06 Mar 2018 Story Environmental rights and governance

'For us, land is life'

It’s a dangerous time to be an environmental defender. In 2017, 197 people – nearly four every week – were murdered for defending the environment.

To bring attention to this issue, UN Environment is launching today an Environmental Rights Initiative, which aims to raise awareness of the links between human rights and the environment. The Initiative will work with governments and non-state actors alike to help them promote, protect and respect environmental rights.

Dulphing Ogan, an indigenous leader from the Mindanao region of the Philippines, represents the kind of environmental defender that the initiative hopes to support. Ogan hails from a region where indigenous access to land has long been threatened by extractive industries and government overreach. To shed light on some of the issues facing environmental defenders, we asked him to describe his experience working in the region.

Dulphing Ogan
Source: Dulphing Ogan

Tell us about yourself and where you come from.

My name is Dulphing Ogan and I am the Secretary General of Kusog sa Katawhang Lumad or KALUMARAN in Mindanao, which translates to strength of alliance of Lumad (indigenous) peoples in Mindanao. Our people face a variety of issues, but we are proud to say we are environmental defenders. We say “no to mining” and “no to logging” in our communities, to save the last remaining forests in Mindanao.

What are some key environmental issues on Mindanao?

Large plantations are a big driver of deforestation and forced displacements of indigenous communities. The problem is that the government and the Department of Natural Resources (DENR) are considering crops such as papaya and bananas a form of reforestation, despite the fact they are monocrops and are environmentally unsustainable. The DENR and companies support this and showcase this as a way of mitigating global warming. They use this strategy to get people to give their Free Prior and Informed Consent, or FPIC, which legally means that the indigenous peoples have been informed about the project and consent to it being implemented on their land. Thus, it’s not always difficult for governments and corporations to get the consent of indigenous peoples and fool them into giving their FPIC, which opens the area up to destructive industries.

Once lands are opened to big corporations there are also environmental concerns like logging, mega-dams and destructive mining. Our stand is to resist these kinds of projects [and keep them] from entering our ancestral lands. As indigenous peoples, that’s our biggest contribution to protecting the environment.

What are some of the biggest challenge you face as environmental defenders?
As indigenous peoples, many issues we face are interrelated. In places where outside interests want to exploit the land, environmental defenders from indigenous communities are accused with trumped up charges, threatened, and even killed. One recent example comes from the people of the Dulangan tribe. On 3 December 2017, eight tribal members were killed by government forces for resisting logging and coffee farming on their ancestral lands in the Lake Sebu area. This is only the most recent example of private industry being favoured over local communities.

Are there any possible solutions to the issues? Can communities, businesses, and the government coexist peacefully?

In fact, Lumads (indigenous people) have a system of sustainable agriculture, which counteracts the continuous degradation of the environment. At the same time, we have reforestation initiatives in areas where planting crops such as corn is not feasible anymore. We also plant root crops and timber trees in deforested areas and watersheds. It’s a combination of protection and sustaining the economic needs of the people. The government should help local initiatives as well as allocate resources to help fulfill sustainable development programmes. What happens now is they prioritize big corporations, such as mining and logging, at the expense of the people. The government should support community projects that have proven to be environmentally sound and sustainable.

I think it’s better to have businesses that can develop national industries that support local needs, not resource extraction for foreign export. For example, coconut farming could be developed as a sustainable and profitable industry, an alternative that benefits companies and communities. Businesses and indigenous communities can co-exist by building together national industries that support local needs.

Are indigenous communities the most effective stewards of the environment?

We are the remaining populations that value connections between nature and the people. For us, land is life. If you cut the tree, destroy watersheds, there will be no life. We are environmental defenders.

Learn more about UN Environment's Environmental Rights Initiative