Cielito F. Habito – Inquirer

I AM writing this in Jerusalem, where moving around the largely desert landscape in surrounding areas would make any Filipino visitor appreciate how truly blessed our country is with nature’s bounty. In stark contrast to the all-too-common arid desert landscape in the Middle East, we dominantly see green and blue practically all over our country. We have 30 million hectares of land, 70 percent of which were covered with forest just over a century ago, and which host an extremely rich and diverse array of plant and animal life. More than 50,000 plant and animal species have been documented in the country, about two-thirds (65 percent) of which are unique to the Philippines. On top of that, more new species are discovered in the country every year than in any other country in the world. Our animal life is extremely diverse, with over 1,000 species of non-fish vertebrates identified, nearly half of which are native to the country. Our great abundance of mineral resources supposedly makes us the fifth most mineral-endowed country worldwide.

With more than 36,000 kilometers of coastline and abundant inland waters, we have an extremely rich array of marine and freshwater resources known to be among the richest and most diverse in the world. Furthermore, the Philippine archipelago lies in the “Coral Triangle,” the center of the most diverse habitat in the marine tropics. Philippine coral reefs make up 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, boasting 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 world’s 17 “megadiversity” countries that together account for 60-70 percent of global biodiversity.

One would think that with all the natural endowments the Philippines is blessed with, it ought to be among the most economically prosperous countries in the world. But we are not. Our average income of around $2,635 puts us among the “low middle-income countries,” in the World Bank definition, certainly nowhere near the top. In the United Nations’ Human Development Index, we ranked 115th out of 188 countries in 2015. Poverty incidence, at around 26 percent, is among the highest in Asia. In short, we are rich, yet we are poor.

We are a classic illustration of the so-called “natural resource curse” cited by many development analysts, notably 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 tend to have less economic growth, less democracy, and worse development outcomes than countries far less endowed. We only need to look at nearby Singapore to see the contrast. Is it because where there is abundance, there’s a tendency for a small minority to capture it for its own narrow benefit? Or does the wealth tend to get siphoned by foreigners away from the hands of the locals who should logically reap prior benefits from them? Does abundance generally breed complacency and mismanagement?

The signs are there. While we are indeed a “megadiverse” country, 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 reportedly threatened by extinction, the best-known being the Philippine eagle. These endangered species are now barely surviving in the remaining small patches of forest that serve as their natural habitat.

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. Also damaging is the reckless introduction of invasive alien plant or animal species to the islands, among the most harmful being the giant catfish, 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 sea, nearly a third of our coral reefs are considered 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. At the same time, overfishing, pollution and other human economic activities on the coasts have increasingly threatened the country’s rich endowment of some of the world’s most unique marine ecosystems. Strong population pressure in coastal communities has stretched coastal fishery resources to their limits. Efforts by dedicated groups such as the World Wide Fund for Nature Philippines are very helpful, but these are tiny Davids facing the Goliath-like enemy fed by collective myopia and indifference, bad governance and rampant corruption.

Some say that the Philippines is a rich country pretending to be poor. I guess no one’s pretending. Like many an overnight millionaire who won the lottery, we simply don’t know how to handle wealth while we have it.

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