DENR mulls arming forest rangers
Following the murder of a barangay chair and environmental enforcer in Palawan earlier this month, Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu, a former chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), started mulling the possibility of arming environmental patrollers with guns.
In a statement earlier this week, Cimatu revealed that the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) would ask the military and the police to train foresters in security protocols and the use of firearms.
“The agency is also studying whether they are allowed to have firearms during patrol or apprehensions so they can defend themselves when necessary,” Cimatu said in Filipino.
Cimatu made the statements following the killing of Barangay Chairman Ruben Arzaga, a 49-year-old member of the El Nido-Taytay Managed Resource Protected Area board.
Arzaga was with a team of environmental law enforcers when he was shot dead in the course of arresting suspected illegal loggers in Sitio Batbat, Villa Libertad, last Sept. 14.
Two suspects had already been arrested and charged for Arzaga’s murder.
Cimatu noted that Arzaga’s killing was the second attack on forest protection officers by illegal loggers and timber poachers in Palawan since he took office.
Last Aug. 23, state forester Lito Eyala was also shot and severely injured by a suspected timber poacher while he and his team were patrolling the mountains of Barangay Bacungan in Puerto Princesa City.
Ground zero for Cimatu’s plan seems to be Palawan.
DENR Mimaropa Regional Director Natividad Bernardino was also quoted in the statement as saying that the AFP Western Mindanao Command (Wescom) will help the local DENR conduct regular aerial patrols and strengthen joint operations against timber poachers, illegal loggers and “kaingeros” (slash-and-burn cultivators).
“Apart from this, the Wescom will train our forest rangers and foresters on basic security measures, including the use of firearms for self-defense,” Bernardino added.
“We cannot allow our foresters and forest rangers to be sitting ducks amidst the brazen attacks of those who destroy our environment,” reasoned Palawan provincial environment and natural resources officer Felizardo Cayatoc, who pointed out that illegal loggers were now carrying firearms.
“It would be impossible to accomplish our task of protecting the environment if our protectors are being killed. We need to equip them,” Cayatoc added.
Last week, Cimatu conferred the Bayani ng Kalikasan (Environmental Hero) honor on Arzaga at his wake and had a college scholarship prepared for the 10th-grade daughter of the slain barangay official.
In an annual report last July, London-based nongovernment organization Global Witness tagged the Philippines as the most dangerous country in Asia, and third in the world, for environmental “defenders” in 2016, with 28 killed in the Philippines out of 200 in 24 countries.
The Philippines had held the dubious title in Asia since Global Witness first launched its international report in 2013.
Global Witness had reported a total of 144 cases of environmental activist killings in the Philippines since 2002, adding that “most murders were linked to mining, coal and extractive industries, whilst half of those killed were indigenous people.”
In a statement last week, Kalikasan-Philippine Network for the Environment (Kalikasan-PNE), the local partner-organization of Global Witness, said that in its own count, under the Duterte administration – or from June 2016 to September – there had already been at least 23 environment-related killings.
“Most of the victims, or 70 percent, were indigenous peoples and peasants, while 78 percent of the reported incidents involved communities and organizations opposing large-scale mining and agricultural plantation projects,” Kalikasan-PNE had said.
The group holds businesses and the state responsible for these killings.
About 61 percent of the suspected perpetrators of the killings under the Duterte administration are from the military, paramilitary, and police forces, Kalikasan-PNE said in an earlier statement announcing the formation of the form the Environmental Advocates against Repression and Tyranny in Defense of Human Rights (Earth) coalition, in response to the human rights violations.
For this reason the coalition adamantly rejected Cimatu’s proposal, saying armed forest guards could actually “be abused as paramilitary groups that harass and repress local communities” opposing “land-grabbers.”
“Unfortunately, the [Philippine National Police] as well as the AFP have for the longest time served as mercenaries for environmentally destructive corporations and projects,” said the group’s spokesperson, Leon Dulce, when sought for reaction by the Inquirer.
“Cimatu’s proposal to arm forest guards is a chilling throwback to his ‘Task Force Lumad’ military-paramilitary campaigns in the 90s directed at belligerent indigenous Lumad communities in southern Mindanao,” the group warned.
Kalikasan-PNE urged that instead of arming them, the number of forest guards should be increased instead and their salaries and “social protections” augmented as well.
Land use and development management policies should also be reviewed to prevent the proliferation of extractive industries.