Two men, soldiers probably, noticed Bai Leah Tumbalang. This was last August. She was in Valencia City, in the Philippine province of Bukidnon. The men drew near on their motorcycle, followed her, then pulled up to shoot her in the forehead. She died immediately.
But her death was not random, not senseless. With it her killers signaled that protecting native lands is a sin, unpardonable. Because Tumbalang “was a leader of Kaugalingong Sistema Igpasasindog to Lumadnong Ogpaan (Kasilo), an organization whose members campaigned against the entry of mining corporations in Bukidnon and for the defense of their ancestral domain.” And people like her, doing similar work, get gunned down again and again in the Philippines.
In terms of slain environmental activists, “the Philippines was the worst-affected country in sheer numbers” last year, Global Witness reports. Beverly Geronimo, 27, was active in the Tabing Guangan Farmers Association (TAGUAFA), and like Tumbalang against major mining firms. She was walking her eight-year-old daughter home when two men, armed, stopped her and shot her to death. Father Mark Ventura, 37, an anti-mining and indigenous rights advocate, “was blessing children after a Mass” when a man in a motorcycle helmet came from the room’s far side with a gun, firing twice and killing him. Thirteen members of the National Federation of Sugarcane Workers (NFSW) were occupying part of “a vast sugar cane plantation…when about 40 armed men surprised them,” killing nine— “including three women and two teenage children”— and lighting “three of the bodies on fire.”
Global Witness charges the Philippine military, “working in collusion with powerful private interests”— those Kasilo, TAGUAFA, the NFSW and others oppose— with these murders. You can charge the U.S. government as well. No Southeast Asian military gets more Washington funds than the Philippines, with security aid totaling $1.35 billion from 2000 to 2020. Obama was far more generous than George W. Bush to Philippine forces, bestowing $651 million to his predecessor’s $400 million. For those pining for pre-Trump days, it’s comforting to know Obama worked to leave a legacy.
The best-funded security program is Foreign Military Financing (FMF), funneling nearly $650 million to Manila since 2000. Defense News describes FMF, in general, as “a grant given to U.S. allies to allow them to buy defense equipment”— specifically “goods made in the United States,” making it “a boost for the domestic defense industry.” Washington’s other priorities include Section 1206 authority and Section 333 authority to build capacity, together blessed with $218 million for training and arming Philippine troops.
These soldiers, empowered with U.S. money and guns, have devoted themselves to a series of counterinsurgency initiatives since the millennium. Oplan Bantay Layalaunched in 2001, spanning President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s two terms (2001-2010) and was, according to human rights organization Karapatan, “by far the bloodiest and most brutal counterinsurgency campaign unleashed on the Filipino people by any president.”
Oplan Bayanihan followed, running from 2010 to 2016 to coincide with Benigno Aquino III’s presidency. The policy aimed, officially, “to reduce the capabilities of internal armed threats” like the Communist New People’s Army (NPA), to “clear” NPA-held land while reducing the number of NPA fighters. In reality, Philippine soldiers stormed indigenous and peasant communities, killing whoever they wanted— a legacy current President Rodrigo Duterte carries forward with Oplan Kapayapaan.
Lito Aguilar’s wedding was imminent. He needed fish for the feast, so he took Christopher Abraham, a fellow abaca farmer, with him to the nearest river. They never returned. Soon after the murders, the Philippine Army issued a statement claiming the two men were NPA members killed in a skirmish with state forces. Leonila and Ramon Pesadilla were active in the Compostela Farmers Association (CFA), an anti-mining peasant group the military decided was really an NPA front. The couple was with their five-year-old grandson one evening when they heard a knock on the door. It was a pair of assassins who shot Leonila five times, Ramon six times and killed them both. Cindy Tirado was guilty of living with an NPA member: Jay Mendoza, her boyfriend. Emma Tirado, Cindy’s mother, claimed soldiers captured her daughter, tortured her, then ended her life. Cindy’s body was found with fractured arms, her genitals “shattered with a bullet.”
These killings, a hallmark of Philippine counterinsurgency, seem to reveal the policy’s real aims. A U.S. mercenary, an ex-Marine, gave perhaps the best possible summary of these goals decades ago. “The army is not killing communist guerrillas,” but rather “murdering the civilians who side with them.” He was in El Salvador in the 1980s, when Washington gave that country’s army $6 billion as it proceeded to slaughter tens of thousands of civilians. Report after report concludes that Philippine forces work, in part, in this tradition.
But their killings of land defenders, of indigenous activists, also conform to older custom. Think of early U.S. history: “With the growth of transcontinental railroads came more settlers, and calls to obtain the raw materials and minerals that lay within the territories remaining under Native American control in the West,” writes historian Adam Burns. “US soldiers often massacred Native peoples who were not willing to sign away their lands and instead stood their ground.”
U.S. officials still see native groups as obstacles in this sense— as barring mineral extraction, for example. Washington was eager to help Manila survey its mineral deposits. In 2005, the U.S. Geological Survey outlined plans “to conduct the first phase of a mineral resources assessment of the Philippines,” to find “major deposits of copper, gold, nickel, chromium, and other minerals,” like cobalt, to exploit. But three years later, U.S. Ambassador Kristie Kenney complained that, on the island of Mindanao, mining had yet to meet its potential. “One of the most significant challenges facing large-scale mining operations is dealing with the current residents of the lands to which they have obtained mineral rights,” she elaborated. She singled out “indigenous people with ancestral, albeit unrecognized by the legal system, claims to the mineral-rich areas” as especially problematic. You saw above the Philippine Army’s treatment of anti-mining activists.
Not that reading about these killings conveys their horror. We’re online. We’re addicted to websites or applications reaping our data, collecting our fossilized Internet records to sell to other firms. There’s gold in our phone circuit boards, cobalt in the batteries. We wait in traffic, for a train, nickel-containing stainless steel in the cars. In our houses, more than 400 pounds of copper wires and plumbing interlace the walls, 300 pounds in our apartments. We live in 2019.
It could have been centuries earlier for Bai Leah Tumbalang, for Father Mark Ventura. It could have been 1495 as that year slipped away from the indigenous Taíno, on Hispaniola— the island Columbus invaded. The Spanish severed the hands of, effectively bled to death, any Taíno failing or refusing to mine enough gold. It was a sin, unpardonable, not to enrich others, not to work so others could profit. The transgressions of Philippine land defenders are much the same. Their deaths show the traces of early modern barbarism in our age.