Human Costs

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Natural resources have been viewed as a source of quick profit for a small group...

Although the history of deforestation differs in its details in each part of the Philippines, the primary processes seen in the case of Negros are present nationwide. In all cases, human population density was originally low, but was influenced by outside forces to undergo tremendous growth. Natural resources, especially timber, have been viewed as a source of quick profit for a small group, with the costs of exploitation not considered in the economic management of the industry. Export of raw agricultural products (whether sugar, tobacco, cotton, or hemp) depended on keeping wages at the lowest level possible, which in turn drove a cycle of increasing population size. Subsidies, either direct (in the case of sugar) or indirect (through unreasonably low taxes on logging and mining), have worsened the situation by causing marginal areas to be farmed, logged, or mined, with such marginal areas often the ones that are most vulnerable because of steepness of the terrain or equivalent factors. The surging population of impoverished,poorly educated people guaranteed profits for owners of plantations, but also drove people to the upland subsistence farming that now threatens the little rain forest that is left. At least 20 million Filipinos—about 30 percent of the population of 72 million—now live in rural upland areas, eking out a living from steep, wet, easily eroded lands. Emigration to other islands long served as a safety valve, but it is clear that there is now virtually no place to go that is not already at or above its long-term carrying capacity.

     One of the worst economic consequences of rain forest destruction is erosion. Erosion under old-growthforest averages about three metric tons per hectare per year, whether in the lowlands or high mountains. In the lowlands where the terrain is relatively flat, erosion under second-growth forest increases to 12 tons, and in open grasslands it reaches an average of 84 tons. But the worst erosion occurs on slopes of up to 60° at elevations over 1,000 meters that have been cleared by logging and then farmed. In these areas, erosion can often exceed 250 tons per hectare per year—five times the level that most agricultural economists consider to be the maximum acceptable level, without considering the downstream costs of the flooding that causes the erosion. Such erosion can reduce the fertility of soil for agriculture by 30 to 70 percent.

     These costs go vastly higher when the effects of siltation and flooding downstream are considered. Although virtually no national figures are available, the huge plumes of muddy water reaching out to sea from nearly every river give clear testimony to the impact of siltation on coral reefs. Dams built for irrigation and hydroelectric power are being filled with silt two to three times faster than expected. For example, a dam built in the Magat watershed in northern Luzon in 1982 to supply irrigation water for one of the largest agricultural areas in the country was originally designed to have a functional lifetime of 95 years, but heightened erosion due to clearing of forest has reduced the dam's lifetime to 40 years at most.

     The flooding itself is often terrible in its destructiveness. The flood in Naga City described in the first chapter of this book killed several people and did great damage to the region, but it was by no means unusually severe among the steadily increasing floods in recent years.

     The worst flood on record struck Ormoc City on Leyte on 7 November 1991, when a typhoon swept over a mountainside that had been severely over-logged in the previous several years. Our team had conducted studies on Leyte about 50 kilometers south of Ormoc City in 1984 and 1987, and often went into the city to buy supplies. As we drove past the heavily denuded mountainsides, we were incredulous that people could see such devastation and not be worried about the potential for disaster that should be visible to everyone. According to official statistics,100 percent of the watershed had been cleared, nearly all of it planted to sugar cane on plantations owned by six families, with the largest holdings belonging to the family of the mayor. When a typhoon happened to strike the city directly (one of an average of five that hit the area each year), water in the two riversthat flow through the city rose ten feet in three hours. About 7,000 people died (many bodies were never recovered, so the count is uncertain); in one section of the city, only 200 of the 2,500 residents survived. Most of the city was severely damaged; the main coastal highway and bridges were destroyed; agricultural crops were wiped out by erosion or covered by mud; and the fertile Ormoc Bay was filled with muddy water.