Joshua Mendoza

Published: June 7, 2024

MANILA, Philippines — On the evening of March 24, as environmental defenders Francisco ‘Eco’ Dangla III and Joxelle ‘Jak’ Tiong were on a tricycle heading to San Carlos City in the northern Philippine province of Pangasinan, a pickup truck suddenly appeared, cutting their way off. Right then, Dangla sensed that something bad was about to happen.

“I still tried to open my phone but the men were too fast. One of them pointed his gun to us and we were forced inside a vehicle,” Dangla recalled the moment of their abduction.

Blindfolded and bound for three days, they were relentlessly questioned about their environmental work and the whereabouts of their fellow activists. They endured physical and mostly psychological torture, forced to admit affiliation with the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People’s Army. 

“I was not sure if they would keep us alive but for the whole three nights I was in a dream-like state and was always thinking about what I should do, recalling testimonies from testimonies of abduction survivors,” Dangla said. 

“I’m finding solace in the thought that if they kill us, we have not done something wrong and we lived our lives for the people and the environment,” he added.

The abduction of environmental defenders Dangla and Tiong, along with the prior enforced disappearance of anti-reclamation activists Jonila Castro and Jhed Tamano in 2023, exemplifies the grave threats faced by environmental activists in the Philippines.  

People and organizations who protect the environment and resist destructive projects are routinely subjected to intimidation, harassment, violence, and even false accusations of communist insurgency.

Dangerous work

On April 17, 2022, Eco Dangla with the Pangasinan People Strike for the Environment successfully marched in Binmaley, Pangasinan, supporting the #NoToOffshoreMining protest, the call for climate justice, and the calls to save the Lingayen Gulf. (Pangasinan People Strike for the Environment)

Dangla’s journey as an environmental defender began during his college years at the University of the Philippines (UP), inspired by tree-huggers, vegans and vegetarians from the organization Earth First. 

Later, during the height of the campaign against the San Roque Multi-purpose Dam Project (SRMDP) in San Nicolas and San Manuel, Pangasinan, he joined UP Haring Ibon. 

The room-to-room discussions conducted by student peasant advocates left a lasting impression on Dangla. He felt embarrassed upon realizing that they were more knowledgeable about the issue than him, a native of Pangasinan. 

This prompted him to enlist and volunteer for the Task Force Stop San Roque Dam UP Diliman, where he learned that environmental issues are intricately connected with the economic and political realities of our country.

For Dangla, being an activist in a country like the Philippines is already a risk. People close to him, like Apo Jose Doton, chair of TIMMAWA—the peasant organization that led the opposition to San Roque Dam—and Kanor Sepnio, BAYAN Pangasinan vice chairperson, were killed under the Macapagal-Arroyo regime.

His friend, Karen Empeno, was abducted together with Sherlyn Cadapan under the same administration. The pair is still missing to this day. 

Ma. Elena “Cha” Pampoza, a peasant and fisherfolk organizer and a colleague of his, also fell victim to enforced disappearance along with labor organizer Elgene Mungcal under the current administration.

The abductions of Dangla and Tiong are the 22nd and 23rd such cases recorded in the Philippines under the administration of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. Of these cases, 14 involve environmental defenders.

In a report by watchdog Global Witness in 2023, the Philippines ranked as the 5th most dangerous country in the world for land and environmental defenders. The Philippines accounted for almost 69% (11) of the killings recorded in Asia (16).

“I have been red-tagged and vilified and sometimes I think that I might get killed, imprisoned, or victimized by enforced disappearance,” Dangla said.

“I draw inspiration from activists like Apo Jose, Kanor and many others who selflessly devoted their life serving the people. Young activists such as Greta Thunberg and many young Filipinos, the late Archbishop Oscar Cruz, Saint Oscar Romero are also inspirations for me,” he added.

Security, solidarity

Senator Risa Hontiveros and Atty. Chel Diokno arrived in Sibuyan Island on February 9, 2023, to visit the barricade camp and listen to the sentiments and views of its community. (Rodne Galicha)

Dangla stressed that it is important for activist organizations to take measures to ensure the physical and digital security of their members. 

He also said that environmental activism should be connected to people’s issues and linked with the broader social movements in our country and abroad.

“We are thankful for the overwhelming response of the local and international organizations for the appeal for our immediate resurfacing. I realized that even though human rights violators (state or corporate-sponsored) are powerful, we can make things happen if we are united,” Dangla said.

Rodne Rodino Galicha, the pro-bono executive director of Bayay Sibuyanon Inc., could resonate with Dangla’s and other defenders’ struggles amid their fight for the environment.

Galicha told Climate Tracker that he has been receiving hundreds of spam messages on social media since February 3, threatening him and hurling insults. By his estimate, around 17 Facebook pages were created and still exist solely to spread disinformation about him, his colleagues, and his affiliated organization.

He was among the leaders of the fight of Sibuyan Island—dubbed as the “Galápagos of Asia”—against nickel mining exploration that they fear will destroy the intact ecosystem of their home.

Galicha highlighted that individuals who speak truth to power are often silenced. Those who speak on behalf of the most vulnerable are threatened, persecuted, jailed, or even killed. Social media platforms are weaponized, attacking environmental defenders through misinformation, fake news, and malicious digital attacks.

“We may belong to the one percent of our country’s population, but we are everywhere, unnoticed. We are neither leftist or rightist, we are just ordinary citizens promoting our constitutional rights to a healthful and balanced ecology for all,” Galicha said.

He further emphasized that the massive threats to the planet are slowly being felt even by those who are unconcerned and comfortable. That’s why it is crucial for everyone to join this effort. 

“The defense of the environment is not our sole work, and our job is to carry the torch and pass it on. We cannot be defenders forever as we grow old and die. Let’s start with the children and the young people who are now standing up to defend their present and shaping the future they ought to live,” Galicha said.

“This is not survival of the fittest, but the survival of all, so that no one is left behind,” he added.

Shaping solutions through struggles

Through being an environmental activist, Eco learned the maxim, “simpleng pamumuhay, puspusang pakikibaka” which translates to “simple living, intensive struggle.” 

Working in poor communities, this principle taught him to appreciate and be grateful for the resources provided by the toiling masses. 

As their work continues, they learn the daily struggles of these communities. These struggles become their own, and shape their environmental campaigns.

“As an activist, I know the risks associated with standing up for the people and the environment but like fellow defenders we have no choice but to continue and fight for the protection of what we call our home, our birthplace, our ancestral lands, or the sources of livelihood for us and our people,” Dangla said.