GRASSROOTS ENVIRONMENTALISTS: THE POOR FIGHT BACK
PCDForum Column #59, Release Date September 1, 1993
by Robin Broad and John Cavanagh
So often in the United States and other industrial countries we hear environmentalism referred to as a middle or upper class crusade. Poor people, we are told, cannot afford such luxuries. Yet our visits to remote areas of the Philippines revealed a wholly different story, one of the poor fighting to protect their livelihoods and their children's heritage from the environmental ravages of powerful wealthy interests intent on plundering this former verdant tropical paradise for short-term financial gains. They know their survival is at stake.
The poor have blockaded logging roads to halt commercial loggers. At the risk of their lives, they have confronted mining companies and trawler operations and fought the destruction of coastal mangrove forests. They have replanted trees and taken over vacant lands to cultivate traditional varieties of rice using little or no chemical fertilizer and pesticide.
In a remote community of San Fernando in the southern province of Bukidnon, a young peasant woman explained why she and other rice and corn farmers became activists against the government's logging policies. She had never heard of global warming. But she told us, "Without trees there is no food and without food, no life."
An old man explained that before the logging trucks came, "There was plenty of fish, plenty of corn, and plenty of rice." The people have since watched the rivers change shape, turn muddier, shallower, yet more violent during the monsoons. In formerly flood-free areas, the river overflowed its banks and swallowed adjacent fertile fields. Creeks that once nourished the fields during the dry season disappeared; landslides became common during the rainy season, and the rat population, which had previously found food in the forests and been kept in check by forest predators, now ravaged farmers' fields at night. Today more than four out of five children suffer some degree of malnutrition.
The people petitioned the government to halt the loggers. After months without reply, several hundred blockaded the logging road. Thirteen traveled to far off Manila, a considerable expense for people of their means, to fast in front of government offices and hold press conferences to publicize their cause.
Benguet Province is mining country. Here the indigenous Igorot ("people of the mountains") have lived for centuries, many engaging in small scale "pocket mining" of the rich gold veins on their ancestral lands. The men dig small round caves into the mountain. Women and children hammer the gold-bearing rocks into nuggets the size of corn kernels.
The area is now dominated by huge open pit mines operated by the Benguet Corporation owned in approximately equal shares by wealthy Filipinos, the Philippine government, and U.S. investors. Dozens of bulldozers, cranes, and trucks cut deep gashes into the mountain, stripping away the tress and top soil and dumping enormous piles of rocky waste into the river beds. The people tell us how, with their water sources destroyed, they can no longer grow rice and bananas and must go to the other side of the mountain for water to drink and bathe. Even their own mining grounds are threatened, their rights ignored.
Instead of using water to separate the gold from the rock, as the Igorot do, the mining company uses toxic chemicals and flushes them down the river, poisoning the water and killing the cattle that drink it. Further down the mountain rice farmers told us that their yields were plummeting as the mine tailings covered their irrigated fields. Fishermen in the gulf reported substantial reductions in their catch as tailings smothered the coral reefs. A growing movement is emerging, joining the pocket miners, farmers, and fishermen in challenging the right of the few to mine in a fashion so detrimental to the many.
The governments of poor countries may at times argue that protection of forests and other natural resources is a concern being forced upon them by rich country governments and environmentalists and will keep them from developing. Yet in many of these same countries the poor are embracing the environment as their own cause. For them, there is no trade-off between genuine development and environmental sustainability.They are well aware that genuine development cannot be rooted in the plunder of those natural resources upon which their existence depends.
Robin Broad is a professor, School of International Service, American University, Washington D.C. and a contributing editor of the PCDForum. John Cavanagh co-directs the World Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. This column was prepared and distributed by the PCDForum based on their book Plundering Paradise: The Struggle for the Environment in the Philippines (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1993). US$25.00.