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Red-Tagging and Reclamation: Manila Bay Activists Freed!

On September 2, 2023, Jhed Tamano, a programme coordinator of the Community and Church Program for Manila Bay of the Ecumenical Bishops Forum, and Jonila Castro, a member of the Alliance for the Defense of Livelihood, Housing and Environment in Manila Bay, went missing while volunteering in a fishing community near Manila Bay. Local eyewitnesses reported that the two women were coerced into an SUV by armed, masked men. Immediately following their disappearances, allegations were made by the surrounding communities that the authorities had wrongly apprehended the two women. The Philippine Police were slow to acknowledge any details about the disappearance, even hinting that they may have been caused by a prolific communist militia known as the New People’s Army.

Tamano and Castro were working in the area surrounding Manila Bay, supporting fishing communities experiencing negative impacts of the 22 land reclamation projects underway in the bay and surrounding area. The projects, predominantly proposed under the administration of former President Rodrigo Duterte, seek to expand the available land along the shore of Manila Bay upon which to build business and hotel infrastructure. However, recent concerns of potential negative long-term and irreversible environmental impacts voiced by the U.S. Embassy in Manila have pushed President Marcos Jr. to call for a halt in the projects. 

This pause in operations is a sliver of hope in the eyes of local fishermen and environmentalists who worry that the work permits have been granted without considering the possible social and environmental impacts. One such fisherman expressed his displeasure in a Reuters article last March, questioning where the fishing sector would go “with aging fisherfolk who didn’t even finish school.” These voices have been largely ignored, with the projects allowed to continue despite the criticism from civilians and even government officials such as Senator Cynthia Villar. Senator Villar cited claims by environmentalists and fishing groups who believe the already poignant issue of flooding in Metro Manila has been further exacerbated by the projects.

For nearly two weeks, it seemed that Tamano and Castro would simply become another addition to the long list of activist deaths in the Philippines, which has earned the nation the label of the most dangerous country for environmental activists in the world. Finally, on the 15th of September, the National Security Council announced that the two activists were “being held in a safe house after they sought help from authorities.” Later that day, however, the two women denied their circumstances as false pretenses set up by the authorities. Jonila Castro claimed that they were “obliged to surrender because they threatened to kill [them].”

The two women assert that they are not leftist rebels, but are environmental activists who have been “red-tagged” due to their opposition towards the reclamation projects. Castro in particular had been labeled as a possible rebel as early as 2022. Her mother was visited on three occasions, with a man presenting as a military officer telling her that her daughter should “surrender to authorities as a member of the NPA.” This practice of “red-tagging” is one in which certain groups or individuals are slandered, often with little to no real evidence, as having ties to anti-government communist groups. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, activists and journalists who have been critical of the government are often forced to deal with harassment in the justice system, frequently facing charges of fabricated offenses.

This practice of red-tagging existed long before the administration of Marcos Jr., dating back to the despotic martial law regime of his father, Ferdinand Marcos Sr. Beyond activists and government critics, red-tagging is also utilized by companies to gain project grants from the Philippine government which require them to minimize their environmental impact. This occurrence is not limited to the Manila Bay Reclamation Projects but is also prolific among industrial projects across the Philippines. A Global Witness report states that over 80% of murders in the Philippines during the last decade were linked to protestors and environmental defenders pushing back against mining and agribusiness projects cutting into indigenous lands. Instead of working to gain land usage permissions, companies will red-tag project-critical indigenous groups, immediately discrediting their opinions and setting a precedent for other indigenous groups to be quickly and wrongly swept aside.

These human rights violations occur right under the nose of the Philippine Government, which seems more than happy to turn a blind eye or even participate. Both the Duterte and Marcos Jr. administrations have been opaque regarding the reclamation projects in Manila, even releasing misleading reports on the status of the projects. Joseph Literal, the current Assistant General Manager of the Philippine Reclamation Authority, stated in August of this year that only 13 projects were actually ongoing within the Metro Manila area, pushing responsibility for the programs onto Duterte Administration Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu. However, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) produced contradictory claims, stating to CNN that all 22 projects were indeed in progress in Manila.

Activist groups and fishing communities surrounding the bay have become further incensed in the wake of the Marcos Administration’s suspension of the projects. They claimed that as of October 9th, nearly two months after President Marcos Jr. halted the projects, a dredging vessel was seen working in the bay. The fisherman group Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (Pamalakaya) expressed great disappointment in the persisting dredging, calling it “proof that Marcos Jr.’s suspension order on reclamation is a sham, especially with the absence of an official executive order.” 

Despite internal and external concerns, the Philippine government seems determined to continue the projects. Pamalakaya called on the U.S. Embassy in Manila to join them and their supporters in opposing the reclamation projects, asking them to condemn all projects that may be environmentally destructive, not just a select few. As their voices continue to be drowned out, and their movements labeled as rebellion, activists like Tamano and Castro persevere, pushing forward empowered. Upon her release, Castro gave a powerful statement claiming that “we proved, by what happened here, that what we are doing is right.” Their disappearances, far from silencing the opposition, have brought the eyes of the world to Manila Bay once more, amplifying the voices of communities threatened by these reclamation projects and the organizations risking life and limb to be heard.

Featured Image: Philippine Revolution Web Central

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