Philippines President Duterte is Waging War Against Environmental Activists

In 2019, 212 environmental defenders were killed worldwide. Of those, 43 were killed in the Philippines.
The funeral of forest ranger Bienbenido Toto Veguillas, 44, on September 14, 2019 in El Nido, Philippines
Jes Aznar / Stringer / Getty

For years, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, infamous for his authoritarianism and embrace of violence, has been waging an undeclared war against his country’s Indigenous people. His government has signed off on environmentally disastrous but lucrative mining, agribusiness, hydroelectric, and infrastructure projects on their ancestral lands, and when Indigenous leaders stand in the way, they risk being labeled as “terrorists” on official lists—and treated as such.


The Duterte years have been especially bad for environmental activists, many of whom are Indigenous. In 2019, 212 environmental defenders were killed worldwide, the worst tally since the NGO Global Witness started keeping track in 2012. Of those, 43 were killed in the Philippines. Duterte’s government has seemingly turned a blind eye to this violence, and sometimes even tacitly encouraged it.

One such “enemy of the state” is Indigenous leader Joan Carling, a native of Baguio City in the mountainous, heavily Indigenous north of the Philippines. Her harassment by the Filipino government shows how dangerous activist work can be, and how oppressive governments seek to intimidate environmental and Indigenous activists.

“I am from the Kankanaey tribe of the northern region of Cordillera: the land of gold,” she said. “Our land sits on a mineral belt, rich in gold, copper, and manganese. It belongs to us, the Indigenous peoples of the Cordillera. Yet our natural resources and way of life are threatened by mining companies and other so-called ‘development projects.’ As of July 2000, over half of the Cordillera land had mining applications pending.”

Carling became became politically active in 1984, when Indigenous leader Macli-ing Dulag, a forceful opponent of a massive dam project, was murdered by a death squad under orders from then-president Ferdinand Marcos. Ever since, Carling has advocated for the rights of Indigenous peoples in her home country. In September 2018, she received a Champions of the Earth Award from the UN, that body’s highest honor for environmentalists. 


That accolade came at the end of a year that began with Carling being declared a terrorist by the Duterte regime. As stunning as that news was to Carling, it was perhaps more of a surprise to her colleagues and allies—like Elsa Stamatopoulou, director of the Indigenous Peoples Rights Program at Columbia University and formerly chief of the Secretariat of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. 

“The arbitrariness of such action would have no limits, if a person like Joan Carling is on such a list,” Stamatopoulou said in an email, adding that she has come to understand that as part of “a pattern… of systematic persecution and criminalization of environmental defenders, mostly Indigenous persons.” 

Carling was meeting with potential donors in San Francisco when news of her blacklisting became public. “I was advised to take precautions, not to travel back immediately because we did not know the situation, whether or not they were going to arrest me if I went back to the Philippines,” she said. Before this I'd already had death threats earlier in the Philippines, in 2005. At that time two of my colleagues were killed, so again I did not know what that listing would imply.”

Carling said the Duterte government has changed tactics over time. Earlier in his administration, he would name individuals as communists or terrorists to be targeted for death. Now he has declared war en masse against whole groups. “They are calling organizations terrorist organizations or supporters of terrorist organizations,” Carling said.  “A number of Indigenous organizations are openly accused, with posters and pamphlets being circulated with that threat. Journalists are saying that it is tantamount to a death threat.”


What Duterte is doing, Carling said, is “practically a declaration of war against Indigenous organizations that are asserting and defending our rights on the ground.” This war has only intensified during the pandemic. After a night of protests in Manila on April 1, Duterte said in a speech that he was authorizing the military, police, and village leaders to shoot anyone caught “causing trouble” during the pandemic. 

Of course “trouble” is in the eye of the beholder, noted Windel Bolinget, chair of the Cordillera People Alliance, an office formerly held by Carling. “This pronouncement of the president… is basically a state order to implement mass murder,” he said.  

Thanks to her recognition on the world stage via the United Nations, Carling can count herself among the lucky ones. Along with that of her friend and colleague Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, who until earlier this year was the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples (and who was also listed as a terrorist by Duterte), her renown makes it harder for Duterte to simply eliminate her. 

“It is fortunate that global awareness of this scourge is now there, and that it is being monitored, as witnessed by human rights reports of many organizations, including the UN of course,” Stamatopoulou said. “Identifying those responsible for such persecutions and creating systems of accountability must now follow this awareness.”


International bodies like the UN have signaled their support of Carling, and so have local and regional Filipino governments. “The government in Baguio City where I live, and in Benguet Province, also issued statements saying that we are human rights advocates and not terrorists,” she said. “So all that I think has put the government in quite a defensive position.” While her name and that of Tauli-Corpuz have been removed from the list, Carling believes their lives could still be in danger.

Carling believes Duterte’s offensive against the Indigenous in his own country is part of his stated goal of reorienting the Philippines away from the West—specifically the United States—and more toward its Asian neighbors. 

“China wants the resources, agribusiness, and big infrastructure projects,” she said. “Ports, tourism, all of that. Of course the president is aware that we have a law on Indigenous peoples’ rights—we have land recognition, but he said, OK, you Indigenous peoples, you just lease the land to the Chinese companies, just wait and relax, and  you will become millionaires.’” 

It might turn out that way for a few, but it will do incalculable damage to the land. 

Carling points out that 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity exists on lands belonging to Indigenous people, but only on 10 percent of that land are those peoples’ rights protected by law.  

“So the threat of us losing even more biodiversity is very real,” she said. “Indigenous people have already proven that we are able to manage this biodiversity and these resources.  And given the crisis that we're facing now with climate change, it really demonstrates the one solution for this crisis is Indigenous peoples, because it is inherent in our values and our way of life. ” 

For Carling, these are not just noble sentiments but matters of life and potentially death—for her in the short term and the human race down the road. 

“People should not be just talking about social, environmental blah-blah,” she said. “We need action! That’s the one thing that is infuriating for me: When people say a lot of nice words but don’t do anything. Everybody says ‘Oh we respect human rights, we protect the environment…’ Do you ever hear any company say ‘We don’t care about the environment’ or that they don’t respect human rights? Of course they will all say those words, but they don’t do it. And they don’t even talk to us. We don’t exist. So when I speak of biodiversity and rights, I also want people to know that it is very important for them to stand with us in solidarity against companies and states that are destroying the environment. We need to be together.”