Environmental lawyer Gerthie Anda has been in the forefront of green movement in Palawan, Philippine

Environmental lawyer Gerthie Anda has been in the forefront of green movement in Palawan, Philippines. (Photo: Ariel Carlos)

Green activists are facing deadly dangers in the Philippines. 

In a 2015 report of the London-based Global Witness, it lists the Philippines as the most dangerous country in Asia for environmentalists.

But as Jofelle Tesorio and Ariel report from Palawan, in the Philippines, there are some remarkable women environmentalists who are not afraid of the dangers.

Ask anyone in Palawan province about the ‘Green Lady’ and the name of environmentalist-lawyer Gerthie Mayo-Anda comes up.

She has become the poster girl of the environmental movement here.

Amid the mining rush, development and other environmental issues, she established the Environmental Legal Assistance Center, or ELAC, in the 1990s.

“It’s basically to utilize my knowledge and skills as a legal professional to be able to help the least of our brethren by focusing mainly on how we can survive as a people, anchoring our survival on healthy ecosystems,” says Mayo-Anda.

For more than 25 years, she has defended almost every environment issue. That has also earned her the title ‘Forest Heroine’.

Gerthie’s center has fought against illegal logging, fishing, mining and other resource extractive activities.

“When you talk of extractive projects like mining, energy, development of fossil fuels,” she pauses before continuing, “and even pushing for good environmental governance, these are very difficult because you’re dealing here with powerful stakeholders who can actually make the advocacy work difficult.”

Declared as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve for having most number of key biodiversity areas, Palawan is the Philippine’s last ecological frontier.

It is also a battleground for environmentalists, where the majority are women.

Cynthia Sumagaysay is a vocal critic of a planned coal-fired power plant.

She has earned the ire of many pro-coal politicians and investors. 

“The people of Palawan are being tricked into something that [they] didn’t completely understand, she says, “I feel that they were being lied to. They were being told that the coal plant was urgently needed. That was a big lie.”

But she isn’t afraid.

“I’m beyond fear,” says Sumagaysay, “I have said before that everybody dies anyway even the perpetrators of the crime. I will be more fearful if my life has been wasted for not doing something to better this world; if I’m just part of the problem rather than the solution.

The Philippines is the most dangerous country in Asia for green activists according to international watchdog Global Witness.

Between 2012 and 2013, a total of 88 environmental activists were killed in the country, next to Brazil’s 448 and Honduras’109.

Lawyer Gerthie Anda says this is because of the culture of impunity.

“We find it disturbing that it happens in a small country. It only shows that the culture of impunity is still there,” she notes, “The lack of political will to hold liable those who are liable, those who are responsible is still a continuing challenge.” 

Fellow green activists Marivic Bero, the secretary-general of the Coalition Against Land Grabbing, says there is inherent danger in being an environmental activist in the Philippines.

Her group is working with peasant organizations, farmers and indigenous peoples who are affected by land acquisitions for large-scale plantations such palm oil and mining activities. 

“As a female NGO worker, I feel some fear every time I go to the field,” she says, “That’s inevitable, especially in the course of protecting the environment you bump up against powerful people, powerful companies, politicians and other government officials.”

Palawan is a microcosm of the Philippines where environmental activists and politicians clash. 

Politicians often disregard environmental impacts to give way for investments, which are often resource extractive.

This creates a more dangerous life for environmentalists. 

Again Marivic Bero.

“I can say that whenever we are in the field we face danger. But for me, if your time is up, it’s up. If you’re going to die, you’ll die,” says Bero, “It’s better you die a worthy death by doing something to help others.”

Environmental defenders also experience threats and physical violence, restrictions on their freedoms and depriving them of opportunities.

And it is not safer to women.

Lawyer Gerthie Anda says they are equally vulnerable.

“I have listened to fellow human rights and environmental advocates, discussing in several fora about women indigenous leaders being killed in the Cordillera or even in Mindanao,” she says, “And therefore, there is no full-proof guarantee that women continue to be safe. We are just equally threatened like men.  

Gerthie believes that killings of environmentalists will continue if a corrupt system persists. 

But for her and other women green activists, they will continue to defend the earth without fear. 

For colleague Marivic Bero, they are doing it for the future generation.

“I’m doing this for my children besides fighting for the rights of the indigenous people,” says Bero, “I want my children and grandchildren to live in a peaceful environment where they can still smell fresh air, see different kinds of birds, climb trees and forests to wander.” 


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