Monday, January 28, 2008

What Are We Doing to Our Beautiful Land?

On the eve of the 20th anniversary of the landmark Pastoral Letter on Ecology, What is Happening to Our Beautiful Land? which was issued by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines on January 29, 1988, the GREEN CONVERGENCE for Safe Food, Healthy Environment, and Sustainable Economy sounds a clarion call for action on the deepening environmental and humanitarian crisis that our nation and the world face today. At present, poverty remains high as the economic disparity is accompanied by polluted air, unproductive land, and lack of safe drinking water. Our forest, river, coastal and marine ecosystems have been severely degraded and with them the nourishment and livelihood that they yield. The World Bank Study Philippine Environment Monitor 2004 reported that the Philippines loses some $2 billion annually due to environmental degradation — excluding social cost and diminished quality of life.

The environmental crisis is worse than terrorism, for as we destroy the biosphere we bring down ourselves with it. Today our planet grapples with the reality of global warming and its attendant phenomenon, climate change. Although it is a planetary problem, we too suffer and will suffer from the effects of global warming. It is predicted that all 16 regions of the Philippines and its 20 provinces and more than 700 municipalities will be affected by the thermal expansion of the oceans and the melting of ice in the Arctic and the Antartic.

Although our contribution to global warming may be miniscule compared to that of the wealthy countries that emit most of the greenhouse gasses through their extravagant use of fossil fuels, our activities have resulted in extensive local problems. Deforestation which decreases the “sinks” that absorb carbon dioxide, has caused the diminution of our rich biodiversity, erosion of our topsoil needed for agriculture, destruction of aquifers and the water-holding capacity of our soils, siltation of our rivers, suffocation of coral reefs and seagrasses. Hundreds of species of flora and fauna critical for food and medical drugs have disappeared. Water sources have dried up, while floods have wiped out lives and livelihood.

The call of our good bishops 20 years ago was based on the warning of scientists that human systems were wreaking havoc the Earth’s systems. Since then, ecological awareness has spread fast and now our understanding of the causes and effects of human greed and arrogance should guide our courses of action. Therefore, it is most frustrating that certain programs of the government ignore the lessons that nature has been teaching us. In this paper we focus on the most pressing issues --- mining, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), waste and pollution, and the Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement (JPEPA).

Mining. Mining, which is the government's flagship industry, has exacerbated deforestation on a grand scale. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo declared the Philippines open for business at an international mining conference in 2005, so soon after the Quezon-Aurora tragedy wrought by forest denudation. She intends to tap all 9 million hectares of the country's mineralized lands, almost a third of the country's total land area. Foreign investors are enticed with 100-percent repatriation of all profits, equipment, and investments; tax holidays; priority access to vital water resources; removal of all obstacles.

Yet, mining not only destroys forests but also poisons the land, the seas and waters and the food that dwell therein. There is well-documented damage at several mining sites—mine spills, tailing spills of foreign-owned high-tech mining companies. Mining is not for archipelagic countries like the Philippines whose small size and configuration make their ecosystems very vulnerable to change. Mining indeed brings only public pain and private gain.

We should instead develop environmentally benign activities like ecological agro-foresty, ecotourism, and pharmaceutical industries that will maximize benefits from our biodiversity but which will require the nurturance of our ecosystems. We should focus on developing our indigenous sources of renewable energy. While our country uses around 8, 000 megawatts (MW) of energy, our wind potential is 70, 000 MW. While we have developed only 5 of our 28 geothermal sites, our geothermal wells already provide around 18% of our energy needs.

GMOs. GMOs are the ultimate in human arrogance. It changes the DNA, the genes, the very nature of organisms. Introduction of alien genes poses grave danger to the balance of nature and again, the Philippines’ priceless biodiversity. Our government has pushed this technology and the commercialization of GMOs even if they have not been proven safe. In fact, GMOs have been shown to cause allergies, prompting the recall of certain products in the United States. They have caused the die-off of insect populations. In test animals they have manifested toxicity to the liver and kidneys, affected immune systems and stunted growth. Since GMOs require sophisticated and expensive technology to produce, only rich countries can produce them. If they patent the seeds, our farmers will be at the mercy of transnational companies forever once these alien materials are adopted.

Instead of this risky technology, let us support organic agriculture that will provide our food needs, while nurturing the soil for future generations.

Waste and Pollution. Consumer assaults on nature have become the bane of the materialistic and throw-away culture that many Filipinos have adopted. Superfluous consumption devours our dwindling resource base, disfigures the earth with mines and dumps, while generating garbage, greenhouse gases, and toxins at every step of the consumption trail. As our people fall victim to crass consumerism, we see our society getting addicted to plastic bags and disposables, messing up our habitat, trashing our rivers and seas, leaving a legacy of contaminated dumpsites that threaten public health and the safety of our precious air, water and food supply. The dumps that continue to thrive despite the ban on dumping are gaping wounds of a nation stinking with litter and garbage. We must close and heal these wounds. And yet, as the dumps burst at the seams, the authorities scuttle to find new sacrificial sites. The tragic Payatas garbage slide in July 2000 and the chronic garbage disposal crisis prove that the haul-and-dump system of waste management is simply not working. Neither will the construction of so-called sanitary landfills provide the panacea to the waste crisis. They are a huge strain on the budget, a scourge on host communities and wildlife, and a curse on the climate.

JPEPA. The Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement (JPEPA) has been shown to be flawed constitutionally, legally, environmentally and economically. If ratified, it will allow Japan’s municipal, toxic, and nuclear wastes to be dumped in our country with zero tariff. We would accord the Japanese rights which should be reserved only for Filipino nationals, e.g., we would allow the Japanese to fish in our waters when our fish supply has already gone down precariously. With Japanese “factory ships” that can capture and process 150 tons of frozen tuna a day, the catch could reach P43.65 billion a year-- but not for Filipinos! The JPEPA goes against our laws and would prevent us from enacting future laws to correct the treaty’s flaws. In a stroke of the senators’ pens, the ratification of this treaty would surrender our sovereignty without a single shot being fired because the government dreams of the trade and investment that Japan will pour into the country supposedly with JPEPA.

We must remember what all wise businessmen know: that investment will come if the investment climate--peace, order, transparency--is good, with or without a treaty. We should therefore concentrate on eradicating corruption and other social ills instead of handing, on a silver platter our natural resources on which our basic survival rests. Other countries, including Japan, will respect us more if we kept our dignity as a nation.

What is happening to our beautiful land is not the act nor the desire of God. They have been caused by acts of human beings. We must therefore go back to human beings for their solution –go to ordinary citizens who have extraordinary powers when united to demand an environment that is healthy and safe. With that conviction, we echo what the late Cardinal Sin said in one of his homilies: “The intimate relationship between man and all of material creation is called the ecological system. A system whose delicate balance man, unfortunately, can disrupt. It is, therefore, imperative that we raise our consciousness to higher levels to realize the limits and opportunities of the structure and dynamics of this system. The wise management of the eco-system is possible only with technical competence grounded on a committed belief that all creation is sacred and must be accorded our highest respect.”

We reiterate the challenge which the bishops posed 20 years ago—a shift from exploitative, short-sighted economic growth towards a paradigm that nurtures and provides safe food, health environment, and sustainable economy. They said: “We ask the government not to pursue short-term economic gains at the expense of long-term ecological damage.”

Let us return to our role as keepers of God’s garden, the garden that can yield the needs of all but is being wrecked by human ignorance, self-centeredness, greed, and arrogance. God has blessed us with the bounty of His creation; let us embrace our responsibility as stewards of that creation, for our own sake and of generations to come.

Dr. Angelina P. Galang
Coordinator, GREEN CONVERGENCE
(Mobile Number: 0917 8538841; Email address: agalang@mc.edu.ph)

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