PALAWAN — For 25 years, Filipino lawyer Gerthie Mayo-Anda has tirelessly campaigned for better legal protection of the environment. Often called a forest hero, in the 1990s she established the Environmental Legal Assistance Center (ELAC) to halt environmental destruction through court.
"I thought it was important to establish a public interest environmental law group where my knowledge and skills as a lawyer can be utilized to help the poor and marginalized communities," she says.
Her group has filed dozens of cases against illegal logging, fishing and mining. "For now, the most difficult field is mining and coal because the parties involved are economically and politically powerful," Mayo-Anda says. "They have links to powerful people in the government, and they have the financial capacity to hire lawyers and as a result turned a few communities against us."
In 2011, her friend, anti-mining activist and radio journalist Gerry Ortega, was killed. Many believe he was targeted because of his work against a large mining company in the area.
According to international watchdog Global Witness, 77 environmental activists like him were killed in the country in 2012 and 2013, making the Philippines the most dangerous country in Asia to be an advocate for the environment.
"It's very disturbing," Mayo-Anda says. "It can send a chilling effect to environmentalists. You have a legal framework that seeks to protect human rights, social justice, that seeks to help the poorest of the poor, but then on the ground you see the reality is the opposite."
She works in Palawan, which is often described as the last ecological frontier in the Philippines. It is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve — rich in fish, forests and mineral resources — which makes the province a battleground for fellow environmentalist Cynthia Sumagaysay.
But Sumagaysay says she isn't afraid. "Aren't we supposed to live life fearlessly?" she says. "It is the natural thing for me to live an authentic life, and I'm not scared of death. No. Everybody dies anyway. To live for something I think is the goal of everyone. I'm like a piece of the puzzle, and I'm playing a role in the big scheme of things."
Sumagaysay is currently campaigning against a planned coal-powered plant near the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and has no plans to stop, even in the face of death threats.
"So long as my contribution is needed, so long as I'm making a positive impact on the anti-coal movement, so long as it still threatens Palawan," she says.
With a legal system that remains open to corruption and abuse, environmentalists will continue being killed with impunity and the forests destroyed, Mayo-Anda says.
"You have the laws, but it's not enough to have good laws," she says. "You need to implement those laws. And implementation requires political will. If your local officials are corrupt and government officials are equally corrupt, they can easily be paid off by the people who destroy the environment."