The Poorest Are Being Sacrificed: Coronavirus in the Philippines

The Poorest Are Being Sacrificed: Coronavirus in the Philippines

The Philippines is poor because of a 500-year legacy of colonization. Today, the Philippines is in a neocolonial situation: it is an economic colony.

Poverty kills millions per year. And now, in the midst of coronavirus, government violence, corruption, incompetence, and indifference to the poor is exposed more starkly than ever.

This piece begins with vignettes from Deep Green Resistance organizers in the Philippines, and concludes with a piece from the Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal detailing the Duterte administration’s response.


  • Homeless people are being arrested for not following home quarantine.
  • A group of children arrested were arrested for violating curfew  and put into a dog cage.
  • Meanwhile, Senator Koko Pimentel tested positive, repeatedly broke quarantine and was not arrested.
  • Companies are refusing to pay workers, enforcing a “no-work-no-pay” policy.
  • Distribution of relief goods has been totally inadequate.
  • Food shortages and hoarding are exacerbating.
  • Countless workers from rural areas are trapped in the capital with no work, little money, and no way to get home.
  • Most informal workers, like drivers, have been out of work since March 14.
  • Healthcare workers are beginning to die due to a lack of PPE.
  • Politicians, celebrities, and the rich are able to access coronavirus testing even they don’t have any symptoms, while poor people with symptoms receive no tests.
  • CoViD-positive patients without serious symptoms are being discharged from hospitals but have nowhere to go.

Philippines: The Duterte regime and the COVID-19 pandemic — the case of a weak but authoritarian state

Originally published at http://links.org.au/philippines-duterte-regime-covid-19-pandemic-weak-authoritarian-state

By Reihana Mohideen and Tony Iltis

Update: On March 23, Duterte put to Congress the erroneously titled “Bayanihan Act of 2020”. The word ‘bayanihan’ means community assistance or ‘communitarian’ and the spirit of ‘bayanihan’ means assistance given voluntarily and without any monetary consideration by a member of the community. The title itself is fake, a lie. Nowhere in the bill does the spirit of ‘bayanihan’ prevail. The doctors, nurses, health workers, grocery employees, transport workers and all the frontliners who are heading the fight against COVID19 are not empowered in this bill — instead it extends more power to Duterte, the bureaucracy and his minions. This bill is sinister in many ways, as it aims to give wide powers to a president who’s proven to being incompetent in dealing with the pandemic. 

March 23, 2020 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — In the Philippines we have a combination of the worst features of the state under the current conditions of global capitalism. The capacity of the Philippine state to provide even the modicum of public services, systems and related infrastructure, such as health, water, power, housing, public transport, public education, etc., has been gutted after decades of structural adjustment programs, debt and the dictates of neoliberal economic policies imposed by international financial institutions such as the IMF, World Bank, ADB, bilateral and multilateral agreements with imperialist countries, enthusiastically embraced by the country’s technocrats and successive elite governments. This ailing public sector, co-exists with ‘the strong arm’ of a state that has maintained and even increased its capacity to mobilise the military and the police to impose a range of authoritarian measures, from a war against the urban poor resulting in the death of tens of thousands, mainly youth, in the guise of a campaign against drugs, to martial law in the Southern island of Mindanao.  Today, this dual character of both a weak and strong armed state, is starkly demonstrated in the Duterte regime’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As of March 22, the Department of Health reports 380 cases of COVID-19, with 17 recoveries and 25 deaths – a high mortality rate of approximately 7%. With no mass testing undertaken these figures are unreliable. Meanwhile health services are starting to flounder and health workers are falling ill though the anticipated exponential rise of the disease is still ahead of us.

Eleven hospitals and medical centres have issued an “urgent appeal” that an “alarming number” of their personnel were under the 14-day mandatory quarantine for individuals exposed to COVID-19 patients, as persons under investigation “continue to flock” to their emergency rooms every day. These hospitals and medical centres report that most of their “regular rooms have been turned into COVID-19 isolation areas,” leaving less healthcare resources for non- coronavirus patients who also have life-threatening conditions.

“The panic is escalating, mortality is increasing, our supplies of personal protective equipment are running short, our frontline staff are increasingly getting depleted as more of them are quarantined or physically and emotionally exhausted, and a number of our medical colleagues are already hooked to respirators fighting for their lives in various ICUs [intensive care units] … Even our ICUs are getting full. Soon we will have a shortage of respirators. We have every reason to be scared; we are, indeed very scared because we feel that we are on our own to face our countrymen in dire need of help.”

Despite the number of DOH-confirmed cases that is comparably lower to infections in other countries, the appeal points out that they are dealing with COVID-19 patients with “increasing mortality“, which in turn exposes their attending medical staff to more danger than usual. The country has no comprehensive universal health care program and one of the most expensive health services in the region.

Instead of addressing the weakness in the health system and infrastructure as its main priority, the Duterte regime’s strategy has been to declare a lockdown of the entire capital region around Metro Manila – the National Capital Region – from March 15 to April 14, which it describes as “imposing stringent social distancing measures”, with land, domestic air and sea travel to and from Metro Manila suspended, mass gatherings prohibited, community quarantine imposed, government work suspended (except for a skeletal workforce) and the suspension of classes. The announcement was made by President Duterte at a press conference ringed with the chiefs of the PNP and AFP, and police and troops immediately deployed at checkpoints to prevent people from travelling in and out of the NCR. No attempt was made during subsequent press conferences given by the President to explain the public health measures to be undertaken, such as testing programs, for which there is now a rising clamour. This was followed by an announcement on March 17 of the entire island of Luzon placed on lockdown described by government officials as an “enhanced community quarantine,” which limits the movement of people going in and out of the island region, home to at least 57 million.

We are currently under “enhanced community quarantine,” which is strict home quarantine for all households, with transportation suspended, provision for food and “essential health services” regulated, and with a heightened presence of uniformed personnel to enforce quarantine measures. This has been enforced with Barangay checkpoints (local checkpoints within Local Government Units), for which a pass is needed to pass through, with very limited movement which includes only the driver of the vehicle on the main highways such as Edsa or the driver and one assistant. These checkpoints, visible outside my bedroom window, now cordon off and isolate barangays around Metro Manila.  Except for groceries and drug stores, all shops have been closed. Some barangays have even imposed 24-hour curfews.

Duterte has repeatedly announced that anyone violating this state of enhanced community quarantine will be arrested, including for “resistance and disobedience to persons in authority” under the provisions of the penal code. Students, workers and people simply trying to shop for food are now being arrested.

Unlike in South Korea where the military and police carried out temperature checks, testing, clean up and disinfecting, the armed personnel at the checkpoints here are doing none of this. In the first few days they weren’t even provided with basic safety equipment, such as masks and hand sanitizer.

The most immediate impact has been on workers and the army of the unemployed who make their livelihoods in the ‘informal sector’, who have been prevented from making a living. On the first day of the lockdown this led to tense scenes at the checkpoints ringing the borders of the NCR, with commuters venting both their anger and despair at the checkpoints. The impact on the livelihoods and lives of working people and the poor has been immediate and devastating. Our organisers are unable to provide assistance to the communities that they work in, such as providing food, masks, etc., in meaningful numbers, at most being only able to assist a couple of hundred households at any one time.

Meanwhile, the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) has announced a one-time financial assistance of P5,000 for every worker who could not work during the one-month lockdown. This is already a very measly amount (USD 3 per day for 30 days), and yet the assistance can only be procured if the employer sends the required documents to the DOLE. Workers are not allowed to do it themselves. Many are also complaining that their employers do not want to avail of this, as they still want workers to report to work during the lockdown. And for those who are locked down outside Metro Manila, they could not even petition their employer to follow up the assistance. Contractual workers are practically blocked from availing of the assistance as their ‘employer’ is a third party agent which may not even be registered in the corporation list of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Workers in the informal sector receive no assistance, and the government merely advise them to contact the local government units for work related to anti-COVID19 campaign in the communities.

The Department of Social Welfare and Development has temporarily suspended its poverty alleviation cash grants for the social pension and unconditional cash transfer (Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program or 4Ps) as well as the distribution of 4Ps cash cards to the country’s poorest families to supposedly “minimize the exposure of the beneficiaries and DSWD employees to the threats of COVID-19”.

The situation in the Philippines stands in stark contrast to other countries in the region, such as Vietnam and South Korea, which are being looked upon as examples of how to deal with the pandemic. Vietnam, bordering China, with a population of around 97 million, has managed to contain the spread of the disease, successfully keeping the number of cases at 76 (as of March 19), with no deaths, over two months after the first cases were reported. A key part of the containment strategy was to develop a fast and affordable test kit in one month, which according to the WHO should have taken four years to develop. The test, developed by a group of Vietnamese researchers from the Institute of Biotechnology under the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology, costs about $15, and is capable of returning results within 80 minutes, with a specificity of 100% and sensitivity of five copies per reaction.

South Korea, with a population of around 51 million, as of March 19, has conducted more than 307,000 tests, the highest per capita in the world, with 633 testing sites nationwide. Results are swift, too, coming by text within 24 hours. Korean healthcare, a highly regulated, efficient single payer system, is also prepared to face epidemics. Broad government powers acquired during the MERS crisis has given South Korea one of the most ambitious tracking apparatuses in Asia. Health authorities can sift through credit-card records, CCTV footage, mobile-phone location services, public-transport cards and immigration records to pin down the travel histories of those infected or at risk. Admittedly, a double-edged sword, this tracking system proved to be effective in curbing the recent COVID19 crisis in the country.

Philippines, with a population of 109 million, has only six testing sites across the entire country — three hospitals in the NCR, and one each in Baguio, Cebu and Davao.  There’s now a rising clamour for mass testing. A petition by Scientists Unite Against COVID-19, an alliance of more than 1,000 biologists, health experts, and other individuals, as well as 336 organizations, has called for widespread testing to be conducted, as mitigation strategies such as social distancing and community quarantine are not enough and for expanded, decentralized, testing facilities across the country.

According to March 10 media reports, only 2000 kits were available. Duterte’s family members and other Duterte cronies have been given preferential treatment, even though they don’t meet the Department of Health criteria that only the elderly, those with underlying conditions and those whose ailments have progressed to severe or critical would be tested for the virus. People have commented angrily on social media, with some labelling it a “test kits crisis”, describing the preferential treatment given to the President’s family and cronies as “shameless, obscene and disgusting”. On March 21 media reports said that 100,000 new test kits have arrived, donations from China, South Korea and Brunei, but this will only be for testing of severe or vulnerable persons under investigation and not for mass testing.

A test kit was quickly developed by scientists from the University of the Philippines and is capable of fast detection of the novel coronavirus, but it will only be available for use only after two to three weeks, the time it will take the Department of Health to validate the tests.

Some local government units (LGUs) are taking the initiative. The Pasig City Mayor ordered thelimited mobilization of tricycles in the city to bring health workers and patients with immediate medical needs to hospitals. His appeal to the national government to allow the use of tricycles for public health and safety, since a maximum of only two passengers are allowed in the vehicle, was rejected. All Pasig City Hall employees will be paid full salaries with hazard pay and overtime for those employees in the frontlines. The City of Marikina is another LGU taking positive steps, with the initiative to set up local testing units using the University of the Philippines test kits. The regime has responded by threatening mayors with criminal charges, saying they would “closely monitor the compliance of LGUs in the directives of the Office and to file the necessary cases against the wayward officials.”

Duterte has announced a ₱25.1 billion ‘war chest’ to fight COVID-19, but only ₱3.1 billion has been allocated to actually combat COVID-19, including the purchase of test kits and drugs, while the ₱14 billion boost to the tourism budget will, we suspect, be used to “bail out” the anticipated losses of airlines, hotels, casinos, resorts, and tourism-related capitalists.  Only ₱2 billion has been allocated to compensate workers affected by the crisis.

The left and progressive movement here has been campaigning against Duterte’s military response to a public health crisis and has been put forward a platform of demands that include: Mass testing for all citizens; Free hospitalization of victims, persons under investigation (PUI), and person under monitoring (PUM) for COVID-19; Mass disinfection in all communities; Food and water rationing for workers and the poor; Distribution of face masks, hygiene kits, vitamins, and contraception; Assistance to farmers, drivers, and other affected workers; Release of 4Ps for beneficiaries; Paid emergency leave to uninsured workers; Refund tuition to students due to class suspension; Price control of commodities; Electricity, water, and communications to be provided 24/7; Allowing vehicles and tricycles to provide transport to medical workers and people with medical needs; Suspension of rent, water, electricity, communications, and other fees; Disarming the large numbers of military and police forces deployed so as not to cause terror to the people; and a debt moratorium.

Internationally, authoritarian trends are also being inflamed, corporate profits prioritised and public health measures relegated to an afterthought at best. According to March 21 media reports, the US Justice Department has asked Congress for the ability to ask chief judges to detain people indefinitely without trial during emergencies — part of a push for new powers that comes as the coronavirus spreads through the United States. The move has tapped into a broader fear among civil liberties advocates and Donald Trump’s critics — that the president will use a moment of crisis to push for controversial policy changes. And even without policy changes, Trump has vast emergency powers that he could legally deploy right now to try and slow the coronavirus outbreak. British government statements on ‘herd-immunity’ have more than a hint of eugenics.

As of March 23, 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has killed 14,655 people worldwide. More than 77% of these deaths are outside China, where it started. In less than three months it has gone from being an outbreak in Hubei Province, to a global medical, economic and social crisis. Data from China suggests many countries are at the beginning of an exponential rise in infections. Comparisons of death tolls and number of cases in different countries show large differences in the death rate between countries. These do not follow a simple, linear pattern of rich countries fairing better than poor countries, although this is one trend (Italy’s GDP per capita is more than three times that of China’s and South Korea’s GDP per capita is slightly lower than that of Italy, for example). They reflect differences between countries in wealth, priority given to healthcare, willingness and ability of governments and states to take control of the economy, social solidarity and trust between society and authorities responsible for the response to the pandemic. Overall, capitalist society is proving unable to respond rationally to the pandemic, which will massively increase the death toll and the social and economic impacts.

The COVID-19 crisis needs to be considered as part of the environmental crisis created by capitalism that is threatening humanity with extinction. Scientists for some time have been warning of increasing frequency and severity of epidemics caused by novel pathogens, with recent pandemics including SARS, MERS and Swine Flu providing warning. Climate change itself increases the spread of pandemics. Moreover, the causes of pandemics such as COVID-19 include many factors also fuelling climate change as well reflecting the more general breakdown in the world’s ecosystems, and their ability to sustain life, as a result of the capitalist mode of production. Factors include industrialised agriculture, wilderness and ecosystem destruction, concentration and movement of people, and pollution. Unless the global environmental crisis is addressed, there will be an in increase in the frequency and severity of novel pandemics. In this regard pandemics are no different to the typhoons, fires, droughts, etc, whose increased frequency and severity is associated with the looming Anthropocene apocalypse.

Imperialism has exacerbated the crisis in many ways. Decades of structural adjustment and imposed debt have left the countries of the Global South without the health and social welfare infrastructure needed for normal times, let alone during a lethal pandemic. The international division of labour that creates unprecedented wealth for the Western capitalist ruling class involves massive labour migration of workers with little or no access to healthcare, while absurd degrees of international travel — for “business” and leisure — are part of elite lifestyles. Imperialist war further degrades the ability of societies to provide healthcare, while horrifically increasing the need for it. War also creates massive population displacement. War, poverty and racist immigration policies have created a large population of highly mobile, undocumented people with no access to healthcare and well beyond the reach of any screening or tracking. The European and US capitalist economies are dependent on the labour of undocumented refugees and migrants.

The use of crippling economic blockades by the Western imperialists, the US in particular, further exacerbates the crisis. Before the COVID-19 pandemic appeared, Venezuela and Iran were both already struggling with severe shortages of medicine and medical equipment due to US sanctions. In Iran this has meant the impact of the pandemic has been particularly devastating. The chaos created by major imperialist wars on Iran’s eastern and western borders means that this devastation is rapidly spreading to neighbouring countries. The six decade-long blockade of Cuba is threatening a particularly perverse impact on the global COVID-19 pandemic. Confirming that the blockade is a response to the positive example set by Cuba’s socialist revolution, the impoverished, blockaded island has prioritised healthcare to such an extent that the US elite cannot hide from its own population the fact that Cubans have significantly better healthcare than working class Americans! Moreover, Cuba has pioneered “medical solidarity” with more doctors and health workers serving poor communities throughout the world than the World Health Organisation. The BBC reported on March 22, that the pandemic-traumatised population of Italy (a rich imperialist country) were enthusiastically welcoming the arrival of Cuban medical personnel while European Union officials fretted over the “bad optics” of Italians seeing aid arrive from Cuba, China and Russian, but not the EU. The Western countries could provide finance and technology to enable Cuba to increase its worldwide medical solidarity. Instead the US is working on tightening anti-Cuban sanctions to prevent countries from receiving Cuban medical aid.

The COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated many normally invisible social and economic relationships of capitalist society and has exposed much of its exploitative and irrational nature. Paradoxically — because people are its agent of transmission — the pandemic is both anti-social and social. It is anti-social because the fear of contagion from other people can exacerbate the social divisions, individualism and alienation inherent in capitalist society (and ruling class entities are enthusiastically using the pandemic to fuel these, for example US leaders calling it “the Chinese Virus”). But it is social because combating the virus is dependent on recognising that the overall health outcomes for everyone (included society’s most privileged) is dependent on the outcomes of the whole of society, including the most exploited and marginalised. This is true for both within and between nations.

Marxist geographer David Harvey wrote on March 20: “The economic and social impacts are filtered through “customary” discriminations that are everywhere in evidence … the workforce that is expected to take care of the mounting numbers of the sick is typically highly gendered, racialized and ethnicized in most parts of the world. It mirrors the class-based work forces to be found in, for example, airports and other logistical sectors. This ‘new working class’ is in the forefront and bears the brunt of either being the workforce most at risk from contracting the virus through their jobs or of being laid off with no resources because of the economic retrenchment enforced by the virus. There is, for example, the question of who can work at home and who cannot. This sharpens the societal divide as does the question of who can afford to isolate or quarantine themselves (with or without pay) in the event of contact or infection.”

COVID-19 has also illustrated that the ineffectiveness of military/police/border security responses in protecting the elites from some aspects of ecological collapse (including pandemics) does not stop these being the default responses. The neoliberal capitalist state is unable to deal with crises even when it would benefit capitalist society to do so. Social solidarity is a necessity for surviving catastrophe but in capitalist society social solidarity is a challenge to the existing order. The responses of Vietnam and Cuba reflect the merits of socialism both in terms of rational organisation of society (and use of infrastructure and resources) and in terms of social cohesion.

The inability of capitalism to respond to this pandemic that threatens the whole of global capitalist society — including its elites — is reflective of capitalism’s genocidal and suicidal response to broader environmental apocalypse. The demands that the movement has campaigned for now re-emerge with a deadly relevance and urgency. Let’s put them up again, adapted to the current context. All of the above demands show the necessity of our campaigns and of socialism.


How a culture behaves during a time of crisis is directly related to how it used to behave before the crisis. The capitalist authoritarion nature of the Duterte regime seen now is no more than an extension of the capitalist authoritarion nature of the Duterte regime before the pandemic hit. In the book “Deep Green Resistance“, Aric McBay uses a few potential scenarios to describe how the conditions during a collapse will differ based on what the conditions were before the collapse.

Rights of Nature and Breaking Illusions: A Conversation with Will Falk

Rights of Nature and Breaking Illusions: A Conversation with Will Falk

In this episode of The Green Flame, we speak with Will Falk. Will is a writer, lawyer, environmental activist and former collaborator of Deep Green Resistance News Service. The natural world speaks and Will’s work is how he listens to Nature.

In the fall of 2013, he began traveling to support environmental causes he felt passionate about, endeavor which took him to places such as the Unist’ot’en Camp on the unceded territories of the Unist’ot’en Clan of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation in central British Columbia, to the Big Island of Hawai’i, to pinyon-juniper forests and across the Great Basin among other points of interest.

Passionate about defending the Colorado River in all her length, he believes the ongoing destruction of the natural world is the most pressing issue confronting us today. For Will, writing is a tool to be used in resistance and he periodically takes freelance legal and content writing work to support himself while researching and writing about environmental causes.

Our conversation focuses on the Rights of Nature movement, Will’s efforts to advocate for the Rights of the Colorado River, and his book, How Dams Fall: Stories the Colorado River Told Me.

Here’s a little excerpt of the interview (minute 18:10):

“One interesting thing when thinking about the threats to the Colorado River is [ … ] most people assume if they stopped watering their lawns in the Colorado River Basin, if they stopped taking showers, if they controlled their use of water better, that this would have a large benefit to the Colorado River and that’s just not true because about 78% of the Colorado River’s water used for agriculture and industry it  goes to corporate uses. I think about 10 or 12 percent of the Colorado River’s water is actually used by households and individual humans. That number is comparable to the amount of water that golf courses in the Colorado River Basin use. So even if every human being in the Colorado River Basin just stopped taking showers and watering their lawns forever and we did nothing about the corporations and the industry that uses this water, we still would be having this huge impact on the Colorado River and we might not be able to really alleviate the problems that the Colorado River is facing.”

You can also find some contributions by Will Falk right here on the DGR News Service. Here are a couple of links:

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The Green Flame is a Deep Green Resistance podcast offering revolutionary analysis, skill sharing, and inspiration for the movement to save the planet by any means necessary. Our hosts are Max Wilbert and Jennifer Murnan.

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Rights of nature is a legal and political concept that advocates for ascribing legal personhood to natural entities. Traditionally, indigenous cultures across the world have worldviews consistent with treating natural entities as persons.

Organizations like Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) and  Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature (GARN) have been advocating for Rights of Nature.

Will Falk shares his experience of advocating for rights of nature of the Colorado river in How Dams Fall: Stories the Colorado River Told Me.

EPA Suspends Enforcement of Environmental Regulations: BREAKING

EPA Suspends Enforcement of Environmental Regulations: BREAKING

Editor’s note: on Thursday news broke that the Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S. is suspending enforcement of regulations due to the coronavirus outbreak.

This comes several weeks after China waived their own environmental regulations in order to re-start their economy as fast as possible, raising fears of a “pollution backlash.”

From a DGR analysis, this is predictable. Within a culture that is dependent on destroying the planet, the needs of the economy—and of the rich—will always be prioritized over the needs of the natural world.

It’s obvious that environmental regulations are failing to protect the planet. That’s partly because, as the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) often states, regulatory law is written by and for corporations. Nonetheless, regulations do mitigate and slow some of the worst harms. Now, even that flimsy barrier is being dismantled.

We expect this. As Derrick Jensen wrote in Premise 20 of the book Endgame, “Within this culture, economics—not community well-being, not morals, not ethics, not justice, not life itself—drives social decisions.”

Featured image: Public domain photo. Air pollution kills roughly 7 million human beings annually.


‘Holy Crap This Is Insane’: Citing Coronavirus Pandemic, EPA Indefinitely Suspends Environmental Rules

Jake Johnson / Common Dreams

The Environmental Protection Agency, headed by former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, announced on Thursday a sweeping and indefinite suspension of environmental rules amid the worsening coronavirus pandemic, a move green groups warned gives the fossil fuel industry a “green light to pollute with impunity.”

Under the new policy (pdf), which the EPA insisted is temporary while providing no timeframe, big polluters will effectively be trusted to regulate themselves and will not be punished for failing to comply with reporting rules and other requirements. The order—applied retroactively beginning March 13, 2020—requests that companies “act responsibly” to avoid violations.

“EPA is committed to protecting human health and the environment, but recognizes challenges resulting from efforts to protect workers and the public from COVID-19 may directly impact the ability of regulated facilities to meet all federal regulatory requirements,” Wheeler said in a statement. “This temporary policy is designed to provide enforcement discretion under the current, extraordinary conditions, while ensuring facility operations continue to protect human health and the environment.”

Cynthia Giles, former head of the EPA’s Office of Enforcement under the Obama administration, told The Hill that the new policy is “essentially a nationwide waiver of environmental rules for the indefinite future.”

“It tells companies across the country that they will not face enforcement even if they emit unlawful air and water pollution in violation of environmental laws, so long as they claim that those failures are in some way ’caused’ by the virus pandemic,” said Giles. “And it allows them an out on monitoring too, so we may never know how bad the violating pollution was.”

Published under  the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

Trees Felled in India and Nepal Amid Protests

Trees Felled in India and Nepal Amid Protests

By Salonika Neupane / Photos: Jalpesh Mehta (Empower Foundation) via Let India Breathe

Deforestation has been a major contributing factor towards environmental problems. Trees, in addition to providing oxygen, also sequester carbon. By cutting down trees, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases sharply, contributing to the problem of greenhouse effect.

Despite these often irrevocable damages, a 2015 study estimates that a total of 46% of trees have been felled since humans began cutting down trees. Deforestation often occurs due to commercial logging, or to turn the forest land for agricultural purposes (as is the case with the current deforestation in Amazon rainforest). In developing countries, a major cause of deforestation is the supposed development projects. These projects are often masked as an essential part of development, and any group opposing these projects are labeled “anti-development”, which makes it even more difficult for people to begin to question the necessity of the projects. Those who do resist have to spend valuable time and energy fighting off these labels.

In India and Nepal, two “development” projects have been proposed that require felling of trees. In Mumbai, over 2600 trees in the Aarey area are to be felled to build a car shed (parking garage) for the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC). Aarey is a lively forest with a thriving natural community (aka ecosystem). Yet, Bombay High Court has failed to acknowledge Aarey as a forest. Meanwhile in Nepal, the ring road (encircling the Kathmandu valley) is set for its second phase of road expansion that is going to cut more than 2000 trees.

Both of the projects have been presented as a necessity for transportation of local people. But the general news fail to address some important facts. For example, in Mumbai, the Aarey forest is being cut down for a car shed of MMRC, not for the railways itself. Railways may play a significant role for the general public of Mumbai, but the car shed does not. On top of that, the MMRC is said to plant 100 times more trees than they cut down. Granting the naiveté of believing in that promise, saplings cannot replace an entire natural community.

Similarly, the road expansion of ring road is sold out as a magical solution to the problem of overcrowded traffic in Kathmandu. None of the residents in Kathmandu would debate that overcrowding of traffic is not a problem in Kathmandu. Yet, time and again it has been demonstrated that road expansions are only a temporary solution to the problem. Within a few years, the number of private vehicles also rise, culminating in the problem of overcrowded traffic of similar, if not worse, intensity. Not to mention, the initial phase of road expansion has caused a sharp increase in the number of road accidents in Kathmandu, causing the recently expanded area to be called the “death trap”.

The deforestation has not gone unnoticed in both of the cities. Environmental groups and local people have both protested against both of these. The intensity of public support for protest is stronger in Mumbai than in Kathmandu, with politicians and celebrities coming up against the proposed deforestation in Mumbai.

Yet, deforestation in both of these areas have begun despite the protests. After the Bombay High Court permitted the project to continue on Friday, MMRC workers began to cut down trees in the middle of the night. The time was chosen so that protesters would not be able to protect the forest. The next day, cutting down trees continued with police protection despite the protests. Many of the activists were arrested. On Monday, the Supreme Court of India issued a stay order in the tree-felling, but over 2100 trees have already been cut.

In Kathmandu, cutting down trees began during a major festival of the country. Kathmandu, being the capital, is populated with many immigrants from all over the country. During this time, most return to their natal homes to celebrate the biggest festival of the year with their family and relatives. As a result, the valley is relatively sparsely populated. It was during this opportunistic period that felling of trees began.

Protests against deforestation has been rising globally, which may have had an influence in the protests in Mumbai and Kathmandu as well. The Climate Strike movements initiated by Greta Thunberg has helped spark a discussion against climate change in general. Thus, people have become more aware regarding environmental issues. Similarly, people across the world have been opposing the plan for the Brazilian government to allow agricultural industry to clear parts of the rainforest. It has helped bring attention to the significance of forests. Indigenous people have always resisted against the felling of trees. In some cases, indigenous communities have taken matters into their own hands to prevent illegal logging.

Effective strategies often need to address the specific nature of the problems within each context. While the two problems (in Mumbai and Kathmandu) appear similar, there are some major differences. Protests in Mumbai has been able to attract a very high number of supporters, which unfortunately is not the case in Kathmandu. With an exception of environmental groups and a minority of people, it seems the general public have accepted roads expansion as a miraculous cure to the problem of overcrowding of traffic.

As such, the two problems also require different strategies for action. For the Aarey conversation, what is required now is to provide tools to the protesters, like legal support. For the people in Kathmandu, a more basic approach is required: to get the people to question the necessity and fruitfulness of the road expansion in the first place.

References

Choudhary, Amit Anand, & Mehta, Manthan K. (2019, October 8). SC stays tree-felling at Aarey till October 21, but 98% already cut. Published in The Times of India. Accessed from https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/sc-stays-tree-felling-at-aarey-till-october-21-but-98-already-cut/articleshow/71485076.cms

Crowther, T. W. et al. (2015). Mapping tree density at a global scale. Nature, 525, 201-205. Abstract available at https://www.nature.com/articles/nature14967

Ojha, Anup. (2018, May 26) Ring Road part ‘death trap’. Published in The Kathmandu Post. Accessed from https://kathmandupost.com/national/2018/05/26/ring-road-part-death-trap

Tanzania’s Maasai Losing Ground to Tourism

Tanzania’s Maasai Losing Ground to Tourism

Featured image: Maasai from the village of Naiyobi courtesy of the Oakland Institute

    by  / Mongabay

  • An investigation by the Oakland Institute, a policy think tank, has turned up allegations that the government of Tanzania is sidelining the country’s Maasai population in favor of tourism.
  • The government and some foreign investors worry that the Maasai, semi-nomadic herders who have lived in the Rift Valley for centuries, are degrading parts of the Serengeti ecosystem.
  • The authors of the Oakland Institute’s report argue that approaches aimed at conservation should focus on the participation and engagement of Maasai communities rather than their removal from lands to be set aside for high-end tourism.

The government of Tanzania is casting aside Maasai communities to make way for lucrative high-end safari tourism and hunting, says the Oakland Institute, a policy think tank, in a report published May 10.

The four-year investigation revealed that groups of the Maasai in the Loliondo division of northern Tanzania have been kept off lands vital to their survival so that wealthy safari-goers and foreign royalty can have unfettered access to East Africa’s iconic wildlife.

The policy has led to widespread hunger and fear among the population, said Anuradha Mittal, director of the California-based Oakland Institute.

A map showing the location of Loliondo Game Controlled Area in northern Tanzania. Image courtesy of the Oakland Institute.

After thousands of Maasai have been threatened or displaced, “Their sentiment is that the next person to be evicted and displaced will be me,” Mittal said in an interview with Mongabay. “This is a fear that the villagers live with.”

The report cites firsthand accounts, communications with and within a safari company, and government and legal documents. It argues that authorities, eager to keep the deep-pocketed tour companies that operate in Tanzania happy, are driving the Maasai into poverty and dependence on aid to maintain the country’s tourism sector. The reason they often give is the protection of the environment.

But this issue isn’t confined to Loliondo or Tanzania, Mittal said.

“This is not just about a specific company. This is not just about a specific government,” she said. “This is happening across the world in the name of conservation, in the name of economic opportunity for governments.”

An elephant in Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

Conservation and the Maasai

It’s difficult to pin down an exact figure, but perhaps a million or more Maasai live in East Africa’s Great Rift Valley, stretching across northern Tanzania and southern Kenya. For centuries, large numbers have grazed their livestock in the area around the Serengeti plain. The name Serengeti translates to “the place where the land runs forever” in Maa, the group’s language.

In the 1950s, the colonial government in charge of what is today Tanzania asked the Maasai to leave Serengeti National Park, which was created in 1951, so the area could be devoted entirely to conservation. The Maasai living in the region agreed and moved into the vicinity of the nearby Ngorongoro Crater. But when concerns arose that too many people living there would impact the wildlife, they were again asked to move, with many ending up in Loliondo division.

This pattern, the Oakland Institute contends, has continued, justified as efforts to keep ecosystems intact, but also as a way to maintain the flow of tourism dollars, mostly from high-end safaris, into the country. Restrictions by the government on where the Maasai could and could not go, as well as their ability to cultivate small farm plots and gardens, had by the 1990s led to widespread malnutrition, one study found. The authors, who published their research in the journal Human Organization, concluded that the government’s success in protecting the region’s wildlife was coming at the cost of the health of the semi-nomadic Maasai.

In 1992, Tanzania’s prime minister, John William Malecela, lifted the ban on gardens in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area to ease the pressure on the Maasai, and laws passed in 1999 were aimed at codifying customary claims to land in Tanzania. But that wasn’t the end of the setbacks to the Maasai’s way of life, according to the Oakland Institute’s investigation.

A herd of cows in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Image courtesy of the Oakland Institute.

Mittal and her colleagues point to an emblematic example of the challenges that Maasai communities face in Loliondo, centering on a piece of land originally called Sukenya Farm near the border with Kenya. In 2006, Rick Thomson and Judi Wineland, the owners of Thomson Safaris, a safari outfitter based in Watertown, Mass., that has operated in Tanzania since the 1980s, bought a 96-year lease on 12,617 acres (5,106 hectares) of land for $1.2 million. Thomson and Wineland intended to turn the land into a nature reserve, according to the company’s blog.

“Purchasing the land in Loliondo was a way to protect a wildlife corridor from Kenya to the Serengeti, to provide a refuge for the endangered wildlife, to provide a place for tourists to see wildlife in the wilderness, to walk amongst the wildlife in an authentic setting, to meet the [Maasai] who have been our friends for years and to provide benefits to the community around us,” Thomson told Mongabay in an email.

But it would also mire them in an ongoing dispute over the land that started in the early 1980s. In 1984, Tanzania Breweries Limited purchased 10,000 acres (4,047 hectares) of this land from the district council. The sale drew the ire of some of the local Maasai, who said they grazed their animals on the land and should have been consulted.

In the ensuing years, however, Tanzanian Breweries Limited didn’t use much of the land, ostensibly abandoning it in 1990. Meanwhile, the Maasai continued to move their herds through in search of grass and water, and they would set up traditional compounds called bomas in the area.

An entrance to a new boma built by the Maasai. Image courtesy of the Oakland Institute.

When Wineland and Thomson acquired Sukenya Farm through their company, Tanzania Conservation Limited (TCL), some of the adjacent Maasai communities objected. For one, the size of the land had grown to include an additional 2,617 acres that the Maasai say the brewing company illegally took several years before the sale. Maasai communities also said that once again, their traditional lands had been sold without their consent, and their lawyers argued that the Maasai communities’ use of Sukenya Farm in the preceding decades amounted to a legal claim on the land.

This all came as a surprise to Thomson and Wineland.

“Unbeknownst to us,” Thomson said, “we would be used as a pawn, a political football, in a broader game on the board of Loliondo that is a struggle between NGO local interests and national government interests for political, economic and territorial control of Loliondo.”

The land has been the subject of several court cases. In 2015, a Tanzanian court upheld TCL’s claim to the land for 10,000 acres, but said that the extra 2,617 acres had been illegally acquired.

If it should not have been part of the sale, Wineland contends that the addition happened before she and Thomson purchased it. “The title deed reads 12,617 acres,” she wrote in an email to the Oakland Institute on Nov. 21, 2017. “Any changes made to the size of the land did not happen under the ownership of the land by TCL.”

In the 12 years since TCL acquired the land, according to the report, Maasai communities point to several instances in which herders have been driven off the land, now called Enashiva Nature Refuge. The Oakland Institute surveyed the testimony by both sides of the recent court case over the land involving several communities and TCL, which alleges that at times TCL staff would call in the local police to force the Maasai off the land. That led to arrests, beatings, shootings and the destruction of bomas, the report says.

A leopard in Serengeti National Park. Image by John C. Cannon/Mongabay.

“All these will remain allegations as the villages could not provide evidence in court to prove any of the allegations,” Wineland wrote in her emailed response to the Oakland Institute.

Thomson also told Mongabay that Mittal’s team “failed in its due diligence” because it didn’t speak with representatives of Thomson Safaris while in Tanzania. Nor did the researchers include the perspectives of village leaders who are supportive of the company’s work.

Mittal said she aimed to find unvarnished accounts of what was happening in Loliondo, and she said that in village after village, she saw people who weren’t happy with TCL and Thomson Safaris’ presence in the area.

Thomson, who said that Thomson Safaris “vehemently” denies any allegations of abuse, insists that the company’s relationship with local communities is quite different than how it’s portrayed in the report.

“There are no conflicts with our neighbors, in fact we have letters requesting more dispensaries, water bore holes and school buildings,” he said, referring to the clinics, wells and schools that the company has helped fund in communities near Enashiva. Wineland also co-founded Focus on Tanzanian Communities, a nonprofit charity involved in social and economic development.

In his testimony during the court case, Thomson said, “The police are only called when the situation is escalating and people are feeling like they’re being threatened or something of that nature.”

However, Mittal points to internal communication within TCL that surfaced during the discovery phase of the litigation, indicating that TCL staff would call the commissioner of Ngorongoro district (which includes Loliondo) in response to herders grazing livestock, cutting wood or farming. The district commissioner would then call the police, according to court documents.

On July 30, 2012, a TCL staff member wrote in an email, “Nice to know that it is the [district commissioner] and police that are dealing with this, that we are out of that picture in the sense that we did not have face to face conflict and the usual thing of being accused of beating people …”

People from the village of Naiyobi line up for water. Image courtesy of the Oakland Institute.

A hunting concession

In another part of Loliondo, a land dispute has long simmered between Maasai communities and the Otterlo (sometimes spelled Ortello) Business Corporation. In 1992, the Tanzanian government gave Otterlo permission to hunt on 4,000 square kilometers (1,544 square miles) in the Loliondo Game Controlled Area, which the Oakland Institute estimates is home to 50,000 Maasai.

Otterlo has a post office box and phone number listed in the city of Arusha. But its Twitter account is in Arabic, with a handful of posts related to conservation, poaching and community development, and Otterlo is reportedly controlled by people close to the royal family of Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.

The Oakland Institute reports that the license has effectively turned the Loliondo Game Controlled Area into a private hunting reserve for the family, complete with an airstrip and Emirati cellphone networks.

Otterlo has also played a part in keeping the Maasai from using the land, according to the report, as in a 2009 eviction of 200 bomas by Otterlo security and a government “paramilitary” unit. Accounts hold that the action affected 20,000 people and rendered 3,000 homeless. Government officials said the Maasai were evicted because their cultivation of the land was degrading it.

Otterlo did not respond to several requests for comment through social media, and the telephone number listed for the office in Tanzania is no longer in service. The Oakland Institute’s attempts to reach out to Otterlo by telephone and postal mail also went unanswered.

A boma in Ngorongoro District. Image courtesy of the Oakland Institute.

John Cannon is a Mongabay staff writer based in the Middle East. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon

Citation

McCabe, J. T., Perkin, S., & Schofield, C. (1992). Can conservation and development be coupled among pastoral people? An examination of the Maasai of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania. Human Organization, 353-366.

Partially republished with permission of Mongabay.  Read the full article, Tanzania’s Maasai losing ground to tourism in the name of conservation, investigation finds