ON March 22, 2014, four small-scale gold miners in Sitio Campo, Barangay Gata, Caramoan, Camarines Sur, were found lying in a pool of their own blood, apparently, victims of a massacre. Their murder is forever etched as a nightmare in the memory of this village that is blessed with deposits of gold in a town otherwise marketed as a paradise for its white beaches.
Julio Labiano, Rene Labiano, Salem Virtus, Jesse Brondia. These were the names of those who, according to the findings of the special panel formed by the Department of Justice (DOJ) released on June 3, 2015, died in the hands of members of the environmental watchdog of the Province of Camarines Sur, the Sagip Kalikasan Task Force (SKTF).
As indicated in the findings of the DOJ, it is established that the four victims, like all the many others from the village, were engaged in small-scale mining, which unfortunately while considered to have been done traditionally since the 1940s as one of the main sources of livelihood for the village, the other being fishing, has been found to have been done without a proper permit.
The SKTF was formed and armed by the provincial government of Camarines Sur purportedly to help enforce environmental laws in the province. As allegations indicate, the task force was accused of abusive behavior by the local people, and it was established in the DOJ report that there was brewing animosity between the local miners and the members of the SKTF.
Mercy Sueno, who was the barangay captain of Gata, alleged that there were antecedent cases of harassment by the SKTF of the local people, one of which was when the SKTF detained around 30 local miners for allegedly mining without a permit. After this incident, Sueno endeavored to obtain such a permit from the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). According to Sueno’s narration, this was not enough for the SKTF, even as she challenged their authority considering that their field functions were allegedly confined only to manning checkpoints along the highways, and not in on-site apprehensions.
It is clear, however, that the DOJ has found probable cause for charging some members of the SKTF with multiple murder. The suspects are already in jail but the case is far from being resolved, even as the provincial government of Camarines Sur remains on the side of the SKTF, doubting the guilt of its members.
This case, which has been billed as the Gata 4 massacre, clearly illustrates the criminalization of traditional livelihoods of communities in a regime of modern environmental laws. But what makes this even more tragic is that it happened allegedly in the hands of those who are armed to protect the environment. Under the rule of law, illegal miners and forest occupants are supposed to be apprehended, and not massacred.
The plight of the Gata 4 is a continuing struggle of the families of those who were murdered to seek justice. It is this struggle that the movie “Oro,” an entry in the 2016 Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF), endeavored to bring to the consciousness of the movie-going public.
“Oro” is fictionalized. It took artistic liberties to change the names and narratives of characters. But it remained a riveting and compelling artistic reenactment of the deaths that visited this rural village that very few Filipinos know about. The entire movie was filmed on the same location. The four characters representing the victims were murdered in the movie in exactly the same spot where the real victims were gunned down. There was an attempt to make the representation as real as possible.
The ensemble acting was superb, earning for Irma Adlawan, who played the role of the barangay captain, the award for Best Performance of an Actress in a Lead Role.
And then a fatal mistake happened.
In the desire to make the representation as realistic as possible, a law was violated. A dog was actually killed and butchered in one scene.
And in that simple act of realism, the whole struggle of a community left behind by those men who died in the hands of agents of the local government, a perfect example of an extra-judicial killing (EJK), was overshadowed by the death of a dog.
We remain a country of laws. There are laws that govern the welfare of animals. The act by the filmmakers, if proven, can bring for them a penalty that includes both a fine and a prison term. Already, an award earned by the film was withdrawn, even as Ms Adlawan’s trophy was spared, for indeed it would have been unjust to penalize her superb acting just because her director and producer transgressed the law.
But the film remains a compelling work of art reminding us not to forget the Gata 4. It will be hard for us to justify if justice will be served sooner on those who murdered the dog than those who murdered those men.