The Multinational Monitor


B O O K   N O T E S

Power and Plunder

Plundering Paradise: The Struggle for
the Environment in the Philippines

by Robin Broad with John Cavanagh
Berkeley, California
University of California Press
1993,  $25.00,  197 pages

The signs of environmental devastation are everywhere in the Philippines. In overflowing Manila, commuters routinely cover their mouths and noses with handkerchiefs in an attempt to filter out the poisoned air. In once lush central Mindanao, the southernmost Philippine island, mountains that two decades ago were densely forested are now bare. Coral reefs that once encircled many Philippine islands are now destroyed, victims of denuded mountains, waste materials from mines and harmful fishing practices such as the use of giant driftnets and dynamite fishing.

These seemingly disparate tragedies - of the plunder of resources in provincial areas and the public health nightmare of Manila are in fact inextricably intertwined, argue Robin Broad and John Cavanagh in their extraordinary Plunderinq Paradise.

"Plunder of this magnitude -massacred reefs, eroded soil, degraded forest land - is numbing enough to be almost incomprehensible. But after seeing the destruction and strain on these ecosystems, we begin to understand the constant inflow of people from the countryside to the city," they write. "If your minerals were being depleted, your forests chopped, your soil eroded, your fish caught by others, where else would you go? The inescapable conclusion is that the pollution and congestion of Manila will never be solved without first halting the depletion of the country's natural resources."

And, they argue, while countrywide environmental degradation is a major cause of impoverishment, the Philippine environmental crisis cannot be solved apart from a reform of the country's unjust land, resource and wealth distribution.

Presented as an account of two outsiders' travels through the Philippines, Plundering Paradise is written in a breezy, easy-to-understand and hard-to-put-down style. It is filled with compelling anecdotes and personal stories, as well as hard facts and incisive analysis. And although the book's story is about the particular tragedy besetting the Philippine people and environment, it has much broader implications, as a blistering attack on a development model favoring multinational corporations, foreign banks and corrupt local elites at the expense of local communities.

One noteworthy chapter focuses on deforestation on the island of Palawan, the Philippines' "last frontier" and home to the country's largest tracts of primary rainforests. The conflict over forests on Palawan is a microcosm of resource struggles throughout the nation. The island, still more than half covered with forest, is losing 19,000 hectares of trees every year. Two parties are responsible.

The first is the island's biggest logging company, Pagdanan Timber Products, owned by timber baron Pepito Alvarez. Alvarez's clearcutting and indiscriminate logging practices have resulted in the drying up of local watersheds and threats to local drinking water and irrigation systems, as well as siltation of the surrounding sea and depletion of fish resources. Granted by Ferdinand Marcos, Alvarez's logging concessions cover 61 percent of the island's productive forest. Alvarez's annual Palawan revenues of S24 million, according to Broad and Cavanagh, are 24 times the island's provincial budget.

In an extremely dangerous campaign, local farmers, fishers and environmentalists have joined to oppose Alvarez's timber-cutting operations. Well-connected to national politicians of many political stripes, Alvarez is Palawan's most powerful figure, and those who openly oppose him often pay a high price. Copies of newspapers carrying articles critical of Palawan's power structure mysteriously disappear. Environmentalists are routinely harassed, and occasionally, killed.

But Alvarez does not only work to silence critics; he completely denies responsibility for the island's deforestation. He and the Philippine government pin blame on shifting cultivators who cut trees and farm on the marginal cleared lands. Yet these poor farmers, argue Broad and Cavanagh, have abandoned traditional sustainable methods of farming and adopted their current practices only because they lack land and other resources that are being devoured by Alvarez and other big loggers.

The lesson of this conflict between "Palawan's one huge commercial logger versus its thousands of shifting agriculturalists," Broad and Cavanagh conclude, is that "unequal control of resources, not poverty, is the chief culprit [of environmental degradation]. Inequality, not poverty, leaves the very poor with no choice but to dig their own graves environmentally."

It is this conclusion, shared by a broad range of Philippine citizen activists, that is now animating the country's emerging sustainable development movement.

Still inchoate, the movement is coalescing around a set of principles that recognizes the interconnectedness of environmental protection, development, human rights and peace in the war-ravaged Philippines. The central tenets of this movement, explain Broad and Cavanagh, are: "the environmental movement is a struggle for equity in the control and management of natural resources;" "the struggle for the environment and for control of resources requires a far more participatory notion of development-" "the struggle for peace is a struggle for sustainable development;" and "to work for environmentally sustainable development requires working for human rights."

As Broad and Cavanagh make clear, there are tremendous obstacles standing in the way of the movement succeeding. But they are hopeful - for at least this grassroots activism holds out the possibility of switching the Philippines from a path of plunder to one of sustainability.

The Struggle for Land and the Fate of the Forests
Edited by Marcus Colchester and Larry Lohmann
Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey
Zed Books, The World Rainforest Movement,
and the Ecologist
$17.50,  389 pages

International campaigners and local activists working to preserve the worlds' remaining rainforests inevitably confront arguments that the real cause of deforestation is poverty and overpopulation. More and more rural poor people in the Third World are clearing tracts of forest, farming the land for a few years and then moving on and clearing a new area, goes the argument. The conclusion: if you want to fight deforestation, you have to fight overpopulation and poverty- and that may even mean supporting logging and other efforts at "development."

The standard environmentalist response is to shift the focus of attention to logging companies, and hold these corporations responsible for destroying the world's rainforests. This response is not wholly satisfactory, however, because it is true that poor farmers clear significant portions of forest land is countries around the globe.

The Struggle for Land and the Fate of the Forests is an attempt to directly address the issue of local poor peoples' role in deforestation. The central message of this important book is that "farmers invade tropical forests mainly because they and their communities become incorporated into expanding market and state systems which deprive them of power and rights over land."

It makes little sense, argues co-editor Larry Lohman, to blame poverty, in the sense of lack of material wealth, for rising rates of deforestation. After all, he points out, Third World rural and forest peoples have long been lacking in material wealth; in fact, communities of forest peoples who live outside the market system are often oriented toward long-term maintenance of forests. It is true that destitution and uprootedness push poor people onto forested lands, he argues, "but there is no ground for saying that deforestation is caused by poverty in this sense which is not an even better ground for saying that it is caused by wealth and development." That is, the uprooting can be traced to consumer demand from the industrialized countries and to national "development" programs, which provide the incentives for multinational corporations, development agencies and local elites to appropriate and decimate Third World forests, land and rivers.

Similarly, the overpopulation argument fails to stand up under scrutiny. There is little correlation between population, population density or population increase and deforestation; for example, while Vietnam's population is increasing by 1.4 million people a year and Papua New Guinea's by only 90,000, both countries are clearing approximately 3,500 kilometers of forest annually. It is not the ironclad laws of population growth but malleable social structures which deny people and communities control over land that push the poor into forest lands, Lohmann contends.

The seven country case studies in the book illustrate this overarching theme, even while detailing the diversity of different countries' experiences. In Brazil, a country characterized by extremely skewed political power and land distribution patterns, recounts George Monbiot, peasants who seek to preserve control over their land or who demand land redistribution face violent responses from government or private security forces. While the rise in cattle ranching is one of a myriad of factors further depriving poor peasants of land in Brazil, Susanna Hecht argues that it is a series of domestic government and market subsidies and incentives, not Northern country demand for beef ("the hamburger connection"), that is driving the growth in cattle ranching. In Zaire, reports John Witte, state and local elites are collaborating to dispossess small farmers of their land and turn them over to cash-crop production for export. In Indonesia, the colonization of forest lands now inhabited by indigenous populations is state policy. The government's transmigration program seeks to move vast numbers of people from densely populated Java to less populated outer islands; one result, according to the environmental organization Skephi and Rachell Kiddell-Monroe, is that the transmigrants, given control over recently expropriated indigenous lands, cut forests rapidly to meet short-term demands. Other essays in the collection focus on Guatemala, Thailand and the Philippines.

The two key themes that emerge from the case studies, concludes co-editor Marcus Colchester, are that peasants' welfare is undermined by their integration into the market and that peasants lack control over land. "Agrarian reform has the potential to help resolve these problems," he writes, "not only by providing land security but also by shifting the balance of power in the peasants' favor. "

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