Battling to save an island paradise in the the Philippines

Palawan, a beautiful tropical island in the Philippines, is turning into a battlefield. The island's natural resources are being plundered by corporations and governments, while locals try and protect the land.

The documentary Delikado follows Bobby, Tata and Nieves, three leaders of a network of environmental crusaders on Palawan, as they risk their lives in David versus Goliath-style struggles trying to stop politicians and businessmen from destroying the Philippines’ “last ecological frontier”.

We speak with Karl Malakunas, director of Delikado, ahead of the documentary's showing at the Doc Edge festival.

When did you first start investigating/hear of the ecological issues in Palawan? 
Throughout my career as a journalist, I have had a special passion for reporting on the environment.

The idea for the film began back in 2011 when I was in touch with Doc Gerry Ortega, an environmental campaigner in Palawan, to do a story on eco-tourism there. At the time I was the Philippines’ Bureau Chief for Agence France-Presse based in Manila.

Delikado director Karl Malakunas. Image: Supplied

However just before I was due to go down, Doc Gerry was shot and killed in Puerto Princesa. So, I went instead to report on his murder and discovered a network of environmental defenders who were risking their lives to save their island from illegal logging, mining and fishing.

When I was in Palawan I was shocked to see the incredible dangers they were facing and was immediately inspired and captivated by their bravery. The beauty of the island made for a compelling contrast and backdrop for a film. I also knew the struggles of the land defenders in Palawan spoke to a global phenomenon. Land defenders are being killed in record numbers. In 2020, 227 were reported killed around the world. An average of four a week have been killed since the 2015 UN climate accord in Paris.

These land defenders are on the frontlines of mankind’s efforts to save the planet from the worst impacts of climate change. I felt the strength and courage of Bobby, Nieves, Tata and other land defenders in Palawan could be a source of inspiration as we search for hope in our fight to restrain climate change. 

What was the process of making the film? 
The filming began when I hiked into the rainforests with Tata, Kap Ruben and a group of other para-enforcers in early 2017.

We slept into the rainforests, and I filmed them confiscating two chainsaws. I had no idea then that the film would evolve into one that would centre around the idyllic tourist town of El Nido or take in President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war. That occurred when Kap Ruben was murdered trying to guard the forests surrounding El Nido.

Land defenders on Palawan risk their lives to keep the island protected. Image: Supplied

At his funeral, I met Nieves Rosento and began to learn about how powerful interests had orchestrated to place her on Duterte’s drug list, and how this was all linked to Bobby Chan’s struggle to protect Palawan’s natural resources. We filmed from early 2017 until the end of 2019, just before the start of the pandemic. 

Communities in Palawan have been struggling for decades to protect their forests, oceans and mountains from plunder. A culture of impunity and fear – the Philippines is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for land defenders and journalists – has meant that the stories of these communities have rarely been told, if ever. As such, the people in Palawan defending their homelands welcomed me and our team. They were desperate for other people to know their fate, and hopeful that this would lead to some support for their struggles. 

What was the most powerful moment or moments for you while filming? 
Filming Kap Ruben’s funeral was the hardest, and as such the most powerful moment, of the process. Kap had spoken to us in the forests, telling us in a quiet voice that he was risking his life so that when his daughter grew up and had children, the big trees would still be there. To see his daughter a few months later wail as she collapsed over his coffin, beg him to come home, and then bury him, was devastating. I also knew that this moment had to be told in the film, to honour his courage, and to show the human impact of the logging industry.

Palawan NGO Network Incorporated headquarters. Image: Supplied

What message do you hope people or wider government organisations will take away from the film? 
Each year a record number of land defenders are being killed. In 2020 227 land defenders were recorded killed around the world. The battles being fought by Bobby, Nieves and Tata are the same as those being fought in Brazil, Colombia, Honduras and elsewhere around the globe. We want to celebrate the courage and strength of Bobby, Tata, Nieves and all the land defenders of Palawan, which will hopefully inspire and drive action in the Philippines and globally. We want to elevate the plight of all land defenders who are risking everything on the frontlines of the battle to restrain climate change and protect our diminishing natural resources.  

Have you returned to Palawan since finishing the film? If not, do you plan to?
I haven’t. This was mostly due to the restrictions on travel due to the pandemic. I will go back to Palawan, and we hope we can show the film there. However, security conditions will determine when and how.

Delikado plays as part of 2022 Doc Edge festival, screening in Auckland (18 June, The Capitol), Christchurch (22 June, Silky Otter), Wellington (3 July, The Embassy) and online from 19 June – 10 July. More info at https://docedge.nz/festival22/film/delikado/