2017 saw 98 environmentalists killed for protecting their land

More and more people are being murdered for protecting their communities from miners, loggers and dam builders warns Fr Sean McDonagh, SSC as he pays tribute to Fr Marcelito Paez killed on 4 December 2017.

2016 was a perilous year for people who were defending their community’s lands, natural resources and wildlife. These killings are not isolated in one country. They happen with greater frequency in Latin America and Central America, in Africa and Asia.

According to the watchdog group Global Witness, 200 environmentalists, wildlife rangers and indigenous people were killed in 2016.[1] Since 2015, 132 and environmental defenders have died in Brazil. During that same period, 75 people have been killed in the Philippines defending their natural resources or protesting against mines or dams. [2]

In 2016, research shows that environmentalists were being killed at the rate of four each week..

Unfortunately, it would appear that murder and other crimes against those who protect their land will be even worse in 2017. In August 2017, data provided exclusively to the Guardian reported that 98 environmentalists have been murdered in the first five months of 2017. [3]

No one is immune: on 4 December 2017, a gunman killed Fr Marcelito Paez, a 72-year-old Catholic priest while he was driving through the town of San Leonardo, Nueval Ecija on the island of Luzon in the Philippines.

The attack took occurred hours after Fr Marcelito Paez had facilitated the release of a political prisoner, Rommel Tucay in Cabunatuan, which is the provincial capital. Mr. Tucay was an organiser for farmers’ groups in the area and he had been arrested in March 2017.

Fr Marcelito was a member of the board for the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP).

The RMP is a national, inter-diocesan and inter-congregational organisation of sisters, priests and lay people that works was peasants and indigenous people. Fr Paez was the group’s Central  Luzon coordinator.

Redemptorist priest, Fr Oliver Castor, also a member of the RMP,  knew Fr Marcelito very well. He told ucannews.com that (President) Duterte’s offensive against political dissenters follows the pattern of his crackdown against suspected addicts and drug dealers. “It is a systematic killing directed towards a specific section of the population.”

“In the past the targets were drug users, this time it is leftists.”[4]

Fr Castor said that “labelling people’s organisations and their supporters, including Church people, as leftists and destabilisers is chillingly reminiscent of the years of Marcos regime in the Philippines.” [5]

Harry Roque, a spokesman for President Duterte, said that groups and individuals suspected of “conspiring with the underground movement would be included as targets.”[6]

Fr Paez’s superior, Bishop Roberto Mallari of San Jose condemned his killing. He pointed out that for many years Fr Paez had been in charge of the justice desk of the diocese’s social action commission. This would have brought him into close contact with poor workers and farmers, whose rights he had always promoted.

Elmer Cato, former journalist and the current Philippine ambassador to Iraq wrote on his Facebook page that Fr Paez was “true to what he believed in to the end; I mourn the passing of this servant of God and the people.”

Fr Wilfred Dulay, coordinator of the Missionary Disciples of Jesus congregation remembered his former classmate at San Carlos Seminary in Manila.

He “was always smiling, often laughing, at ease with everyone and putting anyone he was with at ease. He was the caring pastor of parishioners wherever he was assigned and a good shepherd of the people.”

While Fr Paez was unfailingly polite to authorities, even when being provoked, Fr Dulay said he was open about standing up for the victims of oppression and injustice.[7]

Fr Dulay believes that “was his ‘one mortal sin’ that attracted the wicked purveyors of death,” [8] Benedictine nun and theologian, Sr Mary John Mananzan, said that Fr Paez was a good friend and passionate activist who never lost his calm demeanor.

He was known among poor people in the region as “a wonderful listener,”[9]. Fr Paez’s murder took place during a two-day period which saw ten activists shot dead in Luzon and in the southern Philippines on the island of Mindanao.

On 12 December 2017, more than a thousand people attended the funeral Mass for Fr Marcelito Paez.

One hundred priests concelebrated the Mass with two Filipino bishops, San Jose Bishop Roberto Mallari and Cabanatuan Bishop Sofronio Bancud, who both presided at the Eucharistic celebration.

The Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Gabriele Giordano Caccia, also attended the Mass at St Joseph Cathedral in San Jose, in the province of Nueva Ecija.

The bishops wore red and violet stoles to proclaim the “martyrdom” of Fr Paez.

Fr Paez was truly a  martyr for poor people.

[1] Jonathan Watts and John Vidal, “Revealed: killings of environmentalists double in five years, The Gaurdian, 14th July 2017,  pages 14 and 15.
[2] ibid
[3] Ibid
[4] Ibid
[5] Inday Espina-Varona, Mark Saludes and “Maria Tan, Rage, grielf sweep Philippines after murder of priest,” UCANews.com. December 8th 2017.
[6] Ibid
[7] Ibid
[8] Ibid
[9] ibid