!), Cameroon, Uganda, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, China, Iran and Pakistan 1 each
“Far from the corridors of power ordinary people defending their rights to a healthy environment are being killed in record numbers. If governments are serious about stopping climate change, the very least they can do is to protect the people who are personally taking a stand.”
These are not just statistics. These are flesh and blood, men and women often from indigenous communities, with families of their own. People with a level of courage I can barely imagine, and know I would never be able to emulate, defending their land not just against illegal loggers and miners, but against legal but environmentally destructive industries like mining, agribusiness, logging and hydropower.
“Those who contemplate the beauty of the Earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” — Rachel Carson
Let us hope and pray that the lives of these protectors of our planet, deserving of our admiration and gratitude in equal measure, do indeed find reserves of strength and last long. And that in 2018 they notch up many more successes protecting paradise and its animals – and above all, stay safe.
Like and follow PNNI’s Facebook page, and send them a few words of encouragement. And if you are ever lucky enough to get to travel to beautiful Palawan, be sure to support them with a visit to PNNI’s HQ in Puerto Princesa.
Take a look at the Rainforest Alliance supporting indigenous peoples, their lands and their wildlife, all around the world. On their website you can sign petitions for the environment until your fingers ache! You can also help protect the planet by donating