A glimpse at the critical state of the Philippine environment

April 27, 2020

by IBON Foundation

While nations attempt to meet the sustainable development goals envisioning an end to poverty, protection of the planet, and peace and prosperity, neoliberalism has spearheaded the unbridled destruction of the environment. This was discussed by IBON in the webinar-launch of its new book State of the Philippine Environment on the 50th Earth Day.

Done at the height of the coronavirus lockdown, IBON research head Rosario Guzman discussed sections of the book with the closest relation to the coronavirus pandemic. Studies show that the coronavirus may have been an animal-to-human transmission of a pathogen and that this finds roots in disrupted ecology. Tackled were deforestation and land-use changes, loss of ecological integrity due to ‘dirty industries’, urbanization and poverty, and climate change risks and vulnerabilities.

Crippled by culprits

The discussion in the book has been quite straightforward, Guzman shared. The environment is in a critical state, degraded hugely by destructive and extractive profit-motivated activities of foreign and local corporations, oligarchs, politicians, officials, and certain individuals. Their operations have been ushered by government policies no less, which are neoliberal, pro-foreign, pro-business, anti-environment, and anti-people.

The current context is that of gross income inequality. To illustrate, the country’s top oligarchs who belong to the richest, narrowest section of Philippine society (Sy, Villar, Gokongwei, Razon, and Ayala families, to cite the top 5 in 2020) have accumulated wealth from environmental destruction. Their businesses include environment-encroaching sectors such as real estate, construction, food and drinks, ports development, manufacturing, power, energy, water, oil, telecommunications, mining, and agribusiness. Their dominance in the economy, on the other hand, leave those at the base – families whose monthly incomes fall under the Php21,000 and below bracket – poor and vulnerable to hunger, disasters, and diseases.

Deforestation and land conversion

Human activities disrupting the ecological balance such as clearing of forests and land-use changes may have led to the emergence of pathogens such as the coronavirus. Logging, mining, corporate plantations, and other extractive activities have eaten at the forest cover of the Philippines, which has diminished to just 7 million hectares as of 2015, or just 23.3% of the country’s land area.  According to environment scientists, this is ecologically unhealthy and critical given the country’s geography and terrain, which should sustain a 54% forest cover.

Land degradation due to soil erosion is moderate in 16.6% and severe in 70.5% of the country’s land area. The Philippines was among the first countries to implement the Green Revolution, which promoted the use of inorganic chemicals and input-dependent crop varieties.

Land conversion for corporate agriculture, cash crops, real estate and infrastructure has added to ecological disruption. For instance, the Duterte administration is allocating one million hectares for oil palm plantations, 98% of which are in Mindanao. It is also pushing for its Build, Build, Build infrastructure projects – case in point are the dam projects nationwide, six of which under loans with China, which threaten to destroy farms, forests and water sources, and displace communities and livelihoods.

Loss of ecological integrity

The loss of ecological integrity has also been due to ‘dirty industries’ being promoted by the government, such as large-scale mining that has always been equated with environmental destruction and the preference for dirty fuel such as coal for energy development.

Large-scale mining entails cheap methods that spell deforestation, slope destabilization, soil erosion, water resource gradation, desertification, crop damages, siltation, alteration of terrain and sea bottom topography, increased water turbidity, and air pollution. Guzman noted how large-scale mining violations cut across environmental, human and sovereign rights.

Then there is the heavy reliance on coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel and a major source of air pollution. Eleven of 49 current committed power plant projects are coal-fired, accounting for 78% of combined rated capacity.

Urbanization and poverty

Because of lack of rural development, people flock to the cities looking for livelihood and jobs. Guzman said that urbanization has become associated more with poverty and diseases instead of development. Especially in Metro Manila, millions are rendered vulnerable under the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ). While being one of the most important anti-COVID-19 measures, physical distancing is difficult to practice in the region where 29% of the families are cramped in spaces that allow only four square meters and below per person, which is below World Health Organization (WHO) standard.

One of four residents in Metro Manila is an informal settler, and 51% of informal settlers live in danger areas. Also, the health advice of frequent hand washing and disinfecting of surroundings is a huge challenge where only a little over half of families have water piped into their dwellings and 24% still source water from protected wells.

Meanwhile, air pollution is Metro Manila’s problem. The region is not only the worst traffic on earth as the navigational app Waze once said and the most congested, it is also among the world’s cities with poorest air quality. The Philippines ranks third among countries with the highest incidence of deaths related to outdoor air pollution, 65% of which is due to mobile sources.

Climate change disasters 

The Philippine contribution to the climate crisis is minute if compared to the accountability of transnational corporations of the industrialized countries. Yet, the country’s greenhouse gas emissions have also increased from 2007 to 2017 due to its continued use of oil and increasing reliance on coal.

The injustice still lies in the fact that the Philippines, despite its minor contribution to GHG, is among most vulnerable to climate disasters. The Philippines is the 5th most affected country by climate disasters from 1998 to 2017, according to the Climate Risk Index 2019.

Anti-environment policy and Philippine vulnerability to climate hazards

The imperiled state of the environment is the direct result of decades of Philippine government legislation that prioritizes foreign investment and trade anchored on environmentally destructive premises. The promotion of real estate development, national land use policy that favors pro-foreign and pro-business infrastructure and agribusiness, and the liberalization and privatization of public utilities and the commons have been the general framework of environmental destruction.

On the other hand, these neoliberal policies have entailed the demolition of slums and the urban poor, bay reclamation and coastal displacement, land and resource grabs, including and the grabbing of ancestral lands of the indigenous people, and displacement of farming communities.

The country has seen private interests taking over Philippine resources, utilizing these for profit-making, and narrowing people’s chances for healthy environment and living.

Ways forward

The Philippine environment is very much devastated, degraded, rendering us helpless and vulnerable to this pandemic. Yet, Guzman said that the Philippines is the center not only of environmental degradation but also of environmental movements, albeit noting that environment defenders in the country are also top harassed, killed, and victimized by human rights violations.

The Philippine environmental movement has contributed much to the discourse of sustainable development. Guzman concluded her discussion by saying, “Perhaps we should put the people’s right to a healthy environment as an overarching principle not just in the Constitution but in all laws. This will always be at odds with neoliberalism, which we can spend a lifetime, even maybe until the next coronavirus, fighting.”

Guzman’s lecture was followed by a panel discussion on water, food and medical waste management in the time of COVID-19. Attended online by over 500 participants from schools, environmental groups and advocates, institutions, academe, journalists, and others nationwide, the webinar-launch was co-organized with the Center for Environmental Concerns (CEC) Philippines , Kalikasan-People’s Network for the Environment (PNE), and Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines (YACAP). It was the last in a three-part series titled “State of the Philippine Environment: Ecological Challenges and Ecological Solutions”, which was also featured in Earth Day Network Philippines and Agroecology X activities.

IBON’s State of the Philippine Environment is a colorfully illustrated reference book with nine chapters.*

* The State of the Philippine Environment’s chapters are: 1 – Forests, 2 – Land, 3 – Marine and Coast Environment, 4 – Freshwater Resources, 5 – Air, 6 – Dirty Industries, 7 – Urbanization, 8 – Climate Change, 9 – Charting Real Solutions. Editors: Sanny Afable and Rosario Guzman. Illustrated by Jennifer Padilla. For copies contact IBON or the IBON Bookshop on Facebook while the lockdown remains in force.