By SHERWIN DE VERA
Harry Jacques (HJ): Can you give me key information on your background?
Me: I am a human rights and environmental advocate. I adhere to the belief that we can only appreciate nature’s bounty if we freely exercise our duly constituted rights; that only with the existence of just and peaceful society can we receive our fair share of our natural resources.
I work as a researcher for Katinnulong Daguiti Umili ti Amianan, Inc.-Regional Development Center for Northern Luzon (KADUAMI-RDCNL), a non-government institution that provides socio-economic assistance and skills training for people’s organizations and communities in Northern Luzon. Currently, I also serve as the regional coordinator of Ilocos Network for the Environment (DEFEND Ilocos), a network composed of different organizations, institutions and individuals that coordinates and facilitates cooperation on projects, campaigns and advocacy on the protection of the peoples’ right to healthy and balanced environment.
Besides these two responsibilities, in my free time, I write news articles and maintain a column in Northern Dispatch Weekly, a community paper with circulation in Northern Luzon.
HJ: Briefly, how did you start out doing this line of work?
I got involved with environmental defense when I was still in college taking-up BS Environmental Studies (I graduated in 2004). My first exposure was the campaign against the expansion of Lepanto Consolidated Mining Company (LCMC) in the upland municipalities of my province – Ilocos Sur. LCMC’s operation is the main polluter of the Abra River system that empties in our locality (in the towns of Santa, Bantay, Caoayan and the Heritage City of Vigan, I live in Bantay).
HJ: What has been the focus of your campaigns over the past few years?
The focus for the past few years include the campaign against destructive and plunderous mining, and profit-driven projects in the energy and tourism sector that affect the ecosystem and utilization of our natural resources in the region.
The highlights of these include the successful campaign against blacksand (magnetite) extraction in the coastal areas of the Ilocos region, and the destructive copper and gold extraction in the Municipality of Quirino, one of the upland municipalities of Ilocos Sur.
At present, we are concentrating our effort to stop Lepanto Consolidated Mining Company’s continuing pollution of the Abra River. As well as resisting the entry of Cordillera Exploration Company, Inc. in the upland municipalities of Ilocos Sur.
HJ: Could you tell me what happened before your arrest, during your detention, and the reasons given for your detention? If you can include dates, times, exactly where you were, and other details that would be great.
Since college, I have been the subject of harassment and intimidation. Months before my arrest, there were two major instances where I was directly threatened and harassed by state agents. In June 2017, members of the Civilian Military Operations Company of the 7th Infantry Division went to the barangay where I stay in Candon City, Ilocos Sur and told the officials that the place I am staying in is a safehouse of New People’s Army recruiters. On July 18, I was also tailed while going around Vigan City and the University of Northern Philippines (UNP) to coordinate an upcoming environmental investigative mission in the Abra River.
I was arrested last 12 December 2017 at the Manila North Road in Barangay Bulag, Bantay, Ilocos Sur at 5:50 pm while on a bus from Candon heading home to Poblacion, Bantay. The government agents slapped me with a rebellion charge. This stemmed from a fabricated case of attempted murder for my alleged involvement in a firefight between the New People’s Army and the 41st IB in Lagangilang, Abra on 30 January 2013.
The arrest was executed by combined maneuver and intelligence units of the Philippine National Police (Regional Mobile Force Batallion, Provincial Mobile Force Company, Ilocos Sur Police Intelligence Bureau, Regional Intelligence Unit I and Bantay Municipal Police) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (81st Infantry Batallion, Military Intelligence Company, Military Intelligence Group I). The group was headed by Police Superintendent Arbel Mercullo, Chief of the Ilocos Sur Police Intelligence Bureau (PIB).
The arresting officer, Police Chief Inspector Edgar Medrano, Chief of Police of Bantay just said that they have a warrant for my arrest but refused to hand me the document when I demanded to read it. I was forced out of the bus and handcuffed. I was only able to get hold of the warrant and read its content about 30 mins after and when I was already at the PIB office inside Camp Elpidio Quirino.
The government is accusing me of an incident that happened during the same period when the campaign against black sand mining operations in Ilocos was at its height. On the school year that I was enrolled at the University of Northern Philippines for my post-graduate degree.
HJ: What happened after your release?
My movement is being limited at the moment since the threat to my liberty and safety are far from over. More cases are expected to be filed against me in the coming days. While the threats to my security have created many difficulties, I remain determined to continue my work and advocacy for the promotion of human rights and public welfare.
I am currently finishing the research write-ups on the impacts of tobacco farming and mining to the region’s environment and food security. These are research collaborations between my office, KADUAMI and the Solidarity of Peasants Against Exploitation, the regional farmers’ federation in Ilocos. I have acquired more time for writing articles for Northern Dispatch.
I am proud that the government is taking notice of our actions. This means that we are effectively upholding our organization’s mission to defend and advance people’s rights and social justice.
HJ: I am interested in how the security situation has changed for environmental defenders. Could you give me a bit of background on the history of security issues for activists in Ilocos?
Activists and members of progressive organizations including their allies in Ilocos continue to suffer from state sponsored security threats. Harassment and intimidations come in many forms – surveillance, the filing of trumped-up charges, and illegal arrests and detention. Five have already fallen victims to extra-judicial killings in the past decade.
Environmental activists face three security threats in the region at present – the government, the local political warlords, and big corporations. All of them use the armed forces of the state and hired thugs to intimidate and perpetuate violence against those who they perceive threaten their interest. This reality has become more defined with the atmosphere of impunity and repression created by the iron-fist rule of Duterte.
The attacks against environmental activists are now more pronounced and vicious compared to the past post-Marcos administrations. The PNP and AFP have become more aggressive in their attacks against our local leaders and organizations.
This situation has greatly limited our activities due to safety and resource considerations. We have already reduced our community-based education and information campaign and field researches. We are likewise forced to utilize available resources for our legal and security needs instead of allotting it for our conservation and research programs. Local governments who have been threatened by the pronouncements of Duterte regarding the crackdown against progressives have also refused constructive engagements with us.
Besides my professional affairs, recent events and security threats has negatively impacted my personal life. My family, especially my daughter is always anxious every time I go outside our house. Those who work in government institutions experienced harassment, mockery and doubt from their officials for the nature of the accusations against me.
HJ: Have you heard of any environmental defender who has been put on the barangay watchlist for drugs, or any environmental activist who has been threatened under Tokhang in your area?
Yes. Two members of our partner organization in Adams, Ilocos Norte (Salakniban ti Adams/Protect Adams), were invited by the municipal police in December 2016. The PNP alleged that they are in their drugs watchlist (Tokhang). When they appeared at the police station, the PNP started asking them about their participation against anti-mining mobilizations and opposition against the ecotourism project in their municipality.
Another case is killing of the barangay chairman of Mambug, Santiago, Ilocos Sur. Edson Locquiao was assisting DEFEND Ilocos in the campaign against the destructive sandstone quarry and open dumpsite in the their municipality. During the election period, the mayor accused him of harboring NPA rebels. In July 2016 he was killed by unidentified gunmen. After his death, the PNP claimed that he had links with drugs and criminal syndicates. The municipal mayor is the owner of the land where the open dumpsite is located and the alleged owner of the quarry operations.
*Harry Jacques is a journalist from The Guardian. # nordis.net