Death of Philippine ranger is latest in legacy of violence

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  • Forest ranger Bienvinido “Toto” Veguilla Jr. was hacked to death by suspected illegal loggers on the Philippine island of Palawan on Sept. 5.
  • He’s the 18th environmental defender slain in the province since 2001, and at least the 31st killed this year in the Philippines, identified in a recent report as the deadliest country for those trying to protect their land and the environment.
  • Logging accounts for the third-highest number of deaths related to environmental violations in the Philippines, after mining and agriculture.
  • The Department of Environment and Natural Resources has called on Congress to pass legislation that would create an environmental law enforcement bureau to better protect rangers.

MANILA — On his public social media account, forest ranger Bienvinido “Toto” Veguilla Jr. used to post the results of his team’s patrols on a monthly basis: the illegal loggers arrested, the chainsaws confiscated, the locals caught in the act, and the state of trees slashed for timber.

It was a similar scenario on Sept. 4: Veguilla and five other rangers, responding to reports of illegal logging activity, found a group of men cutting logs inside the El Nido-Taytay Managed Resource Protected Area, a 90,321-hectare (223,188-acre) site on the Philippine island of Palawan. The suspects fled, and the rangers seized a chainsaw they’d left behind.

At the end of the day’s patrol, they encountered the suspects again. This time, the group came armed with machetes and a shotgun. The other rangers managed to escape to safety, but Veguilla was cornered by five men and hacked to death, according to a report by Palawan News.

The death of Veguilla, 52, is the latest killing of an environmental defender in what the eco watchdog Global Witness calls “one of the deadliest countries in the world for people protecting their land or the environment.”

“In 2018, the Philippines was the worst-affected country in sheer numbers, with 30 deaths,” Global Witness says in its report “Enemies of the State?” published in July.

In Veguilla’s case, only two of the five alleged assailants were later caught by police. Authorities say they’re in pursuit of the other three. Police also recovered two truckloads of timber near the site where Veguilla’s body was found.

As a forest ranger, Veguilla conducts monitoring, confiscating, apprehending, and prosecuting of illegal logging activities in one of the top logging hotspots in the country. Image from Veguilla’s social media account

Once a year, a defender falls in Palawan

Veguilla is the 18th environmental defender killed in Palawan since 2001, according to data from the Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan PNE), an NGO that has been monitoring the killings since 2011. The ranger’s death makes the last ecological frontier the third deadliest province in the Philippines with an average of one killing incident a year.

Palawan’s rich biodiversity means that the forests within its protected areas are prime sources of rare and expensive hardwoods — attractive targets for illegal loggers. The environment department identifies two illegal logging hotspots in Palawan: Brooke’s Point in the south, and Taytay in the north, which falls under the coverage of the ranger group that Veguilla was part of.

Protecting the environment, however, has its costs.

Around the Philippines, logging contributed a total of 38 deaths in 2018 and it is the third biggest contributor to the death toll of environment defenders. The prime casualty sectors are mining and agribusiness in the rural sectors and half of the killings in 2018 happened in Mindanao, which is currently in a state of martial law.

Forest rangers are often a target for violent reprisal as they’re on the front lines against illegal logging. They play a pivotal role in the government’s forest-protection strategy to eradicate illegal logging operations in hotspot areas. Rangers are tasked with monitoring, confiscating, apprehending, and prosecuting illegal activities. Since a 2011 ban on the cutting and harvesting of timber from protected areas, the number of logging hotspots have gone down from 23 to 15 as of December 2018, according to the environment department.

In Palawan, rangers are supported by what are known as para-enforcers, community members organized by the Palawan NGO Network Inc. (PNNI) to aid rangers in securing protected areas.

Veguilla’s death isn’t the first in his municipality who died of the same scenario.

On Sept. 14, 2017, Ruben Arzaga, a para-enforcer and staunch anti-logging advocate, was shot in the head and killed during a raid. The suspected killers were the loggers Arzaga had apprehended the day before his death.

Veguilla would often hark back to Arzaga’s efforts on the ground, especially on the weeks following the latter’s death. “This is the reason why Kapitan Arzaga sacrificed his life,” he stated alongside pictures of a freshly-cut bayuto, a premium hardwood.

“This is the same bullet that killed Kapitan [Ruben] Arzaga,” Veguilla says in a video posted by Ludybeth Nangkil, a former lawyer for the El Nido-Taytay environment office. The video follows Veguilla and his team as they trek through the dense forests of Villa Libertad, El Nido, where they found an empty shotgun shell.

In the video, Veguilla is wearing a green cap and holding up an orange shell casing. He looks at the camera and says: “We are at the forests … we shouldn’t feel nervous but we should pray … and continue our trek.”

Environmental defender killings, by sector or concern in the Philippines’ three main island groups.  The total number of killings per sector exceeds the total number of deaths as some environmental defenders fought for more than one sector. Map indicates occurrences of recorded killings from 2001 to 2018 and clustered per province. Data source: Kalikasan PNE / Infograph by Mongabay.com

Biodiversity hotspot

Palawan, home to 23% of the country’s biodiverse species, registered the most number of confiscated poaching incidents according to DENR’s Biodiversity Bureau (DENR-BMB) and the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD).

The most traded species are the endemic Philippine forest turtle (Siebenrockiella leytensis), Palawan pangolin (Manis culionensis), blue-naped parrot (Tanygnathus lucionensis) and the critically-endangered Philippine cockatoo (Cacatua haematuropygia) – all found in the province. Both DENR-BMB and PCSD estimated the value of illegal wildlife trade in the Philippines at 50 billion pesos ($965 billion) a year.

These are what’s at stake for defenders like Veguilla. These also puts them at high-risk situations and in worse case scenarios, inside a casket.

The deaths of Veguilla and Arzaga “speaks of the inherent weaknesses” in the environmental law system, ELAC states and is seconded by Kalikasan PNE. “There should be greater state support for our forest rangers and voluntary para-enforcers,” Kalikasan PNE says, adding that police forces should augment and protect civilian forest rangers.

Such a proposal was considered after the killing of Arzaga, who was posthumously conferred the environmental hero medal. At the time, Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Roy Cimatu mulled the possibility of providing military and security training for forest rangers and equipping them with guns when he visited Arzaga’s wake on September 22, 2017.

This didn’t push through. Instead, Cimatu pushed for the creation of an environmental law enforcement bureau earlier this year after a visit to a mining site. He also pushed for this during his department’s budget deliberations with Congress on Sept. 6 where he called for legislation that would create an environmental law enforcement bureau under the department. This, Cimatu said, would help protect forest rangers and reduce poaching of flagship species among others.

Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu seeking Congress’ support for the passing of a law on the creation of an environmental law enforcement bureau under the DENR during his department’s budget deliberations last Sept. 6. Image by DENR

“I will never allow another crime such as the killing of Mr. Veguilla to happen to any of my people,” Cimatu says during the budget deliberations. “This incident shows how greed and disregard for our laws can have appalling consequences on people and our society.”

But for ELAC and Kalikasan PNE, protecting the rangers of Palawan means the government must also address the elephant in the room: the alleged political support behind illegal logging and wildlife poaching in the province.

“Persistent questions disturb us,” ELAC states. “Why do illegal loggers have the courage to attack and assault environmental enforcers? Who are the powerful principals behind these criminals and how entrenched are their selfish interests that drive them to murder? Worse, they have resorted to harming the government’s environmental enforcers.”

Global Witness also highlights the problem in its report: “Often, these crimes are aided by the people and institutions meant to prevent them. The Philippines Army, in particular, has been linked to numerous killings of defenders, working in collusion with powerful private interests. Meanwhile, the country’s legal system is used to criminalise and intimidate land and environmental defenders, while officials who are complicit in these crimes go unpunished.”

ELAC and Kalikasan PNE both called for a full-blown investigation into the illegal logging and wildlife poaching activities in Palawan that has been the cause of the deaths to identify “key players” and drivers of the illegal trade.

“Their work to secure the protected areas of Palawan is becoming increasingly vulnerable to reprisals from poachers suspectedly backed by powerful warlord interests in the island,” Kalikasan PNE says.

Banner image of Bienvinido “Toto” Veguilla Jr. on a patrol in El Nido, Palawan. Veguilla was a forest ranger who covers the El Nido-Taytay Managed Resource Protected Area. Image from Veguilla’s social media account.

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This story first appeared on Mongabay

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