Following the murder of Bienvenido Veguilla Jr. by suspected illegal loggers in El Nido, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) renewed its call for Congress to craft a law that would allow the agency’s enforcement personnel, particularly those who face threats from environmental criminals on a daily basis, to be armed with guns.

The Philippines has long been considered a dangerous country for environmental defenders. In a recent report, international watchdog Global Witness ranked Philippines as the most murderous country for environmental activists in 2018.

A total of 164 defenders were killed last year, while countless more are being silenced through other tactics designed to crush the opposition including death threats, lawsuits and arrests.

In a statement on Friday, September 6, Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Kalkasan PNE) said the killing of forest ranger Bienvenido ‘Toto’ Veguilla Jr. was proof that working to protect the environment has become hazardous.

In Palawan alone, by the Environmental Legal Assistance Center’s count, over 10 enforcement paralegals have been murdered in the past two decades trying to protect Palawan’s forests from illegal loggers. This cold statistics defines the sordid reality in the frontlines of environmental struggle.

In September 2017, Ruben Arzaga, a member of the El Nido-Taytay Managed Resource Protected Area board and barangay chair of Villa Libertad, was shot and killed while arresting suspected illegal loggers in Sitio Batbat.

In August also of 2017, government forester Joselito Eyala, while his team was patrolling the mountains of Barangay Bacungan was shot and wounded by a suspected timber poacher.

It is terrifying that those who peacefully defend the environment are the ones who are being persecuted so that environmental exploitation can transgress for the benefit of a few.

Some of the reasons being blamed for the environmental denudation of the province are the conversion of forests into agroforestry plantations and road construction that passes through virgin forests, hindering biodiversity.

In Palawan, some far-flung communities still depend highly on the province’s natural resources. Kaingin, illegal logging, timber poaching, catching animals and birds for food and wildlife trade are some of the biggest challenges facing Palawan.

This can be related to extreme poverty and weak law enforcement, including wrong policies that seemed to favor destructive development rather than environmental protection.

While there has been a move to arm our frontline DENR officers in the Philippines, what would be a better law than to realize the “Right of Nature” bill? Inspired by similar initiatives in Latin American countries like Bolivia and Ecuador, the RON’s main purpose is to grant nature “legal personhood.”

Initiated by the Philippine-Misereor Partnership Inc. (PMPI), the “right of nature” bill is currently in the draft stage. Though it has yet to be filed with either house of Congress, when it does it will be the first bill of its kind to be considered for legislation in the Philippines.

The framework also syncs with indigenous people’s perspective of interconnectedness with nature, affirming that indigenous peoples are one with and cannot exist without nature.

The bill and its implementing rules and regulations will also support the Indigenous People’s Rights Act (IPRA), particularly by clarifying the process to acquire free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) — a requirement for corporations when initiating projects within ancestral domain territories.

The Philippine right of nature bill is part of a growing movement worldwide to recognize ecosystems and species as legal entities, as a way of boosting their protection amid intensifying threats.

In 2017, a Māori tribe in New Zealand won unprecedented legal recognition of its river, the Whanganui, as a living entity by the state. In Argentina in 2014, a captive orangutan was granted “non-human person rights,” and in 2016 a captive chimpanzee in Peru was similarly granted legal personhood.

Maybe then, the cries of communities in the hinterlands of Bataraza opposing the expansion of mining in Mt. Bulanjao – home of at least 30 water sources; the IPs protesting a massive hybrid coconut plantation in Rizal – covering ancestral land and sacred spaces; and other municipalities with the same battlecries in Palawan will have a louder, stronger voice.