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What Shape Is The Philippine Environment In?
by Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan

 In the 1980’s, a study made by teams of marine experts, revealed that 60% of Philippine reefs were unhealthy, with a fish biomass estimated at less than 15 tons per square kilometer.  About 15% were relatively healthy, with a fish biomass between 15 to 30 tons per square kilometer.  Barely 5% was in excellent shape.  That was close to 15 years ago.  With dynamite, cyanide and other forms of illegal fishing still being reported throughout the country, can the national coral reef situation be better today?

 The World Fish Center revealed in 2001, that 90% of the fish stock that existed just after the Pacific War, has been consumed.  A year ago, we had barely 10% of our fish stocks left in our oceans and coasts.  With radar, sonar, GPS, the use of fine-meshed nets and progressive fishing gear, commercial fishing fleets have become more efficient.  A rapid assessment of fisheries targetting primary predators such as sharks and marine mammals revealed that these animals that play a profound role in the maintenance of our oceanic food chains are being hunted throughout the Philippines. This major disruption in the ocean’s ability to restore itself is only making the situation worse.  Population pressures and our drastically reduced fish stocks have led to this.  Can there be less of a threat today? 50% of Filipinos depend on seafood as a primary source of protein. More than 50% of all Philippine municipalities are located along the coastline.

 In 1999, a study made by the Environmental Science for Social Change revealed that in barely 95 years, we have logged 95% of the forests that stood at the turn of the century.  As a result of this, barely 15% forest cover is left, nationwide.  And barely 600,000 hectares of Old Growth forest is left - from a starting figure of 22 Million hectares at the turn of the century.  The logging of narra, almaciga, lauan, tanguile, molave and other forest trees continues, even within protected areas.

 The remaining forest performs a number of functions.  They are watersheds, providing us with the water we need to live and raise crops.  They are filters and carbon sequesters, cleaning the air we breathe and drawing carbon dioxide to mitigate climate change. With logging continuing in the few remaining forests, their capacity to perform these functions for human populations is reduced on a daily basis.  Philippine Eagles, fruit bats, wild pigs, deer, crocodiles and other key species that make a significant impact on the health of forest ecosystems, continue to be  poached.  In Cartimar and even along national highways, birds, monitor lizards, snakes and a variety of wildlife that contribute to maintaining balance in our forests and wetlands, are sold openly and without sanction.

 Our population now approaches 82 Million.  Within 35 years, our population will double.  The needs for water, clean air and food will double as well.   Clearly, this is a major challenge.  Supply is decreasing, demand is increasing.  Everyone is afraid to say that we must generate effective ways to manage population.  The Catholic Church, like all religions, has the right and the responsibility to uphold its beliefs and standards of morality.  It is irresponsible, however, for any group or organization to impose half-baked standards that offer no clear cut solutions, and only lead to greater, systemic problems.  This is an abdication of social responsibility.  It is not authentic stewardship, in any sense of the word.

 It is inappropriate, callous and probably immoral to simply dismiss these facts and say that we will import or buy the food we need.  With what?  We have no money.  And what about water?  Will be buy that, too?  Paddy cultivation utilizes close to 4000 liters of water to produce 1 kilo of rice.  With El Ninos becoming more frequent, and with our reduced watersheds, where will we get the water?  No amount of new water impounding systems will do the job.  First, you need water.  And how about clean air?  Can we buy air?   Will everyone be walking around with gas masks?

 Think about the millions of hardworking parents who spend everything they earn on their children.  Think about the billions set aside and spent for education, nutrition, clothing, shelter, insurance, health, entertainment.  Unless we invest equivalent amounts on restoring our environment, making sure that the essentials for life - food, fresh water, and clean air - are available to all, the endless hours of sacrifice and hard work which are devoted by Filipino parents to building a decent future for their children will go down the drain.

 We will not solve these problems by throwing money at them. Unless corruption is dramatically stopped and governance improves significantly, we cannot expect an appropriate level of social services and government programs to trickle down to the broad voter/taxpayer base - many of whom are poor.  Corruption is a reflection of weak leadership and mismanagement.  It wastes limited public resources and allows inefficiency.   It is, therefore, bad economics.

 We must make a sincere national effort to protect the environment and arrest all those who continue to enrich themselves through environmental crime - those whose businesses pollute and poison others, those financiers who victimize untenured and jobless forest dwellers to log away our watersheds, those who knowingly blast, poison and destroy the oceanic cradles that serve as home and haven to the food that is being counted upon to nourish future generations of Filipinos.  Patronage politics must stop.  Those in government who intervene on behalf of environmental criminals are accomplices.   They, too, must be held accountable.

 All this must be done because, through more than three decades, government has continued to fail to meet the expectations of its greater taxpayer base.   The general perception is that government has not delivered value for money.  Taxpayers do not ask for much. We simply want what we pay for.  Is that unreasonable?  When government   fails, the environment is the only social security system for the poor.  If, in spite of its bloated, expensive bureaucracy, government still cannot deliver the services it is paid to provide, it must, at least, give its disappointed clientele a fighting chance to save themselves.

 Taking all factors into consideration, the Philippines will slam into critical mass within the next decade.  We don’t have  much time.

 Unless consistent, sustainable, high impact solutions are set in place nationwide, our forests and watersheds, barely 5% of what they were a century ago, will disappear.  No forests?  No water.  No water?  No rice.  No crops?  No development.  The water wars plaguing Africa may find their way here.  Air quality will continue to deteriorate, leading to sudden increases in disease, physical and cognitive dysfunction, as well as a new assortment of endocrine system disorders that result in an inability to thrive.  Tragically, children will be hit first.  Our remaining coral reefs, mangrove forests and seagrass beds will suffocate from siltation, toxics and the effects of climate change.   Unabated sedimentation could aggravate sea level rise, leading to saltwater intrusion in rivers, estuaries as well as coastal towns and agricultural areas.  Primary predator populations, will have been reduced to levels so low that they can no longer effectively influence the health of our marine and forest ecosystems.  Forest biodiversity, and therefore viability, will tip past recoverable levels.  The remnants of our oceanic food chain will crash.  Our population will break 100 Million.  The spiral will be swift and vicious.  All this will happen as a result of misplaced priorities and poorly-managed human activity.

 I am not asking you to believe me. I am asking if, for your children’s sake, you would rather be safe, or sorry.

 The solutions exist. We have most of the policy and legal framework in place.  They must be implemented and allowed to work,  through local initiatives, authentic multi-sectoral partnerships and community-based efforts - without disruption from the annoying intramurals of the political elite.  It is that simple.

 We know how to restore forests and watersheds.  We know how to rehabilitate reefs and rebuild fish stocks.   We know that both power plant and vehicular emissions must be rigidly regulated;  and that further investments in nuclear, coal and fossil fuel plants must never again be allowed.  We know that we must stop poisoning our soils, water and air with non-biodegradeable insecticides, pesticides and industrial effluents. We know that all protected areas are critical forthe sustenance of human life as we know it, and that all illegal activity in these vital conservation sites is tantamount to sabotage against the future of our own children.  All we have to do is to uniformly uphold the law.  It is that simple.

 Let’s do something about it.

 Let us build a national consensus on the environment  that will give birth to and fuel the political will to uphold the rule of law and the will of the People.  Let us assemble a national data base, available to all, describing sustainable solutions that have been tried and tested. All sectors must put their money down and get involved.   All initiatives must be managed professionally, focusing on hard results rather than mere activity.  Let us put aside turf battles.  Let us teach each other.  Let us learn from each other.  And for once, let us agree on something fundamental that will profoundly affect all of us. It may require major changes in mindset and in the way we live our lives.  However, it is good economics.  It is also good politics.  It is for the good of all Filipinos, today and tomorrow.  It is that simple.

 We started it.  We can stop it.   We must.

 

Last updated January 07, 2003 10:30 AM
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