Here are four news stories that have been on my mind lately:
#1: Sea Turtles and Rare Corals Seized
On May 11, 2011, the Philippine Customs Enforcement Group seized smuggled stuffed sea turtles, black corals, and other marine resources worth P35 million ($810,000 US dollars) at the Port of Manila. The contraband, intended for illegal export, were concealed in two 20-foot container vans and were misdeclared as rubber. The haul was reportedly from Cotabato in Southern Mindanao. Marine experts estimated that coral reefs twice the size of Manila were destroyed to gather the booty.
On May 19 Customs inspectors in Cebu seized a second shipment, containing P15 million worth of black sea corals.
On June 1, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) sent a team to Zamboanga City in Mindanao to try to trace the shipments. They quickly found warehouses stuffed with 30 to 40 tons of illicit corals and shells, enough to pack eight 20-foot container vans. Theresa Mundita Lim, director of the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (PAWB), estimated that the corals could have covered more than 1,000 sq. km, enough that "the seabed around Sulu would have been scraped bare by now if the marine trove came from there."
The contraband goods are presumably just the proverbial "tip of the iceberg" of illegally harvested annual marine exports from the Philippines. The operations must employ many thousands of people including divers, boat operators, warehouse owners and managers, shipping companies, and colluding police and Customs officials.
Fish is the primary protein source of most Filipinos, and the country depends upon viable coral reefs for a substantial part of its fish supply. I suppose the problem of illegal coral harvesting will cease to be a problem within a few more years, when the few intact reefs which have not already been damaged by global warming, overfishing or illicit harvesting are destroyed.
#2: Massive Fishkills
On May 28, 2011, Philippine newspapers reported a big die-off of freshwater fishcage-raised bangus (milkfish) in Taal Lake, Batangas. On May 31 a second fishkill was reported, of saltwater-raised bangus in two towns in Pangasinan Province. By June 6 the fishkill had spread to several other Luzon towns, amounting to a loss of up to 2,000 metric tons of fish worth P142 million ($3.3 million US dollars.) Blame for the Taal Lake fishkill was was initially directed towards release of toxic volcanic gases, and in Pangasinan it was suggested that the likely culprit was the recent onset of the rainy season causing depletion of the water's oxygen level. However it has since been determined that overstocking of fishcages by fishery owners, in addition to polluted waters, probably caused the die-offs.
BFAR has reportedly set a limit of 10,000 fish cages for the lake; however, it is estimated the actual number of cages is closer to 15,000. I was dumbfounded to read that the main ingredient in the feed provided to the farm-raised fish is chicken manure (remember that little tidbit next time you're buying fresh fish.) Freelance journalist Bernie Lopez has estimated that based on the number of fishcages in Taal Lake and the quantity of feed provided per cage per month, that 15,000 tons of feed ends up at the bottom of the lake every month, amounting to 180,000 tons per year. The rotting feed sucks up oxygen at the bottom of the lake, suffocating the fish. Nobody knows the likely longterm effects of this mass of toxic organic sludge, nor what to do about it.
I imagine Laguna de Bay (near Manila) will be next. It is the largest freshwater lake in the Philippines, and at 949 square kilometers (90,000 hectares) is three times larger than Taal Lake, with approximately 60% of its surface area covered with fishcages and fishponds.
If the Philippine fishing and fishfarming industries collapse due to destruction of coral reefs and toxification of the lakes and estuaries supporting the country's fishfarms, then what will poor Filipinos consume for protein?
#3: Condom Wars - Reproductive Health Bills
Brave legislators have been introducing reproductive health bills in the Philippine Congress since 1998 without getting a single one passed.
There are presently two highly controversial bills before Congress: House Bill No. 4244 or An Act Providing for a Comprehensive Policy on Responsible Parenthood, Reproductive Health, and Population and Development, and For Other Purposes; and Senate Bill No. 2378 or An Act Providing For a National Policy on Reproductive Health and Population and Development. There is a good chance this may be the year the bills pass, and the House and Senate are currently debating their respective versions.
Both bills mandate that the Filipino taxpayer and the private sector shall fund and undertake widespread distribution of family planning devices such as condoms, birth control pills and IUDs, and that both public and private elementary and secondary schools will be required to participate in education and product dissemination to facilitate controlling the Philippine population. Although neither bill contains any measures offering support for abortion services, the measures have nevertheless mobilized the Catholic Church hierarchy, who believe the legislation would give couples easy access to methods of contraception that can cause abortion. The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines has pulled out all the stops and declared open war against both declared and even potential supporters: they threatened to excommunicate President Aquino if he supported the bill. Cebu Archbishop Jose Palma stated that bill advocates "are no better than terrorists because the measure could lead to the death of innocents."
Never mind that:
* The Philippines is the 12th most populous country in the world;
* Economic studies show that rapid population growth and high fertility rates exacerbate poverty;
* Ten to eleven maternal Filipino deaths daily could be reduced if they had access to basic healthcare;
* Among the poorest women who would like to avoid pregnancy, at least 41% do not use any contraceptive method because of lack of information or access;
* It has been demonstrated that use of contraception actually lowers the rate of abortions;
* A 2008 Social Weather Stations survey showed that 71% of Filipino respondents favor the bill;
* The essential point of the bills is the free choice to be given to people on the use of reproductive health, enabling the poor especially, to choose the number of children they want.
But none of this matters, because the Bishops, the self-proclaimed moral exemplars of the nation, say the legislation is evil.
#4: Disappearing Ricefields
Central Luzon is one of the great rice bowls of the world, with 167,764 hectares (414,553 acres) devoted to the grain which is the central component of the Philippine diet. For a period during the 1970s the Philippines was a net rice exporter, but since then the agricultural sector has stagnated and the country is now the world's largest rice importer. The Philippine mass media did report the bad news that in 2010 the country imported 2.6 million metric tons of rice.
What the media failed to mention is the terrific rate at which Philippine ricelands are being converted to alternative uses. Big landlords are busily converting rice fields into shopping malls, golf courses, residential subdivisions, and agro-industrial parks to apply for exemption from the government land reform program (The family of President Noynoy Aquino, one of the biggest landowning clans in the Philippines, is also one of the biggest perpetrators of the "conversion scam", gradually converting their huge Hacienda Luisita estate into residential subdivisions and industrial parks to avoid having to turn it over to the peasants who have tilled the land for 60 years, as was mandated by the loan agreement when the estate was purchased in 1957.) Ride a bus through the Central Luzon provinces of Nueva Ecija, Tarlac, Pampanga, and Pangasinan and you will see massive urban development replacing former rice fields. When big rice exporters like Thailand and Vietnam are unable or unwilling to continue selling cheap rice to feed the rapidly growing Philippine population, what will Filipinos eat?
It seems obvious to me that the Philippines is heading straight for the cliff. At some future point, a convergence of natural and human-caused disasters will lead to a crisis in which the nation is unable to feed its own population. The fragile system of hierarchical social controls which keep a lid on this simmering powderkeg will quickly fray.
The tiny number of people with real power lack the collective will to address these problems; they are too busy stuffing their pockets with money (or filling their churches with lost souls, as the case may be) to give a damn. They probably go home to their families at the end of the day (except the bishops) and tell their spouses and children that they love them; they probably also go to church or mosque at least occasionally and pray to their almighty being. They might even claim concern about the kind of future their progeny will face. Yet all of the perpetrators, each in their own way, are contributing to a future in which their children and grandchildren will live in a NIGHTMARE WORLD without enough food, breathable air or living space to survive. Its gonna get ugly.