Philippines: Earth Day Martyr and Price on Environmental Lawyer's Head

By John E. Bonine

CEBU, Philippines, April 20, 2006 (ENS) - As Earth Day dawned around the world, word came that one environmental advocate in the Philippines was gunned down last week and another is living under threat to his life. A leading Philippines newspaper today called the murdered man an “Earth Day martyr.”

Elpidio de la Victoria was shot in the back and killed on April 13 in Cebu, Philippines, as he returned to his house from buying food for the Easter holiday celebration. He collapsed into the arms of his 22-year old son, who rushed him to the hospital. He died the next day, although word did not get out to a wider world until this week.

Commercial fishing interests are rumored to have collected a fund of one million pesos (nearly $20,000) to kill de la Victoria and his colleague, world-renowned environmental lawyer Antonio Oposa, Philippines news outlets have reported. Both de la Victoria and Oposa received numerous threats in recent days.

In response to the events, 170 environmental law professors from 20 countries around the world have rallied to Oposa's defense with a petition that they have sent today to the President of the Philippines, Gloria Arroyo. They are demanding protection for Oposa and also for the endangered fish and corals that the Filipinos have been fighting to save.

de la Victoria, Oposa

(From left) Elpidio de la Victoria and Tony Oposa stand on the dock in front of their Sea Guardians boat. (Photo courtesy Tony Oposa)
De la Victoria and Oposa have been leaders in a campaign to persuade governmental bodies to close the Visayan Sea Marine Triangle to commercial and destructive forms of fishing.

Various local government executives have signed a petition addressed to the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources to close the Triangle. Studies have shown the Triangle is considered to be the most biologically diverse marine area in the world.

The outpouring of support for Oposa, who holds a Master in Laws from Harvard Law School, stems in part from his fame for a court case that he brought on behalf of his children and others to stop logging of remaining forests in the Philippines.

The Philippine Supreme Court ruled that they could sue on behalf of future generations to protect the environment. The case has become a standard in textbooks for training law students around the world.

In recent years, Oposa turned his attention to protecting the fish and corals of the Visayan Triangle, heart of the Sula-Sulawesi Marine Triangle. His campaign seeks to protect small-time fishermen from overfishing by large-scale commercial fleets, while also prohibiting dynamite blasting and other destructive means for taking fish.

Worldwide environmental networks have been ablaze for three days with discussion of what is unfolding in Cebu. The International Network for Environmental Compliance and Enforcement, the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (E-LAW), Environmental Defenders Law Center, the IUCN Commission on Environmental Law, and various other international networks on ocean and environmental issues have been sending expressions of concern to government officials in the United States, Philippines, and elsewhere.

Visayan islands

The Visayan is a shallow sea surrounded by islands. (Photo courtesy Jacksonville U.)
In recent years, Oposa and de la Victoria traveled to coastal cities throughout the marine triangle to persuade local officials to adopt limitations on fishing in nearby waters. Oposa has also traveled the world to draw attention to the Visaya area and to lobby for its protection.

His most recent trip took him to the University of Oregon in the United States, where he enthralled a thousand participants at the annual, worldwide Public Interest Environmental Law Conference, organized every March by the oldest environmental law student group in the world, Land Air Water.

As a result, Land Air Water has become the central Internet source on the threats to Oposa and the assassination of de la Victoria, at http://www.pielc.org/OposaIndex.htm. Information is available in English, Chinese, Spanish, Indonesian, Portugese, and Russian.

De la Victoria was Cebu City’s market administrator and Bantay Dagat commissioner, and was also the president of the National Association of Fish Wardens.

His funeral will be at St. Joseph’s Church in Talisay City, Cebu, at 1:00 pm on Sunday, April 23. Thousands are expected to attend, including hundreds of volunteer Sea Guardians whom de la Victoria and Oposa have trained to protect the Visaya Sea resources.

Online Resources:

Land Air Water student run website: http://www.pielc.org/OposaIndex.htm

The law professors' petition may be found at: http://www.pielc.org/oposa/OposaStmt_LawProfs.pdf

Additional information is at: www.elaw.org.

A summary in the Philippine Daily Inquirer today is at: http://news.inq7.net/opinion/index.php?index=2&story_id=73100&col=82

{John E. Bonine is a professor of law at the University of Oregon School of Law.}