The Philippines is a country that, for many Canadians, is largely out of sight and out of mind.
But our countries are closely linked, and the so-called “garbage dispute” is just one aspect of a relationship that, in some ways, stinks.
To recap: A Canadian company shipped 103 containers of trash to the Philippines labelled as plastic for recycling but containing things like used diapers and kitchen waste.
The containers arrived in 2013 and 2014, and despite protests and a Filipino court order, most have languished there ever since (about 24 were disposed of in the Philippines in 2015).
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte threatened recently to “declare war” over the reeking sea cans. This was little more than rhetorical bluster, but the public disgrace prompted Canada to offer “to quickly repatriate the waste back to Canada for disposal.”
BAYAN-Canada, an alliance of progressive Filipino groups, says the dumping of waste was disrespectful to the entire Philippine nation.
“The Philippines is not a landfill for Canada to be dumped with its garbage,” said Rhea Gamana, secretary general of the group, adding that the Philippine government shares responsibility for not catching the problem earlier.
But the situation prompts reflection on bigger issues, including a massive mining disaster that took place in 1996 on the central Philipinne island of Marinduque.
“It is well documented that about 1.6 million cubic metres of toxic mine tailings has choked Boac River, flooded villages and killed marine life,” BAYAN-Canada said in a blog post in reference to the Marcopper mine spill, which reportedly left two rivers “biologically dead.”
Journalist Nikko Dizon of the independent media organization VERA Files reports that Marcopper mine was 40 per cent owned by Vancouver-based Placer Dome at the time of the spill.
The Canadian mining company divested from the mine a year later, and soon closed its Philippine office, Dizon writes. Toronto-based Barrick Gold, an international mining giant, bought Placer Dome in 2006.
The report indicates that complex legal questions remain about responsibility for clean-up almost 25 years after the spill happened.
Canada and the Philippines are connected in other ways, including the products we buy.
I visited the country in July 2013 as part of a delegation of Canadian journalists, human rights activists and union members. We met Philippine labour organizers who spoke about an unwritten “no union, no strike” policy in the Cavite Economic Zone, a sprawling complex of factories in Rosario, a city in Cavite province.
Labour organizer Jojit De Guzman said he worked in a factory that made clothes for brands including Ralph Lauren, “mostly for export,” before he was fired for trying to organize a union. Others unionists were simply assassinated after opposing this unwritten rule, like Gerry Cristobal, who was gunned down in 2008.
Just a few weeks ago, reports emerged that 14 people were killed in remote areas of Negros Island during police operations. Human rights activists have called it a massacre of peasant farmers, while police have said it was a case of leftist rebels who resisted arrest. This comes amid a massive wave of extrajudicial killings overseen by Duterte.
To the extent that we consume clothing and other products that are made under these conditions – our imports from the Philippines were worth more than $1.3 billion in 2016 – we are all implicated in these events.
These conditions, in turn, push people to countries like Canada in search of a better life.
Let’s welcome them and fight for human rights in the Philippines. I urge readers to learn more about this country, especially its long history of Spanish and U.S. colonialism, and support groups defending the rights of Filipinos around the world.