BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Like the candle left flickering…

‘Nowadays, when it rains here, the waters rise fast and it becomes flooded,’ the driver tells me as we speed through the national road between the cities of Puerto Princesa and Aborlan in the province of Palawan in the central Philippines. 

This, says Patricia Ortega, widow of a Filipino journalist and a staunch anti-mining advocate, is largely because of the extensive mining operations that had been ongoing in the province for decades now. 
‘That is why Gerry was opposed to mining, especially new mining deals,’ Patricia tells me.
Palawan, the Philippines. Photo by Roberto Verzo under a CC licence.
It is a scorching summer afternoon and we are driving to the burial ground of her late husband, Dr Gerry Ortega, a journalist and staunch anti-mining advocate in the province. 
In broad daylight, in the morning of 24 January, a hired gunman put a bullet on Gerry’s nape and walked away. Gerry was busy checking out bargains in a second-hand shop not far from the pet store that he owns. He came from a nearby radio station where he has a morning programme. For hours, the gunman had been waiting for Gerry under the shade of a tree on the other side of the road.
Patricia and the rest of Gerry’s family and friends believe that his staunch opposition to mining activities in the province and corruption in the local government caused him his life. Up to the time of his death, Gerry’s voice boomed on the city’s airwaves, criticizing mining operators and the politicians who take bribes from them. 
His death shocked the people of Palawan and sowed fear among local journalists critical of corrupt politicians. But for Patricia, who vowed to continue the advocacies that her husband died for, says she will not be cowed.  She lights a candle on Gerry’s grave and tells us it is time to leave.
After our visit to the cemetery, Patricia and her children attend an exhibit opening of artists who believe in protecting the environment. Through painting and poetry, the artists pay tribute to Gerry and his anti-mining crusade. ‘No to mining in Palawan,’ reads a petition being circulated by the artists. They are gathering 10 million signatures. 
‘Have you put your signature?’ Patricia asks me. 
I read and I sign. 
‘We ask the Philippine and Palawan governments to say no to mining in Palawan so we can protect one of our last remaining treasures,’ the petition reads. 
The petition also said that an existing law states that in the province, all types of natural forest, areas above 1,000 meters elevation, peaks of mountains or other areas with very steep gradients, endangered habitats of rare species should be fully and strictly protected and maintained, free of human disruption.
‘Yet mining has been taking place in Palawan. Both the granting of mining permits and new applications are increasing even in identified core protection zones. Old-growth forests are being cut down, water sources are being polluted, ancestral lands are being taken over and communities’ wishes are being ignored,’ says the petition.
With the signatures, the anti-mining advocates hope that their campaign would be able to save the forests of the province. 
It is already dark. Patricia bades the people goodbye. She has another meeting, she says.  It’s been a busy time since Gerry’s death. A room in her house, in fact, had been turned into a ‘war room’ where she meets with lawyers and concerned individuals who help her in the case. 
Indeed, like the candle that Patricia left flickering on Gerry’s crypt, Gerry’s fight is definitely not over. (The New Internationalist)