From defending the environment to defending human rights

Karapatan spokesperson Reylan Vergara

“We need to keep the fire burning especially now that Duterte has utilized the entire machinery of government against the people.”

By ANNE MARXZE D. UMIL
Bulatlat.com

MANILA – Some years ago, Reylan Vergara’s impression of activists are “crazy people” fighting for a cause that ordinary people like him cannot fathom.

When a threat of his community being wiped out by a mining company came, everything changed.

Once organized, Vergara became a part of an environmental group in Panay. He led protests against the mining company and educated the community on the ill effects of mining. Later, he became the campaign officer and provincial coordinator of Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment.

Now, the 41-year-old Vergara serves as the vice chairperson of human rights alliance Karapatan, fighting for the fundamental rights not only of his community members but of the Filipino people.

The fight against destructive mining

Vergara was 18 years old and was still a student at the Northern Iloilo State College when he became a member of Madia-as Ecological Movement.

As a youth activist, Vergara helped in organizing his fellow youth and led series of activities in their community. “A once disorganized community has become united, this is because of what I learned in the organization,”he said.

One of the successful campaigns they launched resulted in the mining company stopping its exploration.

The Malampaya Mining Company had a mining application in Barotac Viejo in Iloilo, where a mountain, which serves as shield from the open sea, is situated.

Once the mountain is flattened, Vergara said mine tailings would contaminate the community’s source of water and destroy the farms.

Their organization led the protest actions against the mining company.

“Wherever there is an exploration, the residents were there protesting. Be it in the lowland or up the mountains, they did not stop,” Vergara told Bulatlat in an interview. The community also put up a barricade to hinder the entry of mining equipment in the area. Eventually, the mining company was forced to shelve its plan and left the community.

Another successful campaign they had was in 2004 when the local government declared a 50-year moratorium against mining in the province of Capiz. It was in 1999 when Ordinance No. 6 was passed declaring a 15-year moratorium on all large scale mining activities. In 2002, Ordinance No. 001 was passed, extending the moratorium up to 50 years.

Becoming a human rights worker

Reylan Vergara during the 10th year commemoration of Ampatuan massacre in Chino Roces bridge, Manila. (Photo by Carlo Manalansan/Bulatlat)

Vergara became a full time activist in 2004. In 2006, he served as the spokesperson of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) – Panay chapter and later on, he was elected as the secretary general of Karapatan – Panay.

Being in the forefront of human rights work in the region, Vergara experienced harassment and even threats from state agents.

Under the Duterte administration, Vergara experienced serious threats on his life.

He found his name and picture in a poster which brands activists like him as
Kampon ng mga CPP-NPA-NDF,” “Paralegal ng mga terorista.’ (Minions of Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army-National Democratic Front and paralegal of terrorists.)

In January 2018, suspected state agents went in their house, searching for him. The surveillance was so intense even when he had already side-stepped for his safety.

On July this year, two men tiding-in-tandem tailed him to his residence. With the help of Vergara’s neighbors, they accosted the men to the barangay hall and called the police to blotter the incident. It was in the police station that the two were.identified as intelligence agents.

Vergara also received information from a reliable source that there is an “order from the higher ups” to kill him. Vergara was forced to leave his family in Panay and stay here in Manila.

Still, even in the capital, the surveillance never stopped. Vergara was also among those who were charged with perjury by National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. , which was recently dismissed.

Not wavering

Every day, Vergara has to hurdle the difficulty of being away from his wife and their three children. Vergara said he has to stay alive not only for his family but for the Filipino people who need human rights defenders amid the worsening climate of impunity.

Vergara vowed not to waver in his commitment to serve the Filipino people.

“We need to keep the fire burning especially now that Duterte has utilized the entire machinery of government against the people,” he said. ()

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