Thursday, November 26, 2009

Collapsing Philippines

This is a response to Professor Flor Lacanilao's letter to the Inquirer which should come out this week.

The Philippines is actually in the initial stages of collapse. A society that isn't able to feed itself is unlikely to adapt to rapid environmental change and will face political unrest followed by social breakdown. We are a "victim" of our own physical geography which is disaster prone since our high islands have narrow coastal plains and rivers tend not to lose much of their energy as they near the sea. The islands once forested were able to hold the water and regulate the flow. Now this has broken down. This is the same story for Rapa Nui which Jared Diamond uses as a textbook example.

That the country was not really able to feed itself is evident from demographic responses to pestilential events in the colonial period. We have to recall that Miguel Lopez de Legazpi gave up on Cebu and Iloilo as suitable for the colonial enterprise since these islands have little water resources. It was only when Legazpi heard about Sulayman's Maynilad (which was really a trading city) did the conquistadors rethink their options. The Philippines as composed of disaster prone island ecosystems were really on the edge. The sociological study of pestilence by Luis Camara Dery documents these environmental events and consequential pestilence, the root of many revolts and unrest.

Demographers estimate that during the start of Spanish colonialism there were 6 M Filipinos. Right after the Americans consolidated their rule, the Philippine population was 9-10 M. In three hundred years the net population growth was just about 3 M! The disasters effectively kept the population low and this was guaranteed by colonial policy. The environmental roots of the Philippine revolution is metaphorically described as a failure in the production of ilang ilang flowers. A series of droughts in the 1880s caused major agrarian unrest. Rizal's Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo describes the events even if in fiction.

It is clear from ecological historical evidence that the Philippines can support at most 30 M people without damaging its environment's capacity to support the population. The 30 M mark was reached during the American colonial period. Rapid environmental deterioration can be said to have started during the Commonwealth period. The Japanese occupation made things worse. Colonialism made environmental deterioration worse since colonial policy is always to extract resources from the colony.

Since then it has been bad. The OFW phenomenon can be viewed as a environmental crash safety valve, as Larry Heaney said in a lecture at the US Embassy. The export of human labour is a symptom of environmental unsustainability and if viewed in political terms is another expression of colonialism. I agree with Prof Lacanilao our adaptation to environment change should come from local resourcefulness and not foreign aid, which in itself is symptomatic of non sustainability. We have to manage population growth or risk society's collapse.

Ben Vallejo

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