Philippines: surging population, rising troubles

Posted: 24 May 2011

This Commentary, by South East Asia contributing editor Henrylito Tacio, looks at what has happened to the ‘Lost Eden’ of the Philippines - a country where the influential Catholic Church continues to oppose access to modern means of family planning, resulting in high population growth and environmental woes.

Twenty-three years ago the Catholic Bishops Conference, meeting in Tagaytay City, issued a pastoral letter which warned of a coming ecological debacle. They echoed the views of the country’s national hero, Dr Jose Rizal, who talked years before about Nuestro perdido Eden – our lost Eden. Today, his words have proved prophetic.

Denuded forest, Philippines
Bare mountains where the forest has been felled, Philippines. Photo © Henrylito Tacio

Deforestation in the Philippines continues unabated. Some endemic fauna may soon join the dodo into extinction. Coastal ecosystems are gasping for breath. Rivers and lakes are drying up. Land is running out. A water crisis is looming.

“We have to bring all of these to an end,” environmentalists urge. But all this destruction and its consequences can be curbed only if the country stops growing its population, now numbering about 100 million – and projected to reach 140 million by 2050. “No way,” Catholic priests and anti-reproductive health bill activists respond.

“Rapid population growth, unchecked and unequal access to natural resources and their subsequent over-exploitation, uncontrolled logging, waste disposal and mining and the pollution of rivers, lakes and sea are the root causes of the environmental destruction and degradation both in coastal and upland areas,” states a report released by the German Technical Cooperation agency (GTZ), From Ridge to Reef: Sustaining Nature for Life.

The urban areas are not spared from the phenomenon. Take the case of Metro Manila: home to some 10 million people in 1992, it now houses 16 million. “Population growth that is too fast does not leave time to provide public services,” explains Gregory C. Ira, who once worked with the Silang-based International Institute of Rural Reconstruction. “And the stresses from rapid urbanization harm the environment and the people living in it.”

Disappearing forest

When Ferdinand Magellan “rediscovered” the Philippines in 1521, forests blanketed 95 per cent of the country. When the Ormoc City tragedy happened in 1991 -- bringing flash flood water roaring down from the surrounding hills carrying logs and uprooted trees, engulfing much of Ormoc City and killing about 8,000 people – timber cover was only 18 per cent.

A WWF study showed that more than 119,000 hectares of forest cover disappears yearly. At this rate, the remaining forest cover will be gone in 10 years. “Where have all our forests gone?” inquired Roy Alimoane, director of the Davao-based Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center.

Even in the lowlands, the mangroves are not spared. “Approximately two-thirds of the country’s original mangroves have been lost,” reported Kathleen Mogelgaard, of the Washington-based Population Action International (PAI).

“The illness of our forest is complicated – and cannot be cured – with a one-stop prescription of a single medicine,” said former Senator Heherson Alvarez.  Fires, slash-and-burn farmers and commercial loggers (both legal and illegal) – not necessarily in that order – are the main culprits. Environmentalists said the Philippines had “trusted” logging companies to cut down trees and manage the forest.

“But they (loggers) did a very bad job,” said Rev. Peter Walpole, a Jesuit priest who heads an environmental group. “That started the problem that we have now.” In the past, forest resources helped fuel the economy. In fact, in the 1970s, the country was touted the prima donna among world timber exporters. Today, it is considered “a wood-pauper,” to quote the words of veteran journalist Juan Mercado.

Rural poor

Surging population has multiplied the problem. Seventy-five percent of the over 30,000,000 poor live in the rural areas, where most of the forests are located. “Poverty, lack of jobs and wages, and absence of farm lots in the lowlands have forced some people to invade the forest,” Alvarez pointed out.

Spreading cities have also contributed. “Asphalt is often the last harvest for many forests,” the late National Scientist Dioscoro Umali said in one of his thought-provoking speeches.

The outcome: “The productivity of the country’s agricultural lands and fisheries is declining as these areas become increasingly degraded and pushed beyond their capacity to produce,” said PAI's Mogelgaard. “Rapid forest loss has eliminated habitat for unique and threatened plant and animal species,” she added.

More than 400 plant and animal species found in the country are currently threatened with extinction, including the Philippine eagle, tamaraw and waling-waling, according to the World Conservation Union.

Deforestation has also altered the climatic condition in the country. Periods of drought have become more common and extensive in the dry season while floods have prevailed in the rainy months.

Eroding soil

Banaue rice terraces in the Philippines. Photo: Henrylito Tacio
Banaue rice terraces in the Philippines. © Henrylito Tacio

The removal of forest cover has likewise bolstered soil erosion in the uplands. “Soil erosion is an enemy to any nation -- far worse than any outside enemy coming into a country and conquering it because it is an enemy you cannot see vividly,” reminded Rev. Harold Watson, recipient of the 1985 Ramon Magsaysay Award for international understanding. “It’s a slow creeping enemy that soon possesses the land.”

Siltation, caused by erosion, shortens the productive life spans of dams and reservoirs. The Magat reservoir, for instance, has had its probable life span of 100 years cut to 25 years. The Ambuklao Dam reservoir had its life halved from 60 to 32 years as a result of siltation.

The rampant cutting of trees has also significantly reduced the volume of groundwater available for domestic purposes. Cebu, which has zero forest cover, is 99 per cent dependent on groundwater. As a result, more than half of the towns and cities in Cebu, excluding Metro Cebu, have no access to potable water, according to a study conducted in Central Visayas.

“There has been a drop of 30 to 50 per cent in the country’s water resources in the past 20 years or so,” points out Dr. Rafael D. Guerrero, former executive director of the Laguna-based Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Research and Development.

Agriculture is considered one of the most important sectors of the Philippine economy as it contributes 20 percent to the country’s gross domestic product. It also employs almost one-third of the country’s total labour force. As a result of soil erosion, food production is jeopardized.

“The loss of nutrient rich soil reduces crop yields and contributes to the expanded use of chemical fertilizers – a practice that can, in turn, pollute water sources. Rivers and streams also carry eroded soil to the coasts, where it interferes with fish nursery areas,” Alimoane claims.

Coastal pressures

Denuded mangroves, The Philippines. Photo: Henrylito Tacio
Denuded mangroves, The Philippines.
© Henrylito Tacio

Not far from the lands and coastal areas are the coral reefs, touted to be the rainforest of the sea. They are some of the world’s most ecologically-fragile ecosystems. They attract a diverse array of organisms in the ocean. They provide a source of food and shelter for a large variety of species including fish, shellfish, fungi, sponges, sea anemones, sea urchins, turtles and snails.

Rapid population growth and the increasing human pressure on coastal resources have resulted in the massive degradation of the coral reefs. Robert Ginsburg, a specialist on coral reefs working with the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami, said human beings have a lot to do with the rapid destruction of reefs.

“In areas where people are using the reefs or where there is a large population, there are significant declines in coral reefs,” he pointed out.
A single reef can support as many as 3,000 species of marine life. As fishing grounds, they are thought to be 10 to 100 times as productive per unit area as the open sea. In the Philippines, an estimated 10-15 per cent of the total fisheries come from coral reefs. Each year, a Filipino consumes almost 30 kilogrammes of seafood.

Quo vadis, Philippines? “There is sufficiency for man’s needs,” Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi once said, “but not for man’s greed.” Nor, it seems, for ill-judged dogmas and short-term planning.

Editor's note: New family planning legislation is now [June 2011] being considered by the Philippine Congress under the responsible parenthood reproductive health  bill. If passed it could  transform the situation and allow government clinics to provide family planning advice and services for the first time. Despite popular support the influential Catholic Church adamantly  opposes it. See Philippines birth control legislation opposed by church in the Guardian.