By Ellalyn De Vera-Ruiz
They have lost a family legacy and cultural tradition, or missed the opportunity to obtain proper education and improve their quality of life.
But at some point, they felt they lost their pride, dream, and hope.
The poor and marginalized, such as fisherfolk, farmers, indigenous peoples (IPs), and survivors of destructive cyclones are now seeking justice, claiming that their lives have been affected adversely by the devastating effects of climate change.
“We used to be able to go to the mountains whenever food is unavailable in the city,” said Rica Cahilig, an IP youth leader, as she explained the culture of “pagdadanso,” a cultural tradition of indigenous Aeta tribes, including the Aeta Ambalas in Bataan where she is a member.
“The forest is our home, our food supplier, our pharmacy,” she said.
Cahilig said they would go to the mountains for one to two weeks, bringing with them only rice grains and salt, as they could easily get the rest of their food and sustenance directly from nature.
“But we cannot do that now,” she averred.
“Because of extreme heat, the natural spring which is our source of water has dried up. Secondly, the change in climate has affected our livelihood, as my father is a farmer. If there is no water, what will happen to our plants? He would also work in a shorter period of time because of extreme heat,” she said.
“If not for the changing climate that has affected our livelihood, I would not have been working now just so I could go to school,” the 20-year-old student added.
Considered to be a “world’s first,” the Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights (CHR) started to hear the petition, asking to probe the possible responsibility of “carbon majors,” composed of 47 fossil fuel and cement transnational companies, for their alleged role in climate change and its destructive effects on the lives of Filipinos.
The petition, which was filed on September 22, 2015, was led by 14 organizations, including Greenpeace Southeast Asia, Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement, church leaders, human rights and environment advocates, consumer groups, and people’s organizations. The petitioners also include 18 individuals, including farmers, fisherfolk, and IPs.
Almost three years after the petition was filed, youth, farmers, fisherfolk, legal experts and scientists were among those who testified in the public inquiry on March 27-28 this year against 47 investor-owned carbon and cement producers, among them Shell, BHP Billiton, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Repsol, and Total. Some of the respondents have a presence in the Philippines.
“The continuous extraction and production of carbon by these companies make them the biggest contributors of carbon into the atmosphere that cause climate change,” Zelda Soriano, lead legal counsel of the petitioners, said. “These companies are so big and powerful and yet the commission and petitioners were courageous enough to take them on.”
“The Philippines was named as one of the most vulnerable countries to the impacts of climate change. That makes the country in the best position to cry about climate change and the continuous contributions of these companies to the climate crisis,” Soriano added.
This crisis, she noted, has significantly affected Filipinos’ enjoyment of their right to life, food, clean water, shelter, education, livelihood, collective development and self-determination.
Cahilig was among those who opened the first day of the public hearings to share how climate change has hit her family, education, and even their tradition.
Meanwhile, the respondent-companies sent their representatives as observers of the proceedings but not as formal participants.
“Some have answered, some have ignored our summonses,” CHR said.
“In many aspects, this (hearing) is a world’s first. One, because a case was filed before a national human rights institution. It became a first again when that small national human rights institution accepted the case. It is also a first as it actually prospered into an investigation,” Soriano said.
She noted that a few years ago, a similar case was filed before the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) by the Inuit tribe in Northern America against about 20 fossil fuel companies.
They filed the case for almost the same reason, she added.
“The case, at that time, was not accepted but the UNHRC conducted a study on its own without hearing the very first petition. That resulted to a report establishing the link between human rights and climate change. But the point is, none of this kind in the Philippines has ever reached the point that it has reached now. Before, it has not even started. This one is the first investigation and the whole world is watching,” Soriano said.
The CHR-led inquiry was also “novel and unique,” she said, as “no other case has demanded human rights accountability” from major greenhouse gas contributors.
Another tobacco case?
Soriano cited that the national inquiry on human rights and climate change in the Philippines “could be another tobacco case in the making.” It is like the landmark tobacco cases, where people have won against the giant cigarette companies, and paved the way for government warnings on cigarette packets emphasizing that smoking kills, she added.
“Cigarette companies lied not knowing that cigarette smoking is dangerous to ones health. Same here. Fossil fuel companies knew since the 1980s that their operations were harming the climate and causing the climate crisis and we have evidence to prove that. Yet they continued. And worse, they lied not knowing about that. They fooled the people so not to believe to this climate crisis and its connection to their fossil fuel production,” she said.
“We want them (respondent-companies) to present and convince the petitioners that their investment plans, policies, measures and projects as companies will lead to a just transition to cleaner renewable energy,” Soriano said.
“From fossil fuel, we would like to see a just transition to clean and renewable energy. Part of it is we want them to commit to disclosing their carbon emissions and other information that the public need to know so that they will be cautious and can take measures to address harms past, present and future that may be caused by fossil fuel production,” she added.
“More than the damage, material and financial commitment, the source of the problem should be addressed. The root cause of the problem is their continuous carbon production and extraction. Even if we demand compensation from the companies, it will only be easy for them to do that because it is just a negligible amount from their profits. The root cause of the problem is the core business of these companies and that should be addressed,” she also said.
Soriano also pointed out the possibility of “just” transition that considers the workers, their families, and those who will probably lose jobs. “It is not an abrupt move, but it is a process where the stakeholders should also be consulted and engaged in the transition.”
More hearings scheduled in PH, US, Europe
CHR will conduct a series of fact-finding missions this year in the Philippines, New York and London to determine the alleged liability of transnational companies on carbon emissions causing climate change and displaced the poor and marginalized sectors.
The petitioners are hoping that the Commission will conclude its investigation by the end of 2018.
“We are expecting CHR to be impartial, independent, and truly exercise their powers and functions for the protection of our human rights. We are expecting them to do their job, to do their mandate, and an additional expectation — for them to be courageous. This is not traditional, as I said this is unique, it has no precedent, this really mean more work for them, more research to do, more interviews and investigation to conduct. It will require time, resources and enormous capacity from them,” Soriano said.
While CHR has no judicial powers, CHR chair Jose Luis Martin Gascon said during the first day of public inquiry that the Commission is committed “to investigate and monitor matters covering the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of persons.
He added that CHR will bring its focus “to those who often are not able to protect themselves or assert their rights, such as those who belong to the vulnerable and marginalized sectors of our society.”
“We may be able to look at the facts and circumstances of events or series of events and after due consideration and deliberation make a determination utilizing all the relevant expertise at our disposal whether there has occurred a human rights violation and to consider who the perpetrator might be,” Gascon said.
CHR expressed hope that it will be able to conduct the public inquiry in not more than a year and to come out with a report in due course.
In a separate event, CHR has already committed that they will issue a resolution by first quarter of 2019.
More meaningful Earth day celebration
“This hearing is a milestone, success and an excellent reason to celebrate Earth Day this year. The mere holding of the very first public hearing last March was already a big success. It means we prevailed over the challenge of the companies asking to dismiss the petition in the very first place. The very fact that a public hearing was held, regardless of the outcome is itself a victory of the people and environmental human rights. It is a very good reason to celebrate Earth Day this year, and the years to come,” Gascon said.