Marilou Verano, a woman environmental defender from Aroroy, Masbate, went for an interview in the radio program Failon Ngayon sa DZMM on September 6, 2017 to talk about the adverse effects of large-scale mining in their small town.
“Meron po silang processing plant na nagbubuga din po ng mga fumes. May mga ginagamit sila na chemicals na carcinogenic, so nakakabahala po talaga ‘yon. Nalalanghap po ng mga tao kaya ang daming may tuberculosis sa amin,” Marilou Verano said against Filminera Resources Corporation, a mining company operating in Masbate.
The Department of Health (DOH) recorded a total of 20,345 cases (2017) and 20,568 cases (2018) of tuberculosis in the Bicol region, where Verano’s hometown of Aroroy, Masbate is located. In 2019, the disease persisted in the region with 1,536 cases in Masbate alone – the third highest in the region after Camarines Sur and Albay.
Verano, once again, participated in a live interview in March 2018 on the program “Isumbong Mo Kay Tulfo”, reiterating the struggles of their community.
Due to her statements in both programs, Filminera filed criminal libel lawsuits against Verano in March and October 2019. Despite being charged with two cases of libel, Verano remained steadfast as a woman environmental defender and community leader.
The birth of a woman environmental defender
Verano, 56, is a single mother with a degree in accountancy. From 1996 to 1999, she worked as an accountant in Brunei, where she would help overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who are victims of abuse and recession seek asylum in the Philippine Embassy. This is her first exposure to human rights issues.
After working overseas, Verano was hired by International Marinelife Alliance (IMA), an international non-profit organization working towards marine conservation. She served as an area coordinator for the Bicol Region.
“Nagte-train kami ng mga teachers kasi naka-incorporate ang preservation and protection of marine resources sa school. Katulong kami sa pag-establish ng marine sanctuary,” Verano said. In Masbate, Verano was able to help establish two marine sanctuaries in coordination with the local government unit.
Since then, Verano became a staunch advocate for human and environmental rights.
Verano also organized a cooperative for women’s livelihood in Aroroy, Masbate – a personal project to help the local community. In 2003, she was granted 14-hectare public land they converted into an integrated farm with a nursery, vegetable gardens, fruit trees, livestock, mini fish ponds, and even housing for cooperative members.
And then, Filminera came to Aroroy, Masbate.
Effects of mining in Masbate
Masbate is an island province rich in natural resources, from mineral deposits to fisheries, but it remains one of the poorest provinces in the country.
According to their website, Filminera Resources Corporation (FRC) is currently the largest operating gold mine in the Philippines situated in Aroroy, Masbate. They started operating in the area in March 2007.
When she started noticing the adverse effects of mining to the environment, Verano sent a Letter of Complaint to the Office of the President and a Petition for a Writ of Kalikasan to the Court of Appeals for violations of environmental and degradation of the environment.
The Mines and Geosciences Bureau dismissed the Letter of Complaint, due to “lack of merit.” The Court of Appeals dismissed the Petition for a Writ of Kalikasan, as well.
During her interview with the two broadcast programs, Verano shared her personal and actual experiences about the effects of mining operations in their community, as prompted by the interview questions.
Two years after the first interview, the mining company filed libel charges against Verano. The first warrant of arrest was served in March 2019.
“Noong sinabi sa akin na criminal case ito, nagulat ako. Ako ‘yung tumutulong sa community, bakit ako kinasuhan ng ganoon? Iniisip mo ‘Makukulong ba ako?’ o ‘Anong mangyayari sa aking sa kulungan?’ Paano ko na matutulungan ‘yung komunidad?” Verano said.
The Alternative Law Groups (ALG), through its then-National Coordinator Atty. Generosa Mislang, assisted and supported Verano in settling bail. Then, Tanggol Kalikasan, Inc., a member organization of ALG, provided legal assistance and strategic litigation on both of Verano’s cases.
Victory for environmental defenders
After almost four years, Verano was acquitted of her two libel charges by the Regional Trial Court Branch 58 and Branch 134 in Makati City – a victory for human and environmental rights defenders. The court concluded that the prosecution’s claims did not satisfy the commission of libel under Article 353 of the Revised Penal Code.
After, and even during, this legal battle, Verano continues to help the local community of Aroroy, Masbate through the implementation of developmental and livelihood projects in different barangays of the town. The community, with Verano at the forefront, is also planning to conduct a medical mission to address the health concerns in the area.
Today, Verano resides in the United Kingdom attending a one and half year fellowship in the University of York’s Centre for Applied Human Rights bringing her advocacy in the international sphere.
This long legal battle did not dissuade Verano from continuing fighting for human and environmental rights, especially now that we’re facing a global climate crisis. Verano calls for putting an end to mining operations in the country and repealing the Philippine Mining Act of 1995.
“Dapat itigil na ang pagmimina dahil buong ecosystem ay masisira. Marami talagang human rights violations ang magaganap dahil [nakataya] ang kabuhayan, pagkain, at kalusugan,” Verano appeals to the government.