Afterthoughts Rwanda in the Pacific? Population Pressure, Development, and Conflict in the Philippines By: Walden Bello

Along with its neighbors, the Philippines was burdened with a high poverty rate and faced the same challenge of overcoming underdevelopment four decades ago.  Today, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Thailand have drastically reduced poverty and possess vigorous economies.  In contrast, over 26 per cent of the population of the Philippines is trapped in poverty and the economy languishes in a state of underdevelopment.

Explaining the Divergence

What accounts for the difference?

Economic policy?  Hardly, since all four countries followed export-oriented economic strategies over the last four decades.

Structural adjustment?  Not really, since all four economies were subjected to some variety of market-oriented reform, though it is arguable that adjustment was milder in our neighbors than in our country.

Asset and income redistribution?  No, since as in the Philippines, state-promoted asset and income redistribution programs in Thailand and Indonesia were either weak or nonexistent.

Corruption?  Again, all four countries have been marked by high levels of corruption, with Indonesia being a consistent topnotcher in annual surveys.

There is, in fact, one very distinctive feature that separates the Philippines from its neighbors: unlike our country, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Thailand managed to rein in the growth of their populations through effective state-sponsored family planning programs.  And while successful family planning is not the whole story, economists and demographers have a consensus that it is an essential element in the narrative of economic advance in our neighboring countries.

Failure to Launch

One might compare the Philippines to an overloaded passenger plane that is trying very hard to take off but cannot quite get more than a few feet above the ground and is fast approaching the end of the runway.

The country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grew by only 4.5 per cent in the last decade. With population growing at 2.2 per cent per annum, the average yearly growth rate of GDP per capita (GDP divided by total population) was only 2.3 per cent.  This was simply too low to make a difference in terms of containing poverty.  Indeed, while Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand have reached the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving the number of people living in poverty by 2015 ahead of schedule, the Philippines is definitely going to miss it.  And with so much of GDP being devoted to consumption as opposed to investment –owing partly to the high population growth rate – neither was there much of a chance that the country would be able to attain, in this decade, the 6-8 per cent annual GDP growth rate that economists say is necessary to launch the country into sustained growth.

The challenge is enormous.  Even if the fertility rate were to be brought down to the replacement level of 2 births per reproductively active woman in the next decade, owing to population momentum – or the tendency of a population to grow despite a rapid decline in fertility owing to a simultaneous decline in the death rate – the Philippines will probably not see its population stabilize until the latter part of this century.  Had the country attained replacement level fertility in 2010 – which it did not – the population would still have continued to grow and reach 150 million in 2060, after which it would have stabilized. If the replacement level fertility is achieved in 2030 – which is more realistic, according to demographers – the population will stabilize at 200 million in 2080.  Under a less optimistic scenario of replacement level fertility being attained even later, say in 2050, the population will stabilize at more than 250 million towards the last years of the century.

The numbers are worrisome since a population of 200 million or 250 million would be a tremendous burden on the country’s carrying capacity, or the number of people a region can support without suffering significant environmental degradation.  When carrying capacity is outstripped by population growth, an ecological crisis develops, then erupts in many directions.

Beyond Carrying Capacity?

There is no firm measure of the country’s carrying capacity. However, there are strong indications that the Philippines was either close to or pushed beyond its carrying capacity as early as the mid-eighties, when the population was around 55 million.  With the countryside unable to support a rapidly expanding population, migration to urban areas, especially Metro-Manila, escalated.  And with uncontrolled expansion of shantytown communities, waterways were clogged and polluted, with the Pasig River nearing biological death and Laguna Lake in irreversible ecological decline by the mid-1990’s.   Water became an increasingly scarce resource as ecological stress intensified, with 58 per cent of ground water contaminated by human, industrial, and toxic waste by the end of the century.

But there were two things that were new with the population shifts that began in the late seventies and early eighties.  An important study by Robert Repetto and Wilfredo Cruz found that prior to that period, the direction of internal migration had been from the depressed rural areas to the cities.  Since then, however, internal migration also pushed up to the upland areas, open access forests, and artisanal fisheries.  Deforestation accelerated, with the country losing, by 2005, over a third of its already much reduced forest cover of about 10 million hectares in 1990.  The Philippines now has the distinction of having the third highest deforestation rate in the world, after Honduras and Nigeria.

The second new feature of the population movements at the end of the seventies was the massive exodus of Filipinos to work in foreign climes that kicked off during that period.   The labor export program was originally a small affair involving 50,000 workers when it was instituted in 1975.  But with the push factor of unrestrained population growth, it soon ballooned to become one of the main absorbers of surplus labor, with 6.3 million Filipinos being deployed for overseas work from 1984 to 1995.  By 2011, with an estimated 8 million of its labor force overseas, the Philippines had become the world’s second largest labor exporting country, with remittances from abroad becoming a key source of survival for millions of families and serving as the mainstay of an economy crippled by a combination of wrongheaded economic policies, unrestrained population growth, and permanent ecological crisis.

Population Growth and Social Conflict

Population and conflict is an uncomfortable correlation that many of us try hard not to acknowledge.  Yet it is a threat looming in countries that have failed to manage their population wisely, like the Philippines.  Take Rwanda.  The genocide that took place in that country in 1994 has been one of the most tragic events of our times.  The common explanation is that it was precipitated by an ethnic conflict between Hutus and Tutsis.   However, the famous environmentalist Jared Diamond’s careful study of the Rwanda genocide in his book Collapse reveals that in many cases, fellow Hutus were also victims of the Hutu rampage.  One of the main factors behind the genocide, he argues, was population pressure, noting how even among Rwandans, there was talk about “how a war is necessary to wipe out an excess of population and to bring numbers into line with the available land resources.”  Jared is not a Malthusian, but he concludes that,

[P]opulation pressure was one of the important factors behind the Rwandan genocide that Malthus’ worst-case scenario may sometimes be realized, and that Rwanda may be a distressing model of that scenario in operation.  Severe problems of overpopulation, environmental impact, and climate change cannot persist indefinitely: sooner or later they are likely to resolve themselves, whether in the manner of Rwanda or in some other manner not of our own devising, if we don’t succeed in solving them by our own actions.

Rwanda may be an extreme case.  But have we not had similar dynamics of conflict related to population pressure in the Philippines?  Beginning in the 1950’s there were state-sponsored and spontaneous migrations from overpopulated Luzon and Visayas to relatively underpopulated Mindanao – known in the 1960’s as “virgin land.”  These intensified conflicts over land and territory, with Muslims and indigenous peoples marginalized from their lands by Christian settlers and becoming a minority in their own homeland.

A key indicator of the acuteness of the demographic crisis was the flaring up of the Moro rebellion from the 1970’s on, with its understandable demand for an independent or autonomous homeland for the Bangsa Moro people to stop the massive encroachment of thousands of impoverished non-Muslim settlers into their ancestral homeland.  In the decades between 1980 and 2000, the height of social conflicts in Mindanao, Southern Mindanao, Central Mindanao, and the area now covered by the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) consistently registered much higher population growth rates than the national average.  In 2000-2007, the average population growth rate for ARMM was 5.4 per cent – the highest in the country – while the national average was 2.04 per cent.

Like Diamond in the case of Rwanda, we are not claiming that population pressure was the only factor in the massive crisis in Mindanao that broke out in the seventies and continues until today.  Undoubtedly, inequality, religion, and culture also played a role.  But looking at these figures, one cannot but conclude that unrestrained population growth has been a major factor in the conflicts in the Southern Philippines.

And one cannot fail to note as well that there is another element common to both Rwanda and the Philippines: Catholicism is the religion of the majority in both countries.  This is not, however, the place for a comparative study of the relations among population growth, religion, and social conflict in Rwanda and the Philippines.

In conclusion, it has been a dozen years since the reproductive health bill was first introduced in Congress.  Since it was first debated, the population of the country has grown from 75 million to 94 million. The scorched-earth rearguard action of the Catholic Church hierarchy against rationality and collective responsibility has unfortunately condemned millions of those children who joined our country in the last 12 years to grinding poverty and a precarious existence.  But we now have the opportunity to break with the past and chart a different future.  We really have no choice but to pass the Reproductive Health Bill now since 2011 may well be the last opportunity for our country to acquire that booster that would allow it to clear the runway and reach for the sky.

* columnist Walden Bello is representative of Akbayan (Citizens’ Action Party) in the House of Representatives of the Philippines.


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