Quarantining activism: COVID-19, frontline defenders and intensifying extractivism in the Philippines



How does the intersection of authoritarian populism and a global pandemic reinforce the suppression of human rights, dismantle environmental protections, and accelerate resource extraction? In parts of Southeast Asia, the rise of authoritarian regimes has created conditions of impunity in which state and non-state actors have exploited restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic to restrain activism, contain indigenous livelihoods, and intensify resource exploitation. This article explores how political control and violence against activists (‘defenders') under authoritarian Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte have intersected with and been reinforced throughCOVID-19 health measures to curtail grass-roots efforts to protect social and environmental safeguards. Since March 2020, violence against defenders has gone viral as activism in the country has been quarantined. Under Duterte's authoritarian populist rhetoric, state actors, parastatal and shadowy assassins have allegedly used public health measures to suppress activism further,enabling the harassment, arrests, and deaths of defenders and the intensification of resource extraction. Based on a critical review of news media and conservation policy, I describe the history and current context of defenders being 'quarantined' by authorities using lockdown measures to coercively suppress social and environmental activism across the country. I examine cases from Palawan Island to show how political authorities and elites have used COVID-19 to suppress defender mobility and enforcement practices and how lulls in defending and discourses of 'pandemic recovery' have facilitated mining and deforestation. The conclusion asserts that paying attention to how political conjunctures produce violent governance and local resistance reveals civil society's crucial role and vulnerabilities in protecting human rights and the environment in the Philippines and Southeast Asia.

Keywords: state violence, Philippines, pandemic, environmental activism, defenders

How to Cite: Dressler, W. H. (2021) “Quarantining activism: COVID-19, frontline defenders and intensifying extractivism in the Philippines”, Journal of Political Ecology. 28(1). doi: