Center for Environmental Concerns State of the Philippine Environment Forum
On July 18, activists and members of the academe came together to discuss a broad spectrum of issues that the Philippines is currently facing in and around the environment. Organized by the Center of Environmental Concerns, and held at the Ateneo de Manila University Leong Hall Auditorium, this forum tackled what is happening, who is affected, and what we can do to solve our environmental problems. Experts and concerned community members alike shared their experience with what was termed as an “climate emergency” plaguing the country.
Climate change is the biggest existential environmental threat that the world is currently facing. Warming global temperatures are causing sea levels to rise and extreme weather patterns to be more common. Scientists have projected that only 11 years are left to solve these problems.
The Paris Climate Accords has issued the 1.5 Challenge, which sets the maximum temperature rise at 1.5°C. Signatories of the Paris Agreement are tasked to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to limit the global temperature rise.
Yet, as poor countries are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, the solution also calls for climate justice. Rich, industrialized countries should offer aid and assume a greater portion of the burden of solving climate change. Environmental and socio-economic issues cannot be separated because the deterioration of the environment affect poor populations the most.
For example, farmers in agricultural ecosystems are greatly affected by extreme weather conditions, often without having an alternative form of income generation. Workers in the agricultural sector, specifically farmers and fisherfolk, have the highest rate of poverty incidence in the Philippines.
Additionally, the call of intergenerational equity must be invoked. Young people stand to suffer the most if the effects of climate change continue to remain unaddressed.
West Philippine Sea
The West Philippine Sea (WPS), located in the heart of the coral triangle, is the global center of marine biodiversity. However, 70% of the area’s coral reef cover are in poor or fair quality, with less than 1% of corals being in excellent condition.
China’s presence in the area has led to illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, threatening national food security. Unsustainable fishing practices will cause the depletion of resources in the area. The giant clam population has again become endangered due to foreign poaching after being saved by Filipino scientists.
Besides marine life, the security and livelihood of the fisherfolk in the area are also being threatened. Recently the Reed Bank maritime incident has shown the government’s reluctance in confronting China for their extractive and aggressive presence in the area.
Aside from the need to protect the Philippines’ sovereign rights and exclusive economic zone, the WPS performs many important functions. The country depends on the WPS region for fisheries, corals (which are buffers against the erosive action of waves and typhoons), marine natural products (such as anti-cancer and pain killer compounds), and mineral and gas reserves.
As a mega-diverse region with high wildlife endemism, the Philippine ecosystem is highly threatened by the extinction of its species. Of 541 endemic species, 28% are endangered, partly due to the presence of invasive species. Land and sea conversion, as well as pollution, are other issues which contribute to the extinction of the Philippines’ endemic species. Large-scale species extinction will cause great disruption to natural food chains, and thus reduce the country’s food security.
Biodiversity extinction can be prevented and reduced through conservation, the promotion of diversified and sustainable agriculture, and the preservation of natural habitats, such as oceans and forests.
Deforestation and mining
Forest ecosystems are being destroyed by relentless extraction, preventing forests from being able to fully perform their functions and contributing to the endangerment of plants and animals. Logging operations, which exceed reforestation efforts, have caused the forest cover to decline by 23%.
Mining operations have also contributed to the destruction of forest ecosystems. The Financial and Technical Assistance Agreement (FTAA), which allows 100% foreign ownership under the Mining Act of 1995, permits foreign companies from extracting the country’s natural resources for their own profit. Despite justifications that mining helps the local economy, the mining industry only contributes a minimal amount of the country’s GDP while employing less workers than the agricultural industry.
Specifically, the Australian-owned Oceana Gold mining operation in Nueva Viscaya has continued to operate under an expired FTAA. Filipino employees have said that they are only given minimum wage, while foreign employees are given high salaries. The company also failed to deliver their promise to provide workers with sufficient training opportunities.
Meanwhile, the indigenous community living in the area surrounding the mine have reported that their water systems have been polluted, leading to increased cases of diarrhea. Artisan wells which were serviced by underground water systems are no longer usable. Other local public health concerns include respiratory tract infection and kidney infections. Yet, Oceana Gold has failed to set up a functional hospital in the community, despite their promises to do so.
Besides this, Oceana Gold’s political power in the province has led to a division between pro-mining and anti-mining residents. Indigenous persons who give anti-mining statements also face discrimination in the area.
Dwindling water supplies
The country’s freshwater systems are not being used equitably. Irrigation is not universally available to farmers. Without proper irrigation technology, they are only able to plant crops during rainy season, instead of all cropping seasons.
At the same time, only 1/10 of the population has access to clean and potable water. Insufficiently regulated privatization of water distribution has allowed companies to take more customers than they can accommodate.
To solve this, water companies have proposed the construction of Kaliwa Dam, one of nine dam projects in Sierra Madre. Flooding caused by this project would affect 39 communities and destroy sacred lands of 39 surrounding Dumagat communities. In lowland areas, the livelihoods of 1,800 farmers will be disrupted due to water redirection.
Amidst all this, the free, prior and informed consent process has not been successful. Indigenous peoples in the area have been divided into arbitrary assemblies, causing residents to remain insufficiently informed on the actual dam construction plans. Foremost among residents’ concerns is the lack of definite livelihood security or relocation site.
Aside from this, indigenous communities have reported declining mental health. Their anxieties rise as military operations continue in the area. According to the local population, military officials call for consultations and discussions, spreading fear among chieftains.
To make matters worse, the Kaliwa Dam only has a lifespan of 30-40 years, necessitating the construction of other dams in the area. If the plans to construct all nine dam projects pushes through, the environmental and economical damage projected for Kaliwa Dam will multiply. Activists protesting the Kaliwa Dam construction have encouraged the government to seek out alternative locations for dams, stating that several viable alternatives exist.
Manila Bay rehabilitation
As the home of critically endangered species, it is important to protect the Manila Bay ecosystem. Manila Bay is also an important source of livelihood for many people. While mechanisms for effective waste management are supposedly in place, these processes are not easily accessible to residents of the area, majority of whom are informal settlers.
Despite efforts to supposedly preserve the environmental integrity of Manila Bay, several reclamation projects are planned for the surrounding shores. 20,000 hectares of Manila Bay are set to be reclaimed, which will cause great flooding, biodiversity loss, and reduced food production.
What we can do
Workers are hit the hardest due to loss of their livelihood and they are also likely to be impacted by the transition to a a more sustainable environment and sustainable economy. Trade unionists must join the campaign against environmental degradation and social, and economic inequality it perpetuates. To attain a sustainable environment and sustainable economy, a systemic change is needed to stop the current system from exploiting our lands and communities and consolidating the wealth in the hands of a corporate elite, while threatening the health, livelihood, freedom and security of the people. It’s time for climate justice and workers and trade unionists should be at the forefront of the struggle to defend life, justice and Mother Earth.