Once upon a time, there was a fifty-seven-year-old grandmother with kind eyes.


She was loved dearly in her community for leading the charge against a coal stockpile in her neighborhood. In her spare time, she manned her family's karaoke bar and joked around with her eighteen grandchildren. One night, just before eight in the evening, a gunman slowly walked inside and unceremoniously shot her dead.

This man will never be caught, and the moment he straddled his masked companion's motorcycle will be the last anyone will ever see of him. The case will be dismissed for lack of suspects. The plethora of all the other things that went wrong that night would dawn on everyone too late only to sear themselves into the memory and perpetual regret: the frantic chase that ended when the perpetrators turned off their lights and went into the night undetected, the failure of the police to set up checkpoints, the shrapnel that grazed the shoulder of a child who just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, like she was. 

This is the story of Gloria Capitan, the leader of Samahan ng Nagkakaisang Mamamayan ng Lucanin (SNML). In March 2015, Capitan led a petition addressed to the Lucanin village council, the government of Mariveles and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to shut down the coal facility. She had no known enemies and had no other political activities other than campaigning for a healthier, safer home for her and her family. For many environmental activists, her story is an all too familiar tale following years of intimidation, of death threats and of bribe attempts in exchange for silence set against a dark time of impunity making the daily headlines.  

The Philippines was named the deadliest in Asia for environmental activists in 2017 by London-based watchdog Global Witness, putting forward an even steeper price on activism against environmental degradation, such as the country's continued reliance on coal-fired power plants. But Capitan's fellow activists in the Coal-Free Bataan Movement continue her legacy, up in arms still against existing and new coal plant projects in the region.

.  .  .


The legacy

Gloria Capitan's memory is well and alive in the Limay Concerned Citizens Headquarters in Barangay Lamao on a humid May morning. To be in the tin-roofed roadside shack is to be surrounded by local women like Derec Cabe, coordinator of the Coal-Free Bataan Movement, who spoke their mind and made sure no other woman will ever be silenced again. Long after the media vans have departed back to Manila and the indignation rallies have dispersed, the makeshift office was abuzz with activity on the day of barangay elections as some of their members have decided to run.

 "Panggulo lang naman kayo, eh!" the members tease their friends. "But okay. Disrupt the system!"

Politics has never been their weapon of choice, Cabe shared. But why not take advantage of all avenues to help their cause? For years, their members have been harassed by companies who claim to be just following the country's development plans, aided by incumbent officials who claim to be speaking for their people but months later come home with suspicious brand new vehicles spreading the gospel of compromise with plant operators. They've had health problems dismissed as mere coincidence by corporate health officers, strange men in motorcycles parking in front of their houses and observing for hours, online trolls taking hostage of comments sections, a beloved comrade slain senselessly - surely politics can't be a whole lot worse. 

True enough, on election day itself, their friends and families report that one hundred peso bills are being distributed to voters outside the elementary school precinct where their district was assigned. "Looks like they're scared and desperate," the women joked, trying to perk up the nervous room.

"Ate Gloria used to say she will not stop fighting until her eyes are closed, until death." Cabe mused. "It is the same with us."

The everyday

The violence these activists face may not be the spectacle of bullet puncturing wound, but it is not less grim. "It's the coal death march," Cabe has been saying saying for two years. 

In 2016, residents started complaining of skin diseases and respiratory infections due to increased dust in the air. It turned out that the San Miguel Corporation Power Plant allegedly started operating without an ash pond and went into an informal agreement to share one with Petron Refinery, producing one hundred eighty metric tons a day. Due to prevailing winds, the sediment was carried into their community, covering everything - from windshields to clothes left out to dry in the sun - in fine dust. 

SMC tried to make amends when the community complained to the Environmental Management Bureau, which temporarily halted their operations. According to Cabe, the company started conducting impact assessments and gathered blood samples from the residents supposedly to test for heavy metals. Two years later, no official results have been released and it is business as usual. Residents complain of the putrid smell and the raging sound of heavy machinery waking them up every morning. "It's like a private airport behind our houses," they said.

But trouble started way before operations. Several community members were allegedly offered a measly sum of 50,000 Philippine pesos (approx. $1000) in exchange for their land. Life being hard as it is, many of them took the offer. Some, however, continue to hold their ground – their families, after all, have lived in Limay for over sixty years, and home for them means sustaining their households with vegetables they planted themselves in their backyards. The 23-square feet units and couple thousands offered as relocation packages were anything but fair, especially for some with eleven mouths to feed.

The resistance

The residents know that the fight does not stop when they exit the twelve-hectare danger zone from the plant. In 2015, environmental organizations led by Greenpeace filed a complaint against 90 fossil fuel companies found to have been responsible for almost two-thirds of anthropogenic emissions through a study led by climate scientist Richard Heede. The Limay community remains a key petitioner in this ongoing landmark case filed with the Commission on Human Rights who has agreed to hold hearings to investigate whether giants Chevron, Shell, ExxonMobil and others endanger Filipinos' rights to life, food, water and sanitation through climate impacts.

Experts invited to testify at the initial hearings have been tasked with establishing the legal link between human rights and climate change through various multilateral agreements. Caroll Muffet, President and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law, has emphasized the mandate of businesses to observe due diligence in accordance with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, stressing that the corporate responsibility to actively "know and show" that they and their supply chain did not violate human rights is a pillar of the agreement. Any attempt to conceal or withhold information from the public constitutes a violation of the principles, and it can be argued, a violation of human rights.

The transboundary nature both of emissions and impacts coupled with the tricky legal business of attribution is still up for discussion. While some respondents have filed motions to dismiss claiming that the investigation holds no weight because of this, activists like Cabe join other climate justice advocates in hoping that the state will uphold their responsibility to ensure access to remedy for the victims. In which form that would take - from an admission of guilt triggering divestment to actual monetary compensation for loss and damages - remains to be discussed.

"Talagang ilalaban mo." Cabe mused. "Yun ang maganda sa komunidad na ito, talagang lumalaban no matter what."

The reckoning

In his testimony at the May hearing, Undersecretary Segfredo Serrano of the Department of Agriculture reiterated that climate impacts are prejudiced against the poor, as they experience not just drastic short-run impacts that are "sexy to the press" but also long-term events that run well past the extent of political terms. Data from a United Nations report on structural inequalities exacerbating climate vulnerability confirmed this. Increased exposure to hazards due to residence in low-elevation coastal zones as well as low-cost housing in urban areas requiring repeated repairs to secure against flood damage affect the poor more as they use a higher percentage of their incomes more than the rich for adaptation. Reliance on the agricultural and fishing sectors also make drastic temperature shifts a real matter of life and death for farmers, fishermen and their families. 

Cabe believes that their version of climate justice includes not just a fair relocation package for residents whose districts are being industrialized, but a dignified, equitable and fair treatment of marginalized communities as stakeholders, where they are asked to be part of the conversation towards sustainable development. She is glad that climate change as a human rights issue has finally entered the national conversation of a country named most vulnerable to impacts in 2013.

But the stories continue. As Cabe likes to remind reporters and non-profits who visit, for them this is not just a one-time advocacy, but entire lives trampled with in the pursuit of power and profit. There are still suspicious strangers knocking on Limay residents' doors claiming to be doing census work. Their neighbors have gotten sick, some with cancer. At any given day, children play with dried leaves crunched underneath the feet of SMC patrol guards with Armalites slung around their bodies to keep observers at bay. Two years after her death, Gloria Capitan's murder remains unresolved.

What unites these stories together with the rest of the world's is that they fuel the desire to seek accountability, such as a case against the Government of India filed by a nine-year-old for their failure to protect her generation, or environmental groups seeking a declaratory judgment against Norway's Ministry of Petroleum and Energy based on the constitutional right to an environment that is conducive to health upon their decision to grant 13 companies Arctic oil exploration licenses.

Climate litigation is a growing trend from Sweden to the Philippines, arming the climate justice movement with proactive legal tools that aim not just for increased environmental stewardship in the Paris Agreement era, but to name and shame once and for all those that systematically put profits over people. For the activists of Limay, having the world's eyes on them might just buy them another day.