Mar 072013

The Philippines: An Ecological Perspective



I. The Birth of Luzviminda

by Roberto Verzola (, Convenor, Philippine Greens

Fifty million years ago, the archipelago of more than 7,000 islands that now calls itself the Philippines did not exist yet.


Instead, there was Mindoro and Palawan, just off the Asian landmass and south of what is now Taiwan, Zamboanga somewhere just north of the equator, and the island group of Samar, Leyte and Surigao, around the area of what are now Timor and Papua Islands. But the Earth’s geological plates move ever so slowly, and the various landmasses they support move along with them. In the process, as one gigantic plate moves against another, some sea floors are pushed upwards, until they break through the surface of the sea and become new islands.

From 50 million years ago to the present, plate tectonics created and assembled the archipelago that we will call Luzviminda. Mindoro and Palawan will creep due south. The Samar-Leyte-Surigao island group will move thousands of kilometers in a great arc – first westward, then gradually northward. Zamboanga will do a random walk, eventually colliding with another great landmass that will emerge from the sea.


After five million years, 45 million years ago, north-east of Zamboanga, a huge land mass rose from the sea. This landmass would eventually comprise the part of Luzon that extends from Quezon to Ilocos. This Luzon would be oriented in the east-west, rather than today’s north-south direction. At around this time, a mini-archipelago of tiny islands would also emerge southwest of Zamboanga. These little island would eventually become Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-tawi.


After another five million years, 40 million years ago, another group of islands would emerge from the sea, south of the equator and west of the Samar-Leyte-Surigao group. These newly born islands are Panay, Negros, Cebu, Bohol and parts of northeastern Mindanao. They would joint the Samar-Leyte-Surigao group moving through the great arc westwards first, and then northwards, towards their rendezvous with the rest of Luzviminda.

Over the next 28 million years, these island groups would perform a great dance, as the Earth’s plates gradually inched in various directions egged on by the plastic flow of molten rocks deep in the bowels of the planet. Luzon would move counter-clockwise around Zamboanga, nearly a quarter of a circle, even while they both travel north, towards Taiwan. Mindoro-Palawan would complete its southward journey. Samar-Leyte-Surigao, would travel farther northwards.



At the end of these 28 million years, 12 million years ago, Zamboanga’s northern portion today would be almost touching the shores of Batangas, the closest it would ever approach Luzon. Zamboanga would then reverse itself and move southwards, along a path that would lead to a collision with another great landmass – Mindanao. After another five million years, seven million years ago, Mindoro would still find itself due west of Pangasinan, and Zamboanga due west of Panay.



The pace now quickens, and the Luzvimindan archipelago is gradually taking shape. After two million years, five million years ago, the last of the great Luzvimindan landmasses emerges from the sea due south of Negros. This is the landmass that would eventually become Central Mindanao.




Thus, Luzviminda is assembled into more than 7,000 islands, born out of the sea and populated by living forms that uniquely evolved in isolation from the mainland masses of the Earth.


II. Philippine Ecological Situation, Some Indicators

Let me start with the following list of indicators that gives us some idea of the ecological situation in the Philippines:


  • Population: 91.983 million (2009; 76.504 million in 2000); 1.93%/yr (2010 est.; 1.96% 2009; 1.99% 2008 ~1.8 million) per year; ~100 million by 2012 (Note: Wikipedia says 97.977 million est. as of July 2010)
  • Total land area: 30 million ha; 300,000 sq. km. (density: 3.07 persons/ha; 3,260sqm/person)


  • CO2 level: 390 ppm (the point of no return, according to many, is 350 ppm)


  • Total suspended particulates level in M.Manila: 193% mean, 304% max. (circa 2002)
  • CO2 emissions: 0.8 metric tons/capita (2007, World Development Indicators, WB)


  • Rivers:: 12.5% dead out of 88 surveyed; 17% “grossly polluted” out of 69 surveyed (1990)
  • Municipal waters : 85% overfished
  • Heavy metals in Manila Bay: copper, 50%; mercury, 100%; zinc, 200%
  • Coral reefs: only 5% in excellent condition (new threat: global warming)
  • Increase in fishery production: 0.72%


  • % of solid wastes recycled in Metro Manila: 6%
  • Rate of land conversion: 3,659 ha/year
  • Food security: agric, 46.4% (13.9M ha); rice, 10.7%
  • Fertilizer consumption: 75.6 kg/ha (1980); 119.3 kg/ha (1996); 135 kg/ha (2005)


  • Foreign mining applications: 27.5% (8.25 million ha)
  • Remaining old growth forest: 2.7% (800,000 ha)
  • Declining forest cover: 1948, 50%; 1987, 24%; 1989; 21%; 1999, 18.6% (5.6 million ha); 2010, <10%; -2.4%/yr (1990-2000); -1.5%/yr (2000-2005); -32.3% (1990-2005)


  • Endemism: birds, 33-44%; mammals, 64%; reptiles, 63-68%; amphibians, 53-78%; swallowtail butterflies, 43%; flowering plants, 44%; 13,500 plant species; 170,000 animal species
  • Endangered species: more than 400 (2010); worldwide: the Sixth Great Extinction

This list is, of course, just a jumble of data. It may give us a general impression of the bad state of the environment, but it is not so helpful in highlighting which among them are symptomatic and which ones are causative.

III. Making Sense of the Data: A Framework of Analysis

I would like to share a framework which the Philippine Greens use for analyzing the ecological situation which can give us a qualitative feel for the country’s ecological status and trends. Such a framework will also help each locality see where it stands compared to the rest of the country.

Three major categories of environmental problems

It will be useful to distinguish among three major categories of environmental problems in the country:

  • problems associated with the simple extraction of natural resources from land or water, often occurring in a rural/traditional setting (nature abuse: mining; logging; conversion of forests into farms; conversion of food farms into export plantations; overfishing) Result: loss of rural livelihoods, destruction of ecosystems, the Sixth Great Extinction
  • problems associated with the entry of newer production technologies and their side effects, often occurring in a more urban/modern setting (toxic industrialism: disposable, non-degradable, toxic raw materials; chemical farming and genetic engineering; intensive energy extraction through dams, coal, oil, and agrofuels; energy-intensive construction materials) Result: toxic proliferation in air, water and soil; cancers and other diseases
  • problems associated mainly with activities outside the country, over which we have very little control and power to solve ourselves because we must rely on international negotiations (ozone depletion; greenhouse gases and climate change; sea level rise; cross-border toxic flows) Result: relative powerlessness among ordinary citizens and local communities.

Between the first two general types, we can expect a continuum of problems, representing localities in various stages of urbanization. As globalization continues its relentless intrusion into the countryside, we can expect Philippine ecological problems to complicate, as problems of the second type superimpose themselves and interact with problems of the first type, and as some problems of the third type assume greater importance.

There has been great debates about that is/are the root cause(s) of these environmental problems. While these debates can be acrimonious and confusing, they are necessary. Doctors who prescribe medicine or a medical procedure for a headache must first carefully determine the cause of the headache – whether it is brain tumor or poor eyes – lest their prescription do more harm than good.

IV. Looking for Root Causes

It is very instructive to look at the experience of the United States, where ecologist Barry Commoner (The Closing Circle, 1971; Making Peace with the Planet, 1975) studied the rapid increase of environmental pollution in the post-war U.S. and compared the contribution of three major causative factors:

  • – Increasing population, which required more resources to meet the needs of more people;
  • – Increasing affluence, expressed in terms of the rate of consumption per capita, which required even more resources to meet the increasing needs and wants of each individual; and
  • – Increasingly harmful technologies, which increased the types and amounts of pollutants and other damage associated with each unit of commodity produced.

The total environmental impact (I) could therefore be roughly computed as follows: I = P*A*T, where I is the environmental impact in terms of total pollution, P is the total population, A is the affluence factor or per-capita goods consumption, and T is the technology factor or amount of pollution per unit good. In all probability, the exact relationship is exceedingly more complex, because population, affluence and the current state of technologies are not independent variables but instead interact with each other in various complex ways.

Which of these factors contributed the most environmental damage was long debated in U.S. environmental circles. Authors like Paul Ehrlich (The Population Bomb, 1968) emphasized the population factor and therefore came up with a different set of solutions. Commoner conclusively settled the issue through statistical studies of hundreds of pollutants over the years 1946 to 1970, in which he compared their rates of increase with the rates of increase in population and in GNP. Thanks to the detailed economic and environmental statistics compiled by the U.S. government and industry, Commoner was able to quantify the approximate individual contribution of each of the three factors in the overall degradation of the environment.

He found out that increasing post-war affluence contributed 5%, population growth 15%, and newer, more destructive technologies a full 80% of the degradation.

Below are some of the rates of increase Commoner compiled for the period 1946-1970, which led him to the above conclusion:

Polluting product     % increase

Returnable softdrink bottle 53,000 Synthetic fibers 5,980 Mercury for chlorine production 3,930 Mercury for paint production 3,120 Aircon compressors 2,850 Plastics 1,960 Fertilizer nitrogen 1,050 Electric housewares 1,040 Synthetic organic chemicals 950 Aluminum 680 Chlorine gas 600 Electricity 530 Pesticides 390 Wood pulp 313 Truck freight 222 Consumer electronics 217 Motor fuel 190 Cement 150 (GNP) 126 Food 45 Textile, clothes 42 Household utilities 42 Steel, copper and other metals 42 (Population) 42 Raildroad freight 17 Lumber -1 Cotton -7 Returnable beer bottle -36 Wool -42 Soap -76 Animal horsepower -87

These numbers showed that post-war pollution increased dramatically in the U.S. way beyond what could be explained by the increase in population and affluence. The largest culprit was the continual substitution of existing technologies (the bottom items showing negative growth) with more powerful and therefore usually more destructive ones (the top items).

No one has similarly collected the statistics for the Philippine case. We can start by assuming that the environmental problems of highly-urbanized areas can be similarly attributed to the same three factors in roughly similar proportions: a higher population (~15%), higher consumption per capita (~5%) and more harmful technologies (~80%). We are justified in starting with this assumption because many of the technologies that are now coming into the Philippines are precisely those which caused the rapid post-war rise of environmental pollutants in the U.S. that Commoner studied in such detail. Furthermore, the current growth of our urban centers echoes the rapid post-war growth of U.S. urban centers.

Although rural birth rates tend to be somewhat higher rate than urban birth rates, this is counterbalanced by the migration of people from rural to urban areas. In situations where the outmigration outpaces the population increase, rural areas might even be experiencing a decrease in population. Certainly, urban areas tend to act as magnets for rural folk in search of jobs as well as the urban lifestyle.

Just the same, the continuing human encroachment of forest lands and other wildlife habitat indicate that rural population growth continues to exert its own pressure against these habitats. In this case, population growth is a problem less in the Malthusian sense of one species outstripping its food supply but more in the anthropocentric sense of the human species appropriating for its exclusive use the living space which serve as habitat of other species.

Thus, in the Philippine case, the debate remains unsettled. Those of us who want to help “curing” the environmental malaise that afflicts our country must participate in this debate.

On a personal note, I have continued to pursue this matter of looking at root causes that I actually went back to graduate school last 2008, at age 56 when others are already counting their years before retirement. Because I thought economics had a lot to do with our environmental problems, I took a masters in economics. Hopefully, after I conclude my studies, I will have more to contribute to the debate.

V. Choosing a Positive Advocacy

In the meantime, also by personal choice, I have focused on certain areas of positive advocacy where I thought I could make a difference.

I would like to share with you my work among farmers, promoting through training and self-education a new method of growing rice, called the System of Rice Intensification (SRI). To sum it up, this method is a winner! 1) It reduces farmers’ costs, which is the most important thing because they have have to borrow money to raise their own food. 2) It increases rice yields, which is also important because it gives them more flexibility in shifting some of their plots to vegetables and other higher-value crops. 3) It even weans them away from agrochemicals, which is good for their own health as well as their families, and also for the health of consumers and of the environment. All these are within reach of ordinary rice farmers, if they are willing to change some of their age-old practices. Small changes, big results.

This is what the network I coordinate, SRI-Pilipinas, is promoting among farmers. We have been conducting SRI trainings for farmers since 2006, a group at a time. In fact, a farmer at a time. Nationwide.

We have two ways of doing so.

We send trainers anywhere in the Philippines to conduct one-day trainings for farmer groups who are willing to try the method in a few hundred square meters of their farm. We have now reduced our costs to around P6,000 per training. Half for the trainer’s fee, and half for the trainer’s expenses (food, transport, training materials, and so on). From 2006 to 2008, we were able to conduct trainings in 49 provinces, which gave us more trainers. In our current round, we have scheduled or finished one-day trainings in 45 municipalities/cities, 5 short of our target of 50.

The other way is education farmer by farmer. We send out free SRI primers by mail to those who request them (usually by texting their name and mailing address to us). To those willing to pay for the cost of a DVD, we send a training video on SRI. Some of our trainers learned SRI simply by reading our primer, or watching the SRI video. With this approach, at a cost of P20 per farmer, they can learn to reduce their costs, improve their yields, and wean themselves away from toxic chemicals.

With this advocacy, we are winning over converts, a few farmers at a time. With small changes, we are changing lives. We are changing mindsets.

Farmers who learn SRI acquire new respect for the rice plant, when they discover that much potential lay untapped within it. Others had thought the plant had reached its limits and must therefore now be modified through high-tech breeding and genetic engineering for it to continue feeding us.

SRI farmers learn that agrochemicals in fact kill soil life, on which plants depend for their sustenance. They begin to appreciate the health that a naturally-grown plant displays, because they partake of that health. And they begin to look differently at all the other plants around them.

From small acts, a new path is taken. A new environmental consciousness takes root. A new seed promises a different future. Through our own small acts, each of us helps build that future.

(Feb. 22, 2011)


The date posted here is due to our website rebuild, it does not reflect the original date this article was posted. This article was originally posted in Yonip on March 22nd 2011




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