Defending the Forest is Dangerous

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For some, it’s easy to think of environmentalism as a warm and fuzzy cause

I work for an environmental organization. I try to focus on telling stories that empower, ones that focus on the positive difference that can be made through a better stewardship of creation.

Amidst all of the positivity, it can be easy to think of environmentalism as a pretty flowery cause. Doesn’t it just conjure up images of hippie circles and planting trees in the park?

From a global perspective, that isn’t the case.

I was reminded of this when a coworker pointed out to me that around the world, some 200 environmental activists are murdered each year. The top three places where this happens? Brazil, Colombia, and the Philippines.

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In the Philippines, protecting the environment is bold and risky

In September, Ruben Arzaga was shot in the head when he approached illegal loggers on the island of Palawan. He was a member of the Palawan NGO Network (PNNI), a group of environmental protectors on the island known for patrolling the forest area in flip flops.

Palawan is a tourism hotspot in the Philippines, and is also an important frontier in terms of the country’s ecology. It holds the bulk of the forests that remain in the country, and its marine life is renown for biological diversity. These waters and forests are critical. Without them, the food supply of the Philippines is at great risk to natural disaster and climate change.

The rich forests, unfortunately, are also profitable and attract a lot of interest from corrupt actors– businessmen and politicians.

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Corruption and profiteering put everyday lives at risk

PNNI, founded by activist Bobby Chan, takes direct action to confront illegal loggers. These eco-crusaders earn the support of the surrounding communities, exercise an obscure citizen’s arrest procedure, and confiscate chainsaws, chemicals, and other environmentally destructive tools.

During a typical encounter, a group of activists will approach loggers in the middle of activity. Shouts to stop activity and get down on the ground resemble that of a typical arrest. Despite carrying no weapons, most of the time, PNNI patrollers are able to disarm loggers and confiscate their tools.

One leader will ask to see permits for the lumber and chainsaw, with no affirmative answer, they’ll inform the captured loggers that this activity is illegal.

Of course, this sort of work is extremely dangerous. Death threats abound, as do cases of actual murder. Since 2001, twelve members have been murdered- many in brutal ways, with mutilated bodies put on display as a warning to the rest of the group.

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A variety of responses are needed to protect Palawan

The role that PNNI plays on the island is clear- it protects the island from environmental destruction that would ultimately harm millions of people.

In addition, an awareness of the importance of trees to people’s livelihoods must be shared amongst the community. PNNI’s leadership has found protection and solidarity in areas where the need for the environment is well understood.

One of the biggest contributing factors to violence against environmental protectors are the high levels of corruption found in law enforcement, business, and government. Working with organizations that aim to bring support to broken justice systems is vital.

Finally, by reading and sharing information about this little known issue, it can gain the international attention necessary to pressure governments to improve their approach to environmental protection.

Philippe Lazaroblog, blog18