Friday, February 25, 2011


I am posting an older piece written by a friend... on the occasion of the 25th Anniversary of EDSA

by Victor de Leon
24 February 2006


Today, our generation is faced with perhaps the most important problem of all time – the radical decline of nature, the very source of life for billions of people on Earth. If our generation fails to find a solution, then future generations would inherit the problem, likely amplified a hundredfold. This predicament is not exclusive to any one country, but the most adversely affected by the impacts of environmental degradation are the least developed and developing countries in the so-called economic South.

It is of no coincidence that poor countries are poor and at the same time the plunder of nature takes place within these regions.  It is also of no coincidence that poor countries are poor and that most of them were former subjects of colonial powers. Colonialism has destroyed a world order in so many aspects. It destroyed forever the balance of the local political economies of countless communities and spread incurable maladies of gigantic proportions.  Aside from the damage to socio-political and economic fabric of conquered lands, colonialism wrought havoc on the source of life of people by plundering the natural resources. The damage has been done and even with colonialism’s twilight of decline, the sheer magnitude of devastation coupled with the institutionalized and acculturated development paradigm has rendered the crisis almost impossible to solve. Today, no solution has been found to bring back the environment to a level where it can support human development.

The Philippines is a microcosm of the global development characterized by the ravage of the environment. Its long history of subjugation by colonial powers has resulted in a post-colonial wasteland with a society typified by an incoherent development model that is conducive to the continuing plunder of nature. The Philippines has vast natural resources and is very rich in terms of biological diversity. Much of these riches have been plundered and today, the rape continues unabated. This pattern is not unique to the Philippines and no nation is immune, especially the poorest ones. Biological diversity is important as it is the wealth of all life on Earth. Even with the international community’s efforts to salvage what is left of biological diversity, the ravaging continues.

In the Philippines, much of the damage to the environment is a result of the development paradigm that the Spanish and American imperialists planted on our soil. Today, we struggle to mitigate the damage. We struggle to uproot what they have planted.

This paper describes the status of the pre-colonial Philippines and how the colonialists plundered nature and left a socio-political system that up to this day continues to influence governance, politics, and management of natural resources. As the natives could say, “We got your laws, you got our lands…” Social conflict, civil wars, uprisings, and environmental degradation have characterized the his/herstory of the Philippines since the first colonialist from the West set foot on indigenous soil.


Before the coming of the Spanish colonialists in the 16th century, the natives of the archipelago enjoyed a simple political economy. Principally, it was based on a livelihood of subsistence in which land and its appurtenances was of the commons. Everybody held all natural resources in common. Some authors describe it as a cornucopia of natural gifts. The main means of survival for the natives were fishing and agriculture, while some groups engaged in hunting and gathering. The natives had already attained a semi-communal and semi-slave social system in many parts and also a feudal system in certain parts. The Aetas or Agtas had a primitive communal form of social organization. The barangay was the typical community in the whole archipelago. It was the basic political and economic unit independent of similar others. Each embraced a few hundreds of people and a small territory.  Each was headed by a chieftain called the rajah or datu. These communities were very small and manageable and the chieftain allocated produce among barangay members. Sensibly, there was no need for surplus.

The natives already employed sophisticated rice production technology even before the Europeans came. They planted rice in vast plains and also through swidden farming or what is now known as “kaingin”. For all the bad repute of this farming method, the natives have been practicing an ecologically sound version of kaingin. Since more than 90% of the whole archipelago was covered by vast and thick forests, the few burned patches were easily healed and regenerated.
The natives also employed mature fishery technology. After all, in a manner of speaking, during that time, fish could be found anywhere where there is water. Nature shaped the way the natives lived, and because the archipelago was host to plants and animals that abound in wide regions, a certain common economic and cultural adaptation evolved among the inhabitants of the islands. This is the so-called socio-cultural ecology. The most common mode of trade was through barter. The political economy then guaranteed the free utilization of resources for the basic needs of the people. There were adequate natural resources for the basic needs as long as the natives worked, since no single individual or elite group controlled any resource system to any significant extent.

Before 1521, the archipelago that is now the Philippines was composed of self-reliant communities, who lived in harmony among themselves and with nature. They lived within the limits that the natural environment offered. There was plenty for everyone.


When the Spaniards started their conquest of the Philippine islands, they were enamored with, among other things, the lush tropical blanket of forests as far as the eye can see. In the year 1575, it was estimated that 92% of the whole land area of the archipelago was covered with virgin forests. This amounts to about 27.5 million hectares. The total land area of the Philippines is about 30 million hectares. In the 16th century, marine species including the pawikan, dugong, dolphins, whales, and whale sharks were found all over the country. Even Manila Bay was host to sea turtles and sea cows. Manila Bay’s coastal beaches were once nesting haven for the sea turtles.

Scientists estimate that the Philippines’ rate of species endemism is very high at 67%. Endemism means that a particular species of plant or animal can only be found in the Philippines and nowhere else in the world. Endemism can also be applied to smaller bio-geographical units like islands or a particular ecosystem.

When the Spanish conquistadores arrived in the islands in 1521, the slow but sure process of destruction and eventual erasure of the local political economy commenced. Through what is so-called as the Regalian Doctrine, the whole archipelago became the property of Spain. This doctrine established the blatantly colonial basis of land laws and this destroyed the local political economy of the natives. The conquistadores had an agenda to exploit the natural resources, and soon enough the natural ecosystems began to decline irrevocably. The Spanish conquest employed a vigorous propagation of the Cross and the Catholic faith, and the process of enthusiastic proselytization slowly but surely obliterated the natives’ belief systems and social traditions and efficient social organizations. This eroded the sets of native supernatural and natural paradigm.
The kind of society that developed in more than three centuries of Spanish rule was colonial and feudal.  It was a society basically ruled by the landlord class, which included the Spanish colonial officials.  The masses of natives were dispossessed. Spanish conquest destroyed the equilibrium of the harmony between humans and nature. It destroyed an intricate web of relationship of culture, beliefs, social contracts, livelihoods, and ecological systems.

The population in 1575 was estimated to be less than one million. At the end of the Spanish reign in 1896, the population had risen to over six million. In the early 1800s, despite crude logging technology, the Spanish regime had logged 1.5 million hectares at a rate of over 4,000 hectares per year.  The Spanish colonial regime left a plutocracy and only a handful of families control the country’s lands and natural resources.

Andres Bonifacio’s unfinished revolution did little to shake the foundations of this system which the Spaniards left.


The boorish conquest of the Filipino people by the foreign powers meant the continued status of the Philippines as a colony.  Imperialist politicians and their capitalist masters boasted of their mission to “civilize” the Filipino people.

The U.S. had been interested in the Philippine islands as a source of raw materials, a market for its surplus product and a field of investment for its surplus capital.  Moreover, it needed the Philippines as a strategic foothold for carrying out its expansionist thrust.

Through the treaty of Paris in 1898, U.S. imperialism took over the role of Spanish colonialism as the colonial ruler of the Philippines.  Feudalism was assimilated and retained for the imperialist purposes of the United States. The U.S. drew from the country an increasing quantity of commercial crops, aside from other raw materials such as logs and mineral ores.  Sugar centrals, coconut oil refineries, rope factories and the like were built.  The hacienda system of agriculture was further encouraged and reached its full development under the U.S. colonial regime. 

Thus, the continued plunder of the Philippines’ biological riches. By 1934, only 17 million hectares (out of the original 30 million hectares) of forest representing 57% of the total land area of the country remained. Under the American colonialist regime, the rate of conversion of forest land into agricultural and industrial uses accelerated and led to the depletion of the natural resources.

American colonial logging continued the systematic denudation of the country’s forests. The first timber concession in the country was an American lumber company from Seattle which cleared the forests of Negros to make way for more sugarfields.

“THE CONTINUING PAST” (with apologies to Renato Constantino)

What we have inherited from our colonial masters is a system of environmental plunder. From the Commonwealth government to today’s People Power era, the colonial paradigm of development pervades and as each day passes, biological diversity or parts of it are lost forever. Marcos, through the use of the Timber License Agreements (TLA) plundered the forests. He used the TLA as a tool of political patronage, and among the many presidents, deforestation was highest during Marcos’ time. And we thought he only owes us blood and money. He also owes the Filipino people everything that has been lost in terms of biological diversity – the wealth of life. Through the Aquino administration, illegal logging continued and the so-believed democratization gave rise to the proliferation of development initiatives in the mining and fishery sectors. Commercial fishing fleets and mining companies owned by politicians used their influence and wielded their elitist status to make sure their businesses prospered. Today, deforestation continues through the abuse of the supposedly community-based forestry management agreements (CBFM). The CBFM are supposed to benefit local communities by providing them land tenure in exchange for stewardship of land. Unfortunately, unscrupulous politicians and influential people use the CBFM through dummies. This has prompted the Secretary of the DENR to suspend all CBFM agreements because of the widespread abuse and deception.

Today, no one has found a solution to the plunder that has been ingrained in our culture through hundreds of years of colonial subjugation. Nevertheless, there are realizations and even the international community sees the urgent need to find solutions.


The Philippines’ real wealth is not stashed in some Swiss bank. They are in our forests and seas. Of all amphibians found in the country, 82% are endemic, meaning they can only be found here. The same goes with 80% of our reptiles, 44% of our birds, and 64% of our mammals. Experts believe that as a gauge of biological diversity, it is fair to think of the Philippines as the Galapagos Islands multiplied by ten.
The coral reefs of the Philippines, along with Malaysia and Indonesia, called the Coral Triangle, is the Amazon of the seas, considered by scientists as the area with the world’s highest marine diversity.

And why is biodiversity so important? Because each life form has a unique responsibility to perform within the habitat, ecosystem, or the entire planet. Biodiversity provides us with our basic needs—food, clothing, shelter, and medicines. The more diverse the genes, species, ecosystems,  and cultures are, the more stable the ecology.

Today, less than 20% of the original forest cover of the Philippines remain. Only 5% of the coral reefs are in excellent condition. The Philippines has the fastest deforestation rate in the whole world! During the last 30 years, 70% of our mangroves have been destroyed. On an acre-per-acre basis, the Philippines ranked first in the number of endangered endemic bird and mammal species.

The Philippines need at least 45% forest cover to sustain and regulate natural processes. This has been breached a long time ago.


In 1992, the international community saw the urgent need to address the worsening problem. During the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, leaders of the world agreed to embark on a comprehensive strategy to make sure that the current generation meets its needs while ensuring that there is enough left for future generations. In other words, world leaders saw the need for “sustainable development” and leaving a healthy and viable world for future generations was imperative. Perhaps the most important agreement adopted during the Rio Summit was the Convention on Biological Diversity. This treaty agreed to by a vast majority of the world's governments establishes commitments for maintaining the Earth's ecological foundations as the world goes about the business of economic development.  The Biodiversity Convention sets out three main goals: the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits from the use of genetic resources.
The birth of the CBD also led to the popularization of the term “biological diversity or biodiversity”, which is now quite a household term. Based on the Convention,  biodiversity is the term given to the variety of life on Earth and the natural patterns it forms. The biodiversity that we see and benefit from today is the fruit of billions of years of evolution, shaped by natural processes and, increasingly, by the influence of humans. Biodiversity forms the web of life of which we are all an integral part of and upon which we so totally and seriously depend.

The Convention is a reaction to the massive loss of biodiversity as we are in the middle of a worldwide pandemic of mass extinction of species. Scientists do say that the Earth has undergone at least five major mass species extinction, but today the mass extinction is anthropogenic, that is, caused by humans and not due to natural catastrophe. It is believed that the current mass extinction is the most major since the Mesozoic era which killed the dinosaurs 60 million years ago. The pandemic is caused by man’s (indeed, mostly by men and not by women) shortsighted and uncontrolled exploitation of the environment. Among these anthropogenic activities are logging of forests, pollution of waters, overfishing of the seas, the generation of greenhouse gases, spread of toxic substances, and destruction of natural habitats due to development projects.

Extinction of species is the single most significant measure of the loss of biodiversity. Every time a species of bird, frog, fish, or monkey becomes extinct, the species is lost forever and biodiversity is reduced. 


I could harp on and on about the evils of colonialism and imperialism. Philippine society today is both semi-colonial and semi-feudal. This status is determined by hegemony of the powers that be which now ruthlessly exploit the Filipino masse.

The semicolonial character of Philippine society is principally determined by imperialism. Though it is a well-accepted claim that the Philippines is already independent, it is not. The real truth is that foreign imperialism persists in violating the national sovereignty of the Filipino and in strangulating our independence. Before and after the so-called independence, the powers that be made sure that it would continue to control the Philippine economy, politics, culture, natural resource access, military and foreign relations. The imperial machine has extorted unfair treaties and unilateral privileges that transgress the national sovereignty, territorial integrity and national patrimony of the Filipino people. Today, rapid globalization is taking place and it will lead to continued loss of our natural resources and reduce biological diversity. Already, the empire has successfully parried signing the Convention on Biodiversity, which establishes the payment of royalties to countries where particular specimens are collected. Foreign pharmaceutical companies are against this because they do not want to pay the royalties. When he was president, George W. Bush made it very clear that he was against the Climate Change Convention’s Kyoto Protocol which commits industrialized countries to reduce carbon emissions. The impacts of a changing climate on biodiversity are very dramatic. This is a clear sign that  neocolonialism is not good for biodiversity.
Feudalism has been encouraged and retained to perpetuate the poverty of the Filipino people. It is in this sense that domestic feudalism is the social base of imperialism. I can’t help but subscribe to the idea that a “revolution” is needed to destroy the links between imperialism and feudalism and deprive the empire of its social base.

The incumbent reactionary state cannot be expected to solve the basic problems of the Filipino people because it is inherently a facsimile, albeit a poor one, of American democracy. We will find that at all levels of government, the national down to the municipal level, are the bureaucrat capitalists who serve the interests of the elite, and not of the poor masses who rely on a bountiful and healthy environment. Because of our colonial past, bureaucrat capitalism itself is a distinct evil that afflicts the entire nation. It plays the special role of linking up the interests of the foreign and domestic exploiters. It has been built up by imperialism under its policy of tutelage for self-government precisely to function as its puppet administrator.

These bureaucrat capitalists would rather pocket the spoils from the government offices and seek concessions from their foreign and feudal masters than fight for the national and democratic interests of the Filipino nation. Perhaps, it is futile to expect the corrupt people in government to change the basic semi-colonial and semi-feudal paradigm and development model of the government.

I can harp on and on about the evils of neocolonialism. I can even harp on and on about the need for revolution. I agree, we need to abolish the feudal system. I agree that radical change must take place. But when we talk about the loss of biodiversity, time is not our ally. Unfortunately, we cannot wait. Biodiversity conservation cannot wait. Each year the Earth loses forever thousands of species. Scientists have so far identified only about 1.4 million species in the planet and many are yet to be discovered. It is estimated that this figure is only 20% of the total number of species on Earth. Each day, when forests are decimated and coral reefs are destroyed, species are lost. It is alarming to think that there are species that are extinct even before they are discovered.

Today, the best shot we have at saving biodiversity – the wealth of life – is to bring back the stewardship of the land to communities. We need to empower communities and give them the right to manage their resources.

Just like before the Spaniards came.


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Guerrero, Amado. 1970. Philippine Society and Revolution. Communist Party of the Philippines.

Lopez-Gonzaga, Violeta. 1994. Land of Hope, Land of Want: A Socio-Economic History of Negros (1571-1985). Philippine National Historical Society. Manila.

Roque, Celso R. and Garcia, Maria Isabel O. “The Ecology of Rebellion: Economic Inequality, Environmental Degradation and Civil Strife in the Philippines.” Solidarity No. 139-140 (July-December 1993): 88-120.

Utting, Peter (ed). 2000. Forest Policy and Politics in the Philippines: The Dynamics of Participatory Conservation. Ateneo de Manila University Press. Quezon City.