Murder of Filipina activist symptom of attempt to quash rising tide of anti-coal activism

Gloria Capitan

Gloria Capitan

Bob Burton

Gloria Capitan’s house sat nestled in the small town of Lucanin just over a hundred or so metres away from the uncovered stockpiles of coal and other materials at the small-scale port owned by Limay Bulk and Terminal Handling Corporation.

From the bowels of the barges great cranes disgorge coal onto the dock to be pushed into great mounds by earthmovers and stored until trucks come to cart them away.

Capitan was one of the few thousand residents of Lucanin. As President of Samahan ng Nagkakaisang Mamamaya ng Lucanin” (SNML – United Citizenry of Lucanin), Capitan campaigned against the air and water pollution associated with the operation of the port. SNML is one of many groups in Coal-Free Bataan Movement, a broad-based alliance campaigning against the operation of coal stockpile and expansion of coal plants in the province and promoting renewable energy.

Capitan and her group took up a petition to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) and to the Local government units of Mariveles advocating the open coal storage and stockpile be closed. Residents of Lucanin complained of dust plumes from the port polluting the air, and leading to skin allergies, upper respiratory infections and destruction of the coastlines and seabed. (A dust plume is visible in this photo of the port’s operation.)

Capitan’s group had also filed a case with the Ombudsman against the local government regarding the port issue. The case is still active.

Derek Cabe, the Coordinator of the Coal-Free Bataan Movement described Capitan as “a warm and kind-hearted woman to every colleague in the anti-coal movement. Her positive character and perseverance has brought hope in the struggle of the people of Bataan against the huge enemy that is coal.”

Capitan was also involved in the campaign against the operation of the existing 600 megawatt GN Power Mariveles Power Project about 10 kilometres to the south-west of Lucanin. The plant – which is owned by a consortium comprising the US-headquartered Sithe Global and the Philippines companies Ayala Corporation and GNPower – is pushing ahead with a proposed 1200 MW expansion.

In Bataan province there are already two other coal plants in operation, one of which is adding a further 300 MW unit and another proposed 600 MW plant. There are also two other uncovered coal storage sites in the town of Mariveles.

On its website Sithe Global approvingly states the Luzon power market is “one of the most attractive in Asia” with an “investor-friendly” regulatory environment and the “ongoing privatization of state-owned portfolio of generation and transmission assets.”

Over the last year Capitan’s advocacy led at first, according to Cabe, to attempted bribes and when these were rejected there were more menacing threats.

On July 1 two unidentified men shot and killed Capitan in her home before escaping on a motorbike.

The Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Gina Lopez, condemned the murder of Mariveles Capitan and called on the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to “leave no stone unturned” in the hunt for the two killers. The investigation, she said, “should lead to the arrest of the mastermind” as well as the two men who killed Capitan.

Following her burial last Sunday a protest march of 500 supporters called for justice for Capitan’s family.

To date police have made no arrests so the exact motivation remains unknown. However, family and friends are adamant the easy-going Capitan had no known enemies and point to her activism on pollution from the stockpile at the port and involvement in the anti-coal movement as the most likely explanation.

The big picture

In late June, to the alarm of the mining industry and coal-power producers, the newly-elected President Rodrigo Duterte announced the appointment of outspoken anti-coal and environmental activist Gina Lopez as secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). DENR has a central role in the regulation of existing and proposed coal plants.

Lopez’s appointment followed the Climate Change Commission (CCC), a government agency, unveiling a six-month review of the government’s energy policy with a view to “reshape the country’s power development plans and replace coal with renewable sources of energy.”

With over 7000 megawatts (MW) of coal plants announced or permitted and another 4000 MW-plus under construction, the combination of the CCC review and Lopez’s appointment suggested a dramatic change in Philippines energy policy may be in the offing.

The mining industry and the supporters of coal power were in a panic. “Crash in Ph Mining stocks this morning. There go the coal plants too. Can’t look,” Tweeted Manny V. Pangilinan, the CEO of the pro-coal utility Meralco on hearing of Lopez’s appointment.

In a recent interview Lopez pulled no punches. “Why allow more coal plants? Why commit to a form of energy that has no future? I’m not keen on it. I’d have to be very convinced,” she said.

For most people, a gentle 57-year self-employed grandmother posed no threat. Yet she was deliberately gunned down and the only plausible explanation is her opposition to coal.

The Coal-Free Bataan Movement and human rights groups have called on President Duterte and other authorities to ensure a thorough investigation of Capitan’s murder and ensure the protection of other SNML members and all human rights defenders in the Philippines.

Bob Burton is the Hobart-based Editor of CoalWire, a weekly bulletin on global coal industry developments. (You can sign up for it here.) His Twitter feed is here.

The Nuclear-Free Bataan Movement (NFBM), the secretariat for Coal-Free Bataan Movement, has launched an appeal to support Capitan’s family.