Sunday, July 27, 2008

State of Nature Address (SONA) 2008

July 25, 2008
Environmental Studies Institute, Miriam College

The world is in a survival mode. Climate Change is upon us, bringing disasters and threatening our food, water and fuel security. Over the last century, global mean surface temperature rose 0.5-0-0.74 degrees Centigrade per decade. The 1990s were the hottest decade and 2005 was the hottest year on record. No country is spared. While the United States had its Katrina, the Philippines has had its share of destructive typhoons, the latest of which was Frank. These have affected our soil, water and land resources.

In spite of the vulnerability of our small, islandic, mountainous and tropical country, we remain rich in resources. The Philippines is internationally known as a biodiversity superstar. The Philippines’ treasure troves of flora and fauna above ground and in its seas have even more value than the minerals that lie beneath, which is supposed to be worth trillions. With environmental nurture and protection, no Filipino ever has to go hungry or thirsty. But these riches are also the reason that more developed nations are eyeing our country. With little of their own or because they choose to keep their own country clean and safe, they are poised to swoop down on and devour this little jewel in the Pacific.

It is in this context that we should look at the development policies of the Arroyo administration. The “State of Nature Address” (SONA) of the Green Convergence for Safe Food, Healthy Environment and Sustainable Economy is meant to coincide with the President’s own State of the Nation Address (SONA) and planned as a yearly activity to assess the President’s environmental performance in a world threatened with deadly disasters due to environmental abuse. You be the judge as to her record.

How safe is our food?

While the Arroyo administration purports to promote organic farming which is safe and sustainable, it continues to subsidize hybrid varieties and fertilizers. These are inevitable companions of pesticides which can accumulate in our environment and in our bodies. Because of the Sulpicio disaster, we discovered that endosulfan, a banned chemical is used in Del Monte pineapples. The aerial spraying in Davao has caused skin and nervous problems among the communities living in and around the banana plantations. The government has just signed a contract worth billions with the U.S. for programs in biotechnology in agriculture.

And now there are GMOs or genetically modified organisms. There is evidence that they are toxic to test animals, cause allergies and other problems in humans and affect the biodiversity of an area, certainly the biodiversity of the Philippines.

The Philippines is now one of the top 13 biotech mega-countries in the whole world, with a ranking of no. 10. Biotech mega-countries as defined by the International Service for the Acquisition of Biotech Applications are countries with at least 50,000 ha. of land planted to GMO crops. The Philippines has 300,000 ha. planted to BT corn as of 2007. BT means Bacillus Thuringiensis, a bacteria whose gene is inserted in corn to act as pesticide for the corn borer. Home pesticides kill flies and mosquitos and are harmful when ingested. What can the pesticide BT gene inserted in the corn to kill the worms called corn-borers do to us?

Molecular biologist Camilo Rodriguez Beltran, the speaker during a recent forum on GMO’s at the Davao Medical School Foundation, who works with GMOs pointed out that the genes that produce Einsteins are 98.8% identical with the genes that produce chimpanzees. Hence, so many things can go wrong in tinkering with genes. We might want to produce an Einsteins but might end up with a chimpanzee instead. We might have bigger harvest of corn for pig feed but what will it do to our health? Dr. Beltran also knows how GM products are tested. He also said that as in all GMO applications, not much investigation is done on the final product even right before this is approved for commercialization.

Our government has embraced genetic engineering with a passion it seems. It has approved the genetic engineering of foods such as eggplant, papaya, mungbean and even rice! How logical is this when we have 4, 000 varieties of rice, surely some of which can meet whatever characteristics we desire. With this technology, we are being used as guinea pigs in an ongoing experiment without our knowledge and consent!

Biotechnology firms have not been all the success they are touted to be in order to increase the price of their stocks. An article by Marc Gunther in the June 27 2007 issue of Fortune Magazine entitled “Attack of the Mutant Rice” recounts the woes of Aventis SA, the French pharmaceutical giant that owned Aventis Crop Science, and in the end, decided to sell the U.S. biotech unit and abandon the very emotional business of reengineering the food we eat. In an experiment gone awry, Aventis had to burn and bury enough rice to feed 25 million people.

Contamination is a big worry. In the U.S., testing revealed that a strain of the GM Rice, Liberty Link which had not been approved for human consumption, had mysteriously made its way into the commercial rice supply in all five of the Southern states where long-grain rice is grown: Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Missouri. Bayer and Riceland then informed the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which announced the contamination last August. Greenpeace some months ago showed that rice imported from the U.S. was contaminated with GE rice. How will it affect our native rice varieties?

Pesticide-free organic farming is the best way to ensure food security. But allowing GMOs would pose a big problem to organic farming because they contaminate and exhaust the soil and kill biodiversity. The two cannot co-exist. Land, once planted to GMOs cannot be used for organic farming. Hence, the government must reject GMOs to allow the safer, more people-friendly organic farming to survive. Organic products are more in demand and commands a higher price.

Our scientists who are in research and development have developed a biological fertilizer to address the major problems faced by farmers, namely deficient plants and plant diseases. Dr. Erlinda Paterno said the National Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (Biotech) of the University of the Philippines in Los Banos were able to develop a natural fertilizer from microorganisms found in the soil which they named Biogroe. She said the yield rate during their test increased by 90% in ampalaya and 40% for lettuce. Furthermore, it was found not only to enhance the seedling growth, but also lower the farmer’s cost. Developing the capabilities of our scientists and supporting a strong research and development program is really the right path to economic development. We must develop the science suited to our actual needs, not adopt methods built up in a different context. The political, social, and economic context define our needs, and our needs define the science.

Organic farming can benefit from proper waste management because the composted matter can fertilize our soil naturally. An yet, the Ecological Waste Management Act (RA 9003) one of our best laws, has not been seriously implemented. The government promotes the building of landfills which are just glorified dumpsites. Worse, it is making noises that it wants to lift the ban on incinerators! And right now, incinerators in disguise are operating while government looks the other way. Why? Is it because landfills and incinerators mean big money for public officials while with proper solid waste management, the benefits go to communities and recyclers? In fact, state-of-the–art incinerators and landfills are not the solution. Nations in Europe are facing a garbage crisis in spite of these hi-tech systems. It seems their throw-away society has caught up with them.

Our public officials seem to have a preference for huge, expensive projects that eventually turn into white elephants. Aside from the ZTE and the North and South Rail projects, it is set to build the giant Laiban in Tanay, Rizal. Giant dams have been discredited by a study commissioned by the World Bank and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Why build a huge dam on top of an earthquake fault line that will submerge a forest and eight barangays and divert a river, depriving farmers in aurora and Quezon of precious water irrigation to grow much-needed rice? With a looming food and water crisis due to Climate Change, the more we should protect our watersheds which also act as carbon sinks and buffers for the increasingly vicious storms.

It is now known that the Philippines has a potential of 70, 000 megawatts of wind energy while our present need is only around 8, 000. Our geothermal capacity is likewise God-given. We are only using 18% of it, butit is a mature and doable technology in the country; it is already supplying around 20% of our needs. We don’t need giant dams.

How healthy is our environment?

Destruction of the environment strikes at the very core of a nation’s life, because the environment is our lifeline to survival and the source of livelihood as well as raw materials for economic development. Extractive industries like improper logging, mining and oil drilling are great threats to our environment. While we are heartened by the recently installed renewable energy facilities like wind farms in Ilocos Norte and the one-megawatt solar facility in Mindanao, the government still looks at fossil fuels as a source of electricity. It is insisting on the coal-fired power plant in Iloilo and the drilling for oil in the Tanon Strait.

Mining is an immensely destructive. What makes mining totally unacceptable in the Philippines is that the large majority of mining companies are foreign-owned and enjoying better privileges than their Filipino counterparts, including military protection. Beautiful Palawan, designated as a biosphere reserve by the UNESCO and often called nature’s last frontier, has 398 mining applications! Tiny Sibuyan, a veritable paradise with the densest forest in the world, the cleanest river in the country and a rich treasure trove of flora and fauna has 13 active mining sites! The once pristine and dreamy Rapu-rapu, victim of mining spills and site of GMA’s sputtering “engine of growth” flagship mining project, has shown signs of acid mine drainage which could make it a wasteland for the next thousand years. Then, we have Didipio, Siocon, … the list is long.

Mountains have been flattened, forests denuded, ground water depleted, soil and water bodies contaminated, and communities dislocated and deprived of livelihood. The people have resisted the onslaught of the foreign mining companies at the cost of their lives, but all in vain. Ironically, the very government sworn to protect the people is protecting their enemy instead, often with the use of the military. What kind of government would wage war against its own people?

The state must recognize the vital importance of the ecological functions of tropical rainforests in sustaining life on earth, as carbon sinks to mitigate global warming, and as habitat for endemic, endangered and threatened species of plants and animals found nowhere else in the world. Biodiversity protection and conservation of wildlife resources consistent with RA 9147 should be a priority.

In 2004, the government reforested 20,388 hectares of land (2004 Philippine Forestry Statistics) equivalent to 0.28% of the country's total forest cover as of 2003. Compare this with 1,276,589 hectares (2004 Philippine Forestry Statistics) of forest areas under active Timber License Agreement (TLA), Industrial Forest Management Agreement (IFMA), and the Industrial Tree Plantation Agreement (ITPLA) which is equivalent to 17.80% of the country's forest cover. Furthermore, these tree plantations utilize mono-cropping and their species need more water and increase the danger of infestation.

There are 125 watershed forest reserves in the country covering an area of 1.499 million hectares (2004 Philippine Forestry Statistics, DENR). The DENR Secretary warns of a looming water crisis in 2010. How is the government preparing for it? Conflicting land use pattern, even in watershed areas, increased land conversion, and the destruction of rivers must be addressed immediately to cope with the coming water crisis.

One good offshoot of the ZTE-NBN deal was the suspension of several agricultural agreements with the Chinese. One of these awarded 1.2 million hectares of agricultural land to Fu Hua to plant corn for biofuel. China is such a big country that could contain more than 30 countries as big as the Philippines. We have only 9 million hectares of agricultural land, of which only 3 million are arable. Why will they use our precious land and water to plant biofuels for their use? We are not even supposed to use our farmlands for biofuels, because they should not compete with food crops for land use.

Do we have a sustainable economy?

The irony is that while the government continuously reaches for higher and higher GNP, more and more people feel that they are not feeling the benefits of this quantitative growth. In fact, a big proportion of our people feel they are poor and are calorie-deficient, and about 30% or our children are nutritionally deficient. There are many factors that cause this situation, not the least of which is grand-scale corruption as has been revealed by the scandals that have been rocking our country. Another is the obvious strong bias for foreign interests over our national patrimony. But the continuing deterioration of our environment is paramount. Ecological backlash has resulted from improper technology. Our scientists and leaders should heed the lessons of environmental history. And yet, we are not only doing more of the same; our assault on nature is more and more vicious.

The worst element of our development is that not only do we destroy our environment, we are inviting and embracing foreigners to enjoy the lion’s share! The biggest sell-out of course is the Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement (JPEPA). Our land and water conflicts will worsen with the Japanese competing for them and even given advantages not given Filipinos.

At the beginning of this talk, I said: We were in a survival mode. No, we are not. We are in a suicidal mode! We are shooting ourselves not only in the foot, but also in the mouth and in our head.

But the government is not the Philippines. It is hard to fight the power-that-be, those who have been given the go-signal to hide behind executive privilege, those whose pockets are lined with brazen sell-outs of our patrimony; those whose developmental framework will not give the majority decent lives and decent livelihoods. But the interests of the Filipino people must prevail. We cannot allow the brazen sell-out of our beautiful land. Together and inviting more to join in this endeavor, let us work with all our might to bring about safe food, healthy environment, and sustainable economy.

Mabuhay ang Pilipinas!

The GREEN CONVERGENCE includes many organizations and the following networks: Magkaisa Junk JPEPA (MJJ) Coalition, Alyansa Tigil Mina (ATM), No to GMOs Coalition, Anti-Laiban Campaign, EcoWaste Coalition, Philippine Federation for Environmental Concerns (FPEC), Environmental Education Network of the Philippines (EENP), and Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation Commission (JPICC) - Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines (AMRSP).

Dr. Angelina P. Galang
Coordinator, GREEN CONVERGENCE
(Mobile Number: 0917 8538841
Email address: GreenConvergence@gmail.com or agalang@mc.edu.ph)
c/o: Environmental Studies Institute (ESI), Miriam College, Quezon City

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