From the infinity pool of an exclusive new beach resort in El Nido, a slither of paradise on the island of Palawan at the western edge of the Philippines, tourists can sip cocktails and gaze down at the white sandy beach and turquoise waters below.
At £300 per night, the Maremegmeg Beach Club is a prime example of the high-end, boutique hotels that are rapidly cropping up on Palawan, an island often described as the Philippines’ “last environmental frontier”.
But according to a new investigation by NGO Global Witness, Maremegmeg is also an example of the darker side of the Philippines’ luxury tourism boom; one that does not feature in any of the glowing reviews on Booking.com or TripAdvisor.
In September 2017, local environmental activist Ruben Arzaga was shot dead while trying to confiscate illegally harvested timber on Palawan. Police detained two suspects known to be illegal loggers on suspicion of murder.
According to a group of Palawan-based NGOs, Arzaga is one of 12 local environmentalists to have been murdered since 2004 for trying to protect the island’s forests against illegal logging, much of it to build luxury hotels aimed at wealthy tourists jetting in from Europe, the US and beyond.
In one particularly brutal incident recounted in the Global Witness report an environmental activist was allegedly tortured and had his penis cut off before his body was buried on the beach.
Maremegmeg, which opened in 2018, is owned by a company belonging to a prominent local figure.
Proving culpability for individual attacks remains difficult, especially when police may be unwilling to investigate powerful figures and groups. But the report reveals a disturbing pattern of violence against Filipino citizens standing up against businesses in defence of the environment.
In July, Global Witness named the Philippines the most deadly country in the world for defenders of the environment with 34 confirmed killings in 2018.
The violence is not confined to the seemingly tranquil beaches of El Nido.
Orchards growing bananas and pineapples destined for western markets have uprooted indigenous people and rural communities from their land in the name of economic development.
On 3 February 2017, on the island of Mindanao, Renato Anglao was driving home on a motorbike with his wife and five-year-old son. Three unidentified gunmen drew up beside him and shot him in the head, a police report shows. He was pronounced dead when he arrived at hospital.
Like Argaza, Anglao was a prominent member of a group seeking to defend the environment. He was secretary general of the Tribal Indigenous Oppressed Group Association (Tindoga), a group that campaigned against the large-scale illegal conversion of land belonging to indigenous groups for banana, pineapple and sugarcane to supply companies like Del Monte Philippines.
Del Monte Philippines grows fruit in the area to sell globally, including to the US market. It had contracted a local businessman and mayor, Pablo Lorenzo III, to cultivate pineapples.
Lorenzo had been accused of violence against activists over a number of years in numerous news reports, but has never been convicted of any crimes. Despite the accusations, Del Monte Philippines continued to deal with him.
The Independent has been unable to contact Lorenzo, and Del Monte Philippines did not respond to requests for comment. But the company is cited in the Global Witness report as saying that it “did not know about” Renato Anglao’s murder, which was widely reported locally.
Del Monte Philippines said it “had no factual or legal basis to terminate our growership agreement”.
The investigation cites numerous examples across a variety of sectors in which business interests have been linked to murders of activists who stand in their way.
Powerful businesses, corrupt officials and paramilitary groups across the Philippines have in some cases used the cover of President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs to murder those that stand in the way of their way by falsely casting them as drug dealers, the report claims.
“President Duterte has promised to tackle the abuse of indigenous peoples by big business and powerful landowners, but has so far done little to live up to that promise,” the report states.
It calls on companies to carry out enhanced due diligence in the country to avoid inadvertently becoming complicit in violence.
“Consumers too can play a part – by demanding that the fruit they buy or the hotel they stay in isn’t associated with conflict and bloodshed, and by demanding that their government take a stand and support activists in defending their land and our environment without fearing for their lives.”