April 18, 2016, by Editor

The Philippines, Environmental Politics and the Challenges Ahead

Written by Pauline Eadie.

On 9 May 2016 Philippine voters go to the polls. They will elect leaders that range from the national presidency down to the local barangay (village). Election campaigns in the Philippines enjoy a carnival type atmosphere that intensifies as polling day draws near. Motorcades cruise around the streets conveying politicians at all levels adorned in their political colours, music blares and electoral paraphernalia is dispensed to the masses. Promises of meaningful change that favours the impoverished masses are made and, for a while at least, the vast majority of the population engage with the merits of the various political aspirants. Filipinos fought hard for their democracy and they value it.

However there is also a dark underside to the campaign period. The Philippines has a track record of extra-judicial killings and election related murders during election periods. Kidnapping activities of terrorist groups such Abu Sayyaf rise in the run up to elections.  The money extorted from victims loved ones is used to fund election campaigns and local politicians are complicit in this process. The election period is not a good time to be a tourist in Muslim Mindanao.

The longer-term dark side of elections in the Philippines is that promises of meaningful change are rarely upheld. Opportunities for economic and social advancement exist in the Philippines but these remain beyond the grasp of the most impoverished members of society. Barring some administrative error the poor are enfranchised in terms of a vote but not in terms of economic prosperity. Political choices in the Philippines are made on the basis of personality, not policy. Politicians may have colours but they do not have ideologies. A narrow group of moneyed elite holds an iron grip on political power.  Even the People Power fuelled EDSA I revolution in 1986 can now be dismissed as little more than a changing of the elite guard. However there is a silent phenomenon growing in the Philippines that could result in acute political collapse. However no one seems to be taking this seriously . That phenomenon is the weather .

In November 2013 more than 6300 people (many regard this figure as a very conservative estimate) were killed as a result of super Typhoon Yolanda. The Philippines is the first major landmass on the typhoon conveyor that rolls in from the Pacific and therefore bears the brunt of its force. Typhoons are becoming more frequent and more forceful. If the root cause of this is related to climate change then there is little or nothing the Philippines can do about this as a singular nation. It can only deal with the symptoms of changing weather patterns. Typhoons cost the Philippines many millions of dollars. The damage wrought by Typhoon Yolanda alone was estimated at between 12 and 15 billion US dollars.

Meanwhile the Philippines is heating up as a result of stronger and longer El Nino events. In 1998 El Nino cost the Philipines $5 billion in agricultural loses. The cost of the 2015/16 El Nino remains to be seen. However Manila residents are currently wilting in the 37 degree heat and the city of Cebu has declared a state of calamity due to a critical lack of water. At the beginning of April 2016 6000 desperate farmers and tribes people facing a failed crop and imminent starvation protested in Kidapawan, North Cotabato. The reaction from the government was a crack down by the security forces that resulted in three dead and 116 injured. This led to a social media campaign with the hashtag #RiceNotBullets and a resounding silence from the Aquino administration on the carnage unleashed on the starving farmers. One can assume that the debacle could impact upon the presidential aspirations of Liberal Party Standard Bearer Mar Roxas given his close links with the current administration. Is this a sign of things to come? Will the weather force fundamental political change in the Philippines in ways that have been absent until now?

The weather and related droughts and collapses in food stocks have brought about civilizational collapse and political turmoil over the course of history. From biblical droughts to the Arab Spring the weather has been the cause of social turmoil and political change. The shift to export orientated farming has only exacerbated the precariousness of this situation. Many famers are now in a position where they cannot neither produce nor procure food. Economist Amartya Sen explains this as a failure of entitlements. When a government sends in troops, not food aid, as a response to starving farmers it surely shows its true attitude towards the most vulnerable in society.

The current El Nino has seen the Philippines’ fish catch decline by 23% in the first quarter of 2016. In the first nine months of 2015 sugar cane production dropped by 41.8% and rice production has fallen globally. This means that the Philippines will grow less rice and will be forced to import more at higher prices. This is a recipe for disaster for a country heavily dependent of agriculture and fisheries for the survival of the rural poor. Impoverished farmers also have a knock on effect in terms of reduced consumer spending and the need for extra government spending to mitigate the worst effects of the weather. Recent news that the price of oil is set to increase will do nothing to assuage fears that an economic downturn on the scale of the 1997/98 El Nino can be avoided. Meanwhile the rapidly growing one million plus population of the Philippines serves to compound the stress on the environment. Metro Manila alone is home to nearly 12 million people.

The current trajectory of environmental degradation and population growth in the Philippines has the potential to cause serious political problems in the future. This is already evident in the metropolis, the city is increasingly difficult to navigate because of the sheer volume of traffic, and in rural and coastal areas that suffer from flooding and drought in equal measure. The Philippines is in the top five most disaster prone countries in the world. Nearly 28% of Filipinos live below the national poverty line, with much deeper pockets of poverty existing in rural areas. Many Filipinos are unable to mitigate or adapt in the face threats from the weather. This means that there will be increasing pressure on politicians come up with solutions. If they fail to do this then they risk cruising towards the physical and social implosion of the country and by the time the tipping point is identified it may be too late.

Pauline Eadie is the primary investigator of the ESRC/DFID funded project ‘Poverty Alleviation in the Wake of Typhoon Yolanda’. You can follow this project on Facebook as Project_Yolanda and Twitter @Project_Yolanda. This article forms part of IAPS continuing coverage of the 2016 general election in the Philippines. Image credit: CC by Vanya R/Flickr.

Posted in Philippines