Mindanawon activist wins global Alexander Soros Award

Rene Pamplona, the winner of the 2018 Alexander Soros Foundation Award for Environmental and Human Rights Activism, at a mining community in South Cotabato. MindaNews file photo by BONG S. SARMIENTO

KORONADAL CITY (MindaNews/ 21 December) – A Mindanaoan activist bagged the 2018 Alexander Soros Foundation Award for Environmental and Human Rights Activism for standing with the lumads or indigenous peoples in their fight against “development aggression”.

South Cotabato native Rene Pamplona assured the award from the New York-based foundation would inspire him to do more for the sake of the environment and human rights protection.

“Winning the Alex Soros Prize is not just a recognition of my activism, it is a recognition of the work of all defenders,” he said in a statement.

Soros is the son of Hungarian-American investor and philanthropist George Soros, a leading global advocate of liberal democracy.

The 49-year-old Pamplona is currently the advocacy officer of the Convergence of Initiatives for Environmental Justice Inc., which he organized after his 15-year stint at the Social Action Center of the Diocese of Marbel.

In a Twitter post, Soros said that Pamplona, a father of seven children, was chosen as this year’s winner “because of his tireless effort to seek justice for indigenous communities.”

Pamplona was notified of the award on Wednesday.

Last year’s awardee was Antônia Melo Da Silva, a longtime Brazilian environmental activist.

In the last three decades, Pamplona was at the forefront of opposition against the Tampakan project, the largest undeveloped copper and gold minefield in Southeast Asia, and the coal mining project in Lake Sebu town, both in South Cotabato province, and the coal plant in Sarangani province.

These mining projects, which have yet to proceed to commercial production, straddle indigenous peoples’ communities.

Pamplona confirmed he received death threats and experienced intimidation because of his work to protect the environment and the human rights of indigenous peoples.

The Philippines is the most dangerous country in Asia for land and environmental defenders, with at least 48 activists killed in 2017, data from Global Witness said.

Sister Susan Bolanio, a member of the Oblates of Notre Dame and executive director of the non-profit Hesed Foundation, Inc. based in nearby General Santos City, lauded the recognition given to Pamplona.

“I have worked with Rene for many years. He is deserving of the award,” said Bolanio, who was previously Pamplona’s superior at the Social Action Center of the Diocese of Marbel.

He has been consistent in his advocacy against the Tampakan copper-gold project and the coal mining project in South Cotabato, the nun added.

Among the communities where Bolanio and Pamplona worked together was in the village of Ned, Lake Sebu town, South Cotabato, where at least seven tribal members opposing the coal mining project and coffee plantation expansion were killed during a military operation in December 2017.

The victims belong to the T’boli-Manubo S’daf Claimants Organization (Tamasco). The military claimed they were members or supporters of the communist New People’s Army killed during a legitimate military operation.

“They (victims) rely on this land for their livelihoods and traditions and I will not just stand by while indigenous communities are brutally cut down for defending their way of life,” Pamplona said.

According to him, the international support that the Alex Soros Prize represents is vital in ensuring businesses and governments are held to account for cases like the Tamasco “massacre.”

Alyansa Tigil Mina, a coalition of organizations and groups challenging the aggressive promotion of large-scale mining in the Philippines, also welcomed the Soros Foundation Award for Pamplona.

Pamplona has worked tirelessly for more than three decades with the Church and national environmental organizations to assist communities in protecting their food, land, water and biodiversity resources, it noted.

“We laud this dedication and passion to his mission,” the group said in a statement.

ATM said the award will increase Pamplona’s security risks, as he has suffered and continues to face numerous threats and harassment while performing his work.

We demand that the Philippine government ensure that the safety and well-being of Pamplona and all his co-workers as well as community partners are ensured, the group said. (Bong S. Sarmiento/MindaNews)