The Philippines was hit by 536 natural disasters between 1950 and 2012 (1), according to the emergency events database (Emdat) at the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters. On a less spectacular scale, every day thousands of Filipinos face landslides or floods that threaten food security, health and their children’s education. Instead of tackling the causes of these, the authorities point the finger at “nature”, “bad people” or “the poor”.
Given the country’s unstable geology, the 20 or so cyclones that cross it each year and the global context of climate change, it seems clear to some scientists, journalists and political leaders that nature is the cause. But the climatic and geological data available since the end of the Spanish colonial period show that cyclones, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis are no more frequent now than they were at the end of the 19th century. On average, 21 cyclones a year struck the Philippines between 1881 and 1898, compared with 15 a year in the second half of the 20th century.
Floods, which accompany most of these disasters, are now more common, but they are not linked to an increase in rainfall or a significant rise in sea level; they are caused by the rapid subsidence (deposition of sediment) of the main river deltas, a result of pumping ground water to supply homes and agriculture. It is the same with landslides, more frequent today and usually the result of massive deforestation and soil erosion caused by humans, not nature.
By “bad people”, the authorities mean enemies of the state, such as the communist guerrillas of the New People’s Army (NPA) and illegal loggers, accused of being responsible for the deforestation and landslides. But if the loggers are able to operate with impunity it is only because they have the support of local politicians, or are in power themselves. The NPA is fundamentally opposed to the government’s neoliberal policies, and one of its principal revolutionary demands is the protection of the environment.
The “baddies” include those who do not respect the moral values promulgated by the state and its ally, the Church. Many Filipinos believe transgressing moral and religious values makes them liable to divine punishment. “We must all know by now that all the disasters that happen in our nation are not incidental occurrences but consequential results of us being stiff-necked and in rebellion to the Truth of His Word,” said the religious leader Eddie Villanueva after disasters in 1995 (2).
Blame the squatters
The government and the media rail against the poor: squatters are accused of aggravating floods by blocking drainage channels and dumping rubbish in watercourses; mountain communities that practise slash-and-burn agriculture and cut trees for firewood are accused of being responsible for large-scale deforestation and soil erosion. After terrible floods in Manila in 2009, a government official “made a strong recommendation to remove these people [400,000 squatters] from the danger zones and not allow them to go back” (3). But they have no choice but to settle in dangerous areas, without the means to protect themselves against natural disasters, and must degrade the environment just to survive. They are less concerned about the threat of a seasonal rise in the water level, or a landslide or volcanic eruption every ten years, than with getting enough to eat (4).
It is not because of ignorance that the poorest are unable to meet their daily needs and protect themselves; the cause is unequal distribution of resources. That is why the effects of disasters are always unequal: some buildings resist earthquakes while others crumble; some people survive while others perish. We can see this with Typhoon Haiyan. Disasters amplify difficulties over shelter, food, and having a voice. The unequal distribution of wealth stems from the country’s colonial history, its government’s political and economic policies and the international context.
Three and a half centuries of Spanish colonisation (1565-1898) favoured an elite that took control of most of the land and other resources. The half century of US domination that followed only reinforced this. In the 21st century, 10% of Filipino families control 33.9% of wealth, while the poorest 10% have only 2.4%. This disparity is worse in rural areas where one third of farmers do not own the land they cultivate. Many landless peasants migrate to the mountains, which are vulnerable to landslides, or to the slopes of volcanoes, where they can keep their harvest, whereas on the plains they have to give 50-75% to the big landowners. The growing number of people living in these exposed areas, previously abandoned because they were dangerous, has provoked many disasters.
The government’s political and economic policies have made things even worse (5). Governments since the 1960s have pursued neoliberal policies. Many public services have been privatised, including water and electricity in the 1990s, usually benefiting those close to the government, and further reducing access to protection for the poorest. The state has encouraged exports that have chiefly benefited businessmen close to the regime. The plundering of forestry resources causes many landslides. Opening up borders to international trade, particularly multinational agribusiness, has not only speeded up this damage but helped divest small peasants and indigenous communities of their land, so they have lost control of their livelihoods (6).
Many of these policies were dictated by structural adjustment plans imposed on the Philippines since 1979. Faced with an influx of cheap agricultural produce and the closure of their own markets, many peasants have had to adopt livelihoods that destroy the environment, or move to marginal areas exposed to the vagaries of nature. In the 2000s, repaying foreign debt took up around 10% of GDP at the expense of health and education spending. And the globalisation of trade and the fluctuation in the price of raw materials and basic foodstuffs have led small producers to take greater risks to survive: to cope with the rise in the cost of rice, many fishermen have had to venture out even when there is a heavy swell at sea, risking their lives.
The poor may have less and less influence over the causes of their vulnerability because of the historic, political and economic context, but they have shown a wide range of indigenous knowhow in coping with disasters (7). Besides experience of past events, they have solidarity networks, tontines, traditional architecture and medicine, hunting, fishing and gathering, and also a dense and very active network of community organisations supported by NGOs.
Many of these organisations came out of the struggle against the dictatorship of former president Ferdinand Marcos and they remain in strong opposition to the government, particularly over social inequality. Their activities are recognised internationally and the Philippines is a pioneer in citizen-based approaches to disaster risk reduction (8). Their projects remain sporadic however, and extending them across the country would require greater cooperation by the state.
Local initiatives and pressure from society did lead to a new law being passed in May 2010; it is considered internationally as a model because it encourages the participation of non-governmental players, and the integration of community initiatives with government measures. The government has also made public funds and manpower available to local authorities for disaster risk reduction. Although these measures have not been put into effect everywhere, communities able to take advantage of them were much less affected by Typhoon Haiyan. The town of Guiuan in Samar province and the island of San Francisco in Cebu province were able to mobilise manpower and finances to carry out a preventative evacuation plan.
But the dynamism of NGOs and institutional measures are not enough, and cannot correct the social inequality that makes the poor vulnerable. The fight against deforestation is a good example: many laws and decrees ban cutting down forests, but illegal logging persists, and disasters due to landslides continue, even if the vulnerability of some social groups, such as children, has been reduced. Perhaps the scale of Typhoon Haiyan disaster will be a wakeup call.
Jean-Christophe Gaillard is an associate professor at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.
Jake Rom D Cadag is a researcher at the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement, Montpellier, France.
(1) For a disaster to be entered on the database, 10 or more people must be reported killed, 100 or more reported affected, or a call made for international assistance.
(2) Eddie Villanueva, “RP’s disasters not incidental occurrences”, Philippines Star, Manila, 7 October 1995.
(3) Cecil Morella, “400,000 lakeshore squatters key to fixing floods”, Philippine Daily Inquirer, Manilla, 8 October 2009.
(4) Jean-Christophe Gaillard, People’s Response to Disasters: vulnerability, capacities and resilience in Philippine context, Juan D Nepomuceno Center for Kapampangan Studies, Angeles City, 2012.
(5) Walden Bello, Herbert Docena, Marissa de Guzman and Mary Lou Malig, The Anti-Developmental State: the Political Economy of Permanent Crisis in the Philippines, Philippines University, Sociology Department, Quezon City, 2005.
(6) Robin Broad and John Cavanagh, Plundering Paradise: the Struggle for the Environment in the Philippines, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1993.
(7) Greg Bankoff, Cultures of Disaster: Society and Natural Hazard in the Philippines, Routledge, London, 2002.
(8) Annelies Heijmans and Lorna P Victoria, “Citizenry-based and development oriented disaster response: experiences and practices in disaster management of the Citizens’ Disaster Response Network in the Philippines”, Center for Disaster Preparedness, Quezon City, 2001.
Translated by Stephanie Irvine.
This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.