environment 2: state of the planet

14 October 2009


Junie Kalaw

We have been blessed with a beautiful planet and a beautiful country but we are destroying it at a beastly pace.

The earth’s green cover is a pre-requisite for life in this planet. It is responsible for converting energy from the sun into chemical energy that starts the food chain. It moderates our micro climate, retains our water supply, and renews our soil. Unfortunately we are cutting down this life-support system at a rate of 12 million hectares (an area the size of England) a year and degrading it at a rate of 10 million hectares a year. In the Philippines, we are deforesting at a rate of 105,000 hectares a year and reforesting only 40,000 hectares a year. From 1972 to 1988, we lost 8.45 million hectares of forest.

Land forms the foundation of our biospheric home. It is our primary resource, one that our tribal ancestors in Cotabato, the T’boli people, believed to have been a gift from the gods through the Batute Bird. This resource takes 50 years to build up to a 30-centimeter height and covers only 11% of the total area of the planet. We are losing it at a rate of 11 million hectares through erosion. By the year 2000 we would have lost 275 million hectares, or 18% of our total land area. In the Philippines we are losing our precious topsoil at the rate of 100,000 hectares a year, which means we will lose 1.2 million hectares, equivalent to 12% of our crop lands, by the year 2000.

Our oceans make up 70% of the total land area of our planet. It is the regulator of our climate and provider of our marine-based food supply and 70% of our oxygen. In return, it has been the recipient of 20 billion tons of garbage ranging from beer bottles to radioactive waste. In the Philippines, we dump 2,700 tons of garbage a year into the Pasig River and Manila Bay. As a result, our mangroves have been diminished from 500,000 hectares in 1920 to 38,000 hectares today. Fifty percent of our coral reefs have been destroyed by siltation, dynamite, cyanide, and muro-ami fishing methods.

Life-giving fresh water comprises only 3% of the total volume of water in our planetary home, and most of them are found locked in the polar ice caps. While there is enough to sustain life in our planet, it is unevenly distributed, so we have large areas with drought, water shortages, and polluted drinking-water supply. There are about 1.15 billion of us in the Third World without clean water. This results in 25 million deaths each year, with children composing 60% of that number. In the Philippines, our major inland waters such as Laguna de Bay — the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia — and rivers such as Pasig and Tulyahan are either heavily polluted or biologically dead, and many of the other 384 rivers and 59 lakes are in bad condition. Increasing salinity in the ground water reservoirs of major cities like Cebu, Negros, and Metro Manila is also a major problem. Metro Manila’s water supply is projected to run short by the year 2010.

Climate is an expression of the great interacting realms of atmosphere, land, and ocean. The burning of tremendous amounts of fossil fuel since the start of the industrial revolution has driven up the count of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere from 265 parts per million in 1850 to 340 parts per million today, and could reach 600 parts per million by the year 2050. This has created, in combination with the burning of our tropical forests, a “greenhouse” effect and resulted in the steady warming of our planet. Global temperatures are projected to rise to a mean 30 degrees Centigrade above normal within the lifetime of our children. This could disrupt life on earth because of the effects on agriculture and the polar ice caps.

At present there are about 5 billion people in the world. This number is projected to increase to 10 billion before it peters out to zero growth by the 22nd century. By the year 2000 over 50% of us will be living in cities like Manila. In the Philippines, 14 million Filipinos are squatters in forest areas.

One billion people have no decent housing, and about 100 million have no roof over their heads. In the Philippines, we have about 2.6 million squatters in Metro Manila. Our national shelter gap is estimated to be around 2 million units. While five hundred million people worldwide are undernourished, caught in the cycle of poverty and land degradation, 30% of the world population consume three times the normal food requirement and waste 30% of food prepared.

Environmental degradation impacts on our health and mortality. In the Philippines, the crude death rate in 1983 was 8.2 per thousand population (Malaysia’s was 5.4, Singapore’s 5.3, and Thailand’s 5.1). Infant mortality was 59.3 per thousand, compared to Malaysia’s 20.2 and Singapore’s 9.4.

A June 1988 report to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources which would later be submitted to the Philippine Congress in the early stage of the log ban law-making process shows that with the aid of S.P.O.T. (Satellite Probatoire Pour d’Observatoire de la Terre) we have enough information and knowledge about the status of the various life-support systems of our country. However, its conclusion about the root causes of environmental decay is, at best, cautious and, at worst, self-serving in its evasiveness.

The report focuses on “high population growth and the ensuing poverty” as the major cause of environmental destruction, successfully hiding the fact that the cause of poverty is the social inequity in the access to, and benefits from, natural resources. Our forest resource provides the most glaring example. Statistics given by the Asian Development Bank show that from the years 1972 to 1988, the estimated profit from our natural resources was US$42 billion, which benefited only about 460 logging concessionaires.

Another root case cited is the “unecological orientation of our industrial activities.” This can be traced to a world view of man having dominion over nature, of nature being a mere stockpile of resources rather than a living life-support system, and of wealth as material accumulation and consumption rather than “life flow.”

The report states that lack of “operational knowledge” about our life-support system is the third root cause of environmental destruction. I feel, however, that our lack of knowledge lies more in the area of assessment of risk and of the technologies we use, which are constantly changing.

Finally, the report fails to mention lack of political will in enforcing constitutional provisions for equitable sharing of natural resources and in implementing environmental laws. This lack of political will reflects on the quality of governance and the extent of the leadership’s investment in the status quo.

The Sunday Journal, 13 November 1988

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