Cursed with wealth

Published by rudy Date posted on July 6, 2009

WE’VE HEARD it said that the Philippines is a rich country pretending to be poor.

Indeed, ours is a country exceptionally blessed with nature’s bounty. With its rich and vast array of natural resources, the Philippines should be among the most affluent countries in the world. Our 30 million hectares of land area, 70 percent of which had been covered with forest just over a century ago, hosts an extremely rich and diverse array of plant and animal species. Our 36,289 kilometers of coastline and abundant inland waters endow us with an extremely rich array of marine and freshwater resources known to be among the richest and most diverse in the world. Our abundant mineral resources make us the fifth most mineral-endowed country globally, in terms of minerals per unit land area.

But alas, we have become a classic illustration of the so-called “natural resource curse” written about by various authors, including economist Jeffrey Sachs of “The End of Poverty” fame. Sometimes also called the “paradox of plenty,” this is the commonly observed phenomenon whereby countries rich in natural resources end up being much poorer than those that are far less endowed.

Basking in biodiversity

According to Conservation International, the country possesses more than 50,000 documented plant and animal species, more than 65 percent of which are found nowhere else on earth. Furthermore, more new species are discovered in the country every year than in any other country in the world. Animal life in the country is extremely diverse, with more than 1,000 species of nonfish vertebrates identified, 48 percent of which are endemic to (i.e., originally found in) the country.

The Philippine archipelago lies in the “Coral Triangle,” the center of the most diverse habitat in the marine tropics. Philippine coral reefs comprise more than one-fourth of the total reef area in Southeast Asia and are recognized to be among the richest and most diverse in the world, with about 464 species of hard corals and more than 50 species of soft corals identified. All these have given the Philippines the distinction of being named one of the 18 “mega-diversity” countries of the world, which collectively account for 60-70 percent of global biodiversity.

Threats

On the other hand, we have also been tagged internationally as a biodiversity “hotspot”—that is, a country where biodiversity is under extreme threat from deforestation, conversion, fragmentation of natural habitats, unregulated trade and low overall environmental quality. Nearly 200 of our vertebrate species are now threatened by extinction, the best-known being the Philippine eagle. This, along with other endemic species such as the Cebu flowerpecker, the golden-crowned flying fox, the Philippine cockatoo and the Negros forest frog are now barely surviving in the remaining small patches of forest that serve as their natural habitat.

In the sea, nearly a third of our coral reefs are considered to be in poor condition. Moreover, there has been a steady decline in the quality of the coral reefs, with only a tiny 0.24 percent reported to be in excellent condition in 2004, against 4.3 percent in 2000 and 5.3 percent in 1991. Of these reefs, 98 percent are considered under medium or high threat.

Greatest enemy

Forest destruction, including rampant conversion of uplands to monoculture (single-crop) farming, has been the single biggest enemy of biodiversity in the Philippines. Hunting of animals especially of birds for trade, trophy or meat is a major threat to the country’s animal biodiversity. Still another source of damage is the reckless introduction of invasive alien plant or animal species to the islands, among the most harmful being the giant cat fish, black bass, golden snail, various toads including the marine toad and the American bullfrog. Invasive aquatic plants like the water hyacinth and water fern have also significantly affected wetland biodiversity adversely. The past 40 years have seen an enormous rise in risks associated with such biotic invasions.

In the seas, the country’s rich endowment of some of the world’s most unique marine ecosystems has been increasingly threatened by overfishing, pollution and other human economic activities on the coasts. Strong population pressure in coastal communities has stretched the country’s coastal fishery resources to their limits. Efforts by dedicated groups such as WWF-Philippines (Kabang Kalikasan ng Pilipinas) are very helpful, but are tiny Davids facing the Goliath-like enemy fed by collective myopia and indifference, bad governance and rampant corruption.

Jesus Christ left us with the parable of the three servants who were entrusted by their master with portions of his wealth. The first two had doubled their portions upon the master’s return, but the third, who merely buried the wealth and kept it intact, incurred the master’s ire. We are worse than that third servant. We have even recklessly squandered away the abundant wealth God has entrusted us Filipinos with.

Is it any wonder that we are now suffering the natural resource curse? –Cielito Habito, Philippine Daily Inquirer

Comments welcome at chabito@ateneo.edu

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