Twelve years ago, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, issued a Pastoral Letter on the Environment entitled “What Is Happening to Our Beautiful Land?” That Pastoral Letter described the devastation that had been inflicted on the environment, reflected, in the light of the Gospel, on what was happening to the environment, challenged us to develop a deeper appreciation for the fragility of the life systems in our islands and to defend the Earth, pointing to signs of hope, suggesting what we all could do to improve the situation.
We focused then on what should be the Christian attitude towards nature and responsibility to care for our physical environment. That responsibility, we said, stems from this simple fact: we treasure God’s gift of life to us and all that he created to make life possible and human.
In this year of Jubilee, with its spirit of renewal, reconciliation and re-conversion, it is good that we recall once again our obligation to care for God’s creation in the face of its continuing degradation in this, our part of the world.
In this letter, we would like to focus on one critical environmental problem: water and the protection of our watersheds and aquifers. For water means life and life is God’s greatest physical gift to us.
WATER AND LIFE
That the country is facing water insecurity may come as a surprise. We have an average of twenty typhoons a year and yet despite the torrential rains and the all too frequent flooding, we do not have a sustainable supply of water. Water insecurity is one of the most serious environmental problems facing the country today and it is not the kind of problem that can be solved overnight.
Until quite recently water was not seen as a matter of concern. In parts of the country, even today, households and businesses have open access to this resource. Water is used freely for agriculture, industry, leisure and household purposes. The impression has thus been created that there is an endless supply. Water is taken for granted and like all things that are taken for granted, they are never really appreciated until they become scarce. We only really know the true worth of water when the well goes dry.
Every living organism in our environment depends on water: flowers, grasses, shrubs, trees, all our food crops. Animals depend on water. Every issue that affects the environment — whether it be the construction of a new road, the opening of a mine, the building of a golf course, the construction of a dam or an irrigation system, the conversion of land for residential or industrial use, the development of plantations, the preservation of biodiversity — all have to do with water.
Water goes in a cycle. It connects the earth to the sky, the uplands to the lowlands, the mountains to the coastal areas. Rain falls from the clouds, seeps into the ground and makes its way down into the aquifers. From aquifers it rises in streams, rivers and lakes and runs down to the sea. Water returns to the atmosphere again by evaporation from the surface of lakes, rivers and oceans through the transpiration of plants. The environment is intimately interconnected and water is the life-giving link.
The Destruction of Watersheds
Why is flooding in the lowlands occurring more frequently? Why are our watersheds not able to supply the waters we need at some times of the year? The simple reason is that we have denuded the uplands of forest cover and degraded our rivers with the subsequent soil erosion, and the waste too that we throw into the sea. Who is responsible for this destruction? One recent study, Decline of the Philippine Forest, states:
Since most of the Philippine forest was on public land, it was up to government to decide how to make use of it. They were responsible for the management of this national treasure. The situation today is the direct result of the non-implementation of policies and the corruption of former administrations. Deforestation did not just happen. It came about as a result of choices made by government, choices that in effect turned control of the forests over to a small group of people and sustained the marginalization of millions of people. i
It would be difficult to exaggerate the part played by elite control and corruption in explaining the destruction of the Philippine forest. Since the elite in effect participated in the government and the logging industry, this led to corrupt and inefficient regulation by government of the logging industry. To avoid initiating meaningful structural reform of the socioeconomic system, government encouraged the poor to migrate to previously forested areas. Data on forest cover released by government, instead of presenting a true picture of what was really happening, were designed to mislead the media and researchers. The analysis of data sets makes it difficult to draw any other conclusion. The destructive practices pursued by the logging concessionaires set the example for the poor migrants who followed. The financial returns from logging did not benefit the nation as a whole. Enormous sums were concentrated in the hands of the elite. This exacerbated the problem of the unequal distribution of income, the greatest structural problem in the Philippines today. The above factors have ensured and hastened the destruction of our forests and watersheds.
The direct causes of deforestation have been logging, upland migration, and agricultural expansion. These could have been carried out in a manner that would have contributed to the overall development of the country and thus benefited the majority of the people, but did not. However, they were not. Less than 500 individuals and corporations hold access rights to most of the forest resources. The fact underscores the great injustice being done to our people.
Ill conceived state policies and programs geared to exploitation have led to the plunder of a natural resource and ensured that meaningful development would never take place. The responsibility for the present sad state of the Philippines watersheds rests with past administrations, greed –” the most evident form of moral underdevelopment”– and social ignorance. There has been, needless to say, a near total failure on the part of government and society as a whole to recognize the sociocultural and ecological values of the forests. ii
It is necessary, hence, to understand the environment from the perspective of ecological services. Ecological services are the benefits we derive from the environment, such as, carbon sequestration, fertile soil, clean drinking water, sustained stream flow for irrigation and flood reduction. People in the uplands and lowlands depend on these services. If they are abused and exploited by the few then the many will suffer. An ecological services perspective means that we no longer view the link between the uplands and the lowlands as purely resource utilization. It is much more complex and includes the interrelations of social, cultural, economic, political, ecological, climatic and hydrological aspects of life. On all these counts the balance of the uplands has been marginalized and we have the anomaly of people in the uplands having the responsibility for maintaining the ecological services and those in the lowlands enjoying most of the benefits! Justice and an ecological perspective demand that the people in the uplands, who make such an important contribution to the well being of society as a whole and know how to balance the demands of a healthy environment against their day-to-day needs, should enjoy social, cultural, economic and political equity.
The ruling value in present day society is short-term economic gain and vaguely tagged on is the promise of long term-stability. If real and meaningful national development were taking place, the country would not be facing water and food insecurity; we would not be facing the situation where the Philippines, once a leading wood exporter, is now a net wood importer. We would not have in the Philippines today some 32 percent of the people – or 27 million Filipinos, our brothers and sisters — living below the poverty line, struggling to survive on incomes of less than P15,000 a year or about a dollar a day. The fear today is that this short-term-economic-gain mindset will dominate in the exploitation of natural resources. Thus, in the drive to pursue mining as an answer to our economic development, what guarantee is there that what happened in the case of our forests will not happen again? To start with we need to conduct a responsible dialogue and to commit ourselves to a serious code of environmental practice. This code must be respectful of the people in the area, take account of the sustainability of the environment on the site and ensure full protection downstream.
This is said with hindsight, we know, and prescinds from the question of a paternalism in our culture, which, in the past, was not so readily considered as an obstacle to national growth. Neither does the above critique acknowledge that during the early stages of deforestation it was hard to draw the line and to know when the damage done was excessive. At a later stage when this was known politically and economically, controls were inadequate and a much broader social sin reinforced the wrong.
Today we have become more aware of “social sin” and the “structures of sin”. These are “situations of sin” that result from the accumulation and concentration of many personal sins. As a result of the acts or omissions of individuals, structures take root in society that influence behavior and are the source of other sins and injustices. These structures make it much more difficult to promote the common good and result in the exploitation of people and the destruction of the environment. In this Year of Jubilee we should resolve to examine and get rid of such unjust structures in our society and to eliminate or at least minimize social evils that result from them. However, as we set out to right social wrongs we should do so in a spirit of forgiveness for ” all have sinned and have need of the glory of God.” (Rom 3:23). God has forgiven us and we should be ready to forgive one another and develop a sense of “social forgiveness”. It is only through forgiveness that we can heal the wounds in our society and move forward as a truly united people.
Uplands and Lowlands
One may not immediately connect the water shortage in the cities and towns with deforestation in the uplands, but in fact they do have a very close connection. Forest degradation impacts on the ecosystems. When mountains are denuded, watersheds are degraded and this means the loss of sustained water supplies for lowland communities. More than half of our major watersheds are now critically denuded.
With the removal of the forest cover soil erosion on a large scale follows especially on sloping land, water moves too quickly, not having a chance to sink into the ground. The uplands make up 52% of the total land area of the country. Typhoons sweep the country on an average of 20 a year. The absence of forest cover reduces the capacity of the soil to contain and absorb the water from the heavy monsoon rains. Generally the land has only a thin layer of top soil. Given the lack of forest cover, the topography and the heavy rains induce soil erosion, mass wasting and landslides. Not only are the watersheds destroyed but also the loss of top soil has serious implications for agricultural and food production. Aquifers are not recharged. Increased surface run off from denuded hillsides results in flash floods and silted rivers; sediment deposits shorten the useful life span of dams and clog irrigation systems. Coastal areas are degraded and coastal reefs are affected by siltation. Increased flooding during the rainy season and decreased flow in the dry season are other results of deforestation. The ecological stability of upland and lowland agricultural areas and coastal ecosystems are dramatically affected. The fact is, the environment is closely interlinked — what happens in the uplands has implications for the lowlands.
The destruction of our forests has led to another great social evil: Numerous ethnic groups in the country have been deprived of their homeland by commercial logging and the spread of agriculture and the insurrection that followed. The destruction of the forest in such cases is equivalent to evicting people and tossing them onto the street, a stark reality faced by urban centers that absorb most of out homeless brothers and sisters.
The Condition of Aquifers
Due to the lack of forest cover the unprotected soil on the denuded watersheds is unable to absorb the rainwater. This means that aquifers are not recharging fast enough, they are being depleted, and the levels of the water tables are dropping. Those who have studied such matters inform us that this is happening in different locations throughout the country. In one Cebu coastal area and in Metro Manila, Western Laguna and Cavite, a continuous decline in ground water levels has been observed over the past 10 years. In the Metro Manila, ground water levels have gone down from 10 to 20 meters above sea level to more than 100 meters below sea level in a number of locations. In coastal Metro Cebu, due to the continuous lowering of the water table, there is progressive salinization of its aquifer up to 2 kilometers inland. The decline of the ground water level of 4 to 6 meters per year has been reported in the Cavite area.
According to hydrologists water-stressed countries are those countries with annual supplies of 1000 –2000 cubic meters per person. When the figure drops below 1000 cubic meters –about 750 gallons per person per day—nations are classified as water scarce nations. At this stage lack of water becomes a severe constraint on food production, economic development and protection of natural systems. The Philippines is fast approaching this stage.
Government has come to realize the sad state of our watersheds, rivers, steams, lakes, esteros and coastal waters and is taking steps to address the problem. But there are no easy solutions in sight and it is going to take time. But how much time will it take? That will depend on how we, as a people, respond to the challenge. The efforts of government can only succeed if individuals and communities decide to mend their ways and develop a much stronger sense of civic virtue. We need to grow in the awareness that we are all responsible for all. For we are one nation.
In the case of watersheds, communities and commercial enterprises have to realize their importance in our national life and have to be willing to do their part in managing them efficiently. Local communities have to realize that they are part of a national community and that the entire nation depends on the well being of our watersheds. These communities are managing a national resource and have a responsibility to the nation. If the uplands are destroyed, then everyone suffers. Lowland communities need to realize that they have an obligation to support upland communities and to make it possible for them to protect the watersheds. We depend on each other.
In many cases our streams, rivers, esteros, and in some cases, our lakes, have been turned into garbage disposal areas. The amount of toxic industrial wastes – trillions of tons every year – dumped into our waterways and systems, is simply horrendous. Some of our rivers are dead or dying and emit the stench of decay. Waterways do not pollute themselves. They have become polluted because of the way people have behaved, because of our lack of civic virtue, because of our lack of concern for others and for the health of our environment. We have no excuses. We have no one to blame. Unless we change our ways and attitudes, then things are not going to improve.
THE COMMUNITY OF ACTION
What are we to do about the situation? This has frequently been called the age of the laity. Ecclesia In Asia says:
The vocation of the laity sets them firmly in the world to perform the most varied tasks, and it is here that they are called to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. By the grace and call of Baptism and confirmation, all lay people are missionaries; and the arena of their missionary work is the vast and complex worlds of politics, economics, industry, education, the media science, technology, the arts, and sport…Witnessing to the Gospel in every area of life in society, the lay faithful can play a unique role in rooting out injustice and oppression, and for this too they must be adequately formed.
It is not too late to save our critical watersheds. But it soon will be if we do not act. As pastors we want to encourage the laity, especially those with the competence and expertise to take a much greater interest in the environment and in solving the serious environmental problems facing our nation. There are too many of our professionals—economists, scientists, engineers, lawyers—who just happen to be Catholics. What we need are more Catholics who just happen to be economists, scientists, engineers and lawyers, such people who have assimilated thoroughly the Christian view of life.
They would still remain first class professionals but they would see things in a very different way because for the Christian, moral and spiritual vision has its roots in a Christ-like heart; they would be asking different questions and with a much greater sense of urgency.
Lay people live in the midst of the world and their job, their vocation, is to bring Gospel values, Christian principles, to bear on the affairs of the world, politics, society, economics, the environment, the world of culture, sciences and the arts. Their job, their vocation, is to transform the world and this means getting involved in politics, making government function more effectively, working for a more equitable distribution of wealth and opportunity, taking up environmental, industrial and developmental issues, protecting and enhancing the environment. The job, the vocation of the laity is to change structures that keep people locked in poverty, structures that encourage the destruction of the environment. Many of the problems in the environment are complex; good will and piety are not enough; their solution demands competence. The situation in the country, the environmental conditions in the country, will change when we all undergo a genuine conversion in the way we think and behave. We thus suggest the following:
The National Government
The national government needs to review all its policies regarding water and to review the performance of all agencies that have jurisdiction over the care of watersheds, water tables and aquifers. Appropriate structures have to be established to ensure effective coordination to address comprehensively the needs of households, business, agriculture and industry. This review should be undertaken with the widest possible public consultation to ensure that policies adopted enjoy wide public acceptance and support. As required by law, the national government should release the financial resources to LGUs, so that the LGUs can carry out the responsibilities assigned to them.
Incoherence in policy is an obstacle to effective watershed management; it is necessary to address areas of policy conflict, for example, in the National Integrated Protected Areas System (1991), Mining Act (1995) and the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act (1997). These conflicts have to be resolved and much more support given to responsible community management. There are no real adequate alternatives for the 20 million people living in the uplands. Shifting people around as land is demarcated for different purposes is not a solution to the bigger social problems of livelihood, food security and stability. Solutions to these problems are needed for the sake of genuine national development. Serious efforts have to be made to give them resource rights and responsibilities in a manner that does not compromise the rights of lowland society or of future generations. It is not acceptable to continue to compromise the poor and marginalized in the interest of an economic growth that is not shared. For government to rely only on the promise of a trickle down economic growth only indicates its lack of real commitment to genuine development.
As the principal guardian of the uplands and upland peoples, the primary obligation and role of the DENR is to assist upland people. Its main focus is no longer merely resource extraction or corporate enterprise. For the next twenty years the primary task of DENR will be to ensure the security of uplands people and to provide education in responsible environmental management. As the main agency responsible for the uplands, it needs to review all its environmental policies and programs and to strengthen the forest-cover component in relation to community presence and the protection of biodiveristy. Vigorous promotion of community-based forest management, a program that has shown significant signs of success, should be developed as the major strategy. People participation is essential. Government should vigorously promote assisted natural regeneration programs, and communities should be supported and encouraged to develop their non-timber resources base and to strengthen our biodiveristy.
Local Government Units
Every town needs to identify a sufficient and secure source of water, and local communities to be made aware of the importance of the area to them, and of their responsibility to maintain it. People living in the watershed need adequate support so that they can contribute to the sustainable management of the resource and to ensure that their practices do not contribute to or create a problem. The priorities of meeting domestic need over agricultural expansion and industrial development need to be maintained. It is urgent that practices of better land use, improved water quality and retention developed in a few years, be disseminated to other areas. Only in this way will declared watersheds be really protected.
The importance of building up the capabilities of LGUs is recognized so that they can undertake comprehensive land use planning and efficiently manage the natural resources of the area. Since watersheds are frequently divided by political boundaries, local governments need to dialogue and establish joint management of resources and cooperate with each other in the interest of the common good of the region. Since marginal barangays and sitios have now become central to watershed management, they require special attention in the area of basic services and sustainable livelihood. LGUs should also be capable of conducting meaningful dialogues with indigenous people in their areas so that a more effective and efficient system of governance can be achieved.
Non Government Organizations (NGOs)
NGOs can play a crucial role in helping people to organize, to articulate their concerns and compel government to listen. They can help communities become environmentally literate, focus their attention on supporting the local government in doing its job and in responding to the real concerns of the people.
NGOs can help communities shake off the victim syndrome and help them see that if they are not willing to take a stand, if they are not willing to help themselves, nobody can do it for them. The political system will work for the common good when enough people decide they are going to make it work. Many problems can be solved at the local level if there is involvement and commitment to seriously improve the situation.
The NGO role in establishing a national effort for environmental review and exploring new opportunities and approaches is essential to out growth as a society in responsible environmental management
The Scientific Community
The scientific community has a major role to play in the rehabilitation and management of our watersheds. Scientists can provide valuable inputs and conduct environmental awareness programs for communities, NGOs, church social action groups, and for alternative and non-formal education centers. It is imperative to mobilize the scientific community to contribute to an overview of the physical, biological, social and organizational problems and strategies of a comprehensive and effective response to water management. Good will alone is not sufficient; local government and local communities need to gain wider experience and be educated in the basics of water management and their technical understanding and social capacity need greater development.
Communities can be involved in scientific projects in the monitoring of the condition of watersheds. Under the guidance of scientists, communities can make an important contribution by collecting data. It would also give communities a lot of confidence to know that they have established links with our scientific community. Our scientific community can provide them with basic but accurate information and build with local skills management schemes that can deal with the small-scale local needs. The support of the media in disseminating scientific information on the environment and its protection is crucial, and they should be encouraged to help generously.
The Church has a major contribution to make by presenting and explaining the grandeur and beauty of the Christian vision of creation. The New Catechism of the Catholic Church treats of the importance of catechesis on creation. It is clear that without belief “in the Creator of heaven and earth”, the other articles of the Creed lack any foundation.
The laity do not expect their priests to be experts in economics, political science, sociology or ecology. They do expect, however, to hear solid teaching on the Christian meaning of life, on the meaning of creation, and why as Catholics when they get involved in environmental activities they are doing God’s work. They need to be inspired and enlightened about their role in the secular arena. As the only Catholic country in Asia, the Philippines has to bear witness to Christ and one area where we can do this is in our concern for the environment. If, as a people, we allow our faith to guide our conduct, then we will soon experience the renewal of our environment.
The philosopher, Etienne Gilson, talking about the meaning of being catholic, said that we should be: “Not indeed Catholics, who would wear their faith as a feather in their cap, but Catholics who would make Catholicism so enter into our daily lives that the unbelieving would come to wonder what secret force animated that work and that life, and that having discovered it, they would say to themselves: he is a very good man, and now I know why: it is because he is a Catholic.” iii People ought to be able to look at the Philippines and come to the same conclusion.
Our social action centers and directors can play an important role by teaching people how to respond to the many environmental programs being introduced to communities. Sometimes the implications of these programs are not understood, or conflict with one another, or need much better coordination. When people are unsure or afraid, they tend to say, “No.” In a world that is becoming more complex, a more nuanced and thought out response might better serve their interests. Our social action centers can help people assess and evaluate these programs and react to them in a manner that unites the community.
Our social action centers can play a crucial role in inviting scientists and planners to give a clear analysis of problems. In most areas these people are available and would probably appreciate being invited to share their knowledge.
Our social action centers should take the lead in promoting genuine dialogue over issues that divide communities. A united community is a strong community and genuine dialogue promotes unity. Furthermore, we need to take upon ourselves the responsibility of assuring that our children’s inheritance is protected. Many of the problems facing the nation, and this includes environmental problems, can only be solved if we act as communities. It is only by acting collectively, as a community, that we can hope to ensure that our cultural and environmental options are secure for future generations.
The Church has another great resource in the millions of dedicated members of “mandated organizations” and Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs). They must begin to be more deeply involved in the solving of ecological problems at their level of the community.
To share in the great blessings of this Year of Jubilee we must strive to be reconciled with one another, to forgive and to ask for forgiveness; we must remember that the riches of Creation, the wealth of our land, have been given by God so that a life of dignity can be enjoyed by all the inhabitants of our country and by future generations. Our homeland has been entrusted to our care and we are responsible for passing on a sound environment to generations yet unborn. We can be grateful for the keener sense of responsibility towards the environment that is developing among us — a true sign of hope.
In this Year of Jubilee, it is our prayer that our Catholic Faith will take hold of our minds and hearts and become the wellspring of our thoughts and actions. To receive this great grace, we need to spend time silently meditating on the great truths God has revealed. For our minds and hearts to be transformed we need to spend time quietly in the company of that same Christ who was conceived in Mary’s womb, who was born of the Virgin Mary, who died on the cross and rose from the dead, and who now in his resurrected and glorified humanity is present in heaven and in the most Blessed Sacrament in our churches.
The Holy Father wants this Year of Jubilee to be “intensely Eucharistic.” At the Offertory in the Mass the gifts of bread and wine are placed on the altar. We know that the bread is made from wheat, wheat that grew in a field watered by rain from the clouds; the wheat was ground, mixed with water that also came from the earth, baked in an oven and made into bread. Wine comes from grapes that grew in a vineyard; the vines shot their roots down into the soil and drew their nourishment from the good earth. It is important to reflect deeply on this. Christ accepts the gifts we offer, “which earth has given and human hands have made” and the “fruit of the vine and work of human hands” and at the consecration transforms the bread and wine into his glorified humanity. Pope John Paul II writes: “Under the sign of the consecrated bread and wine, Christ Jesus, risen and glorified, the Light of the nations (Luke 2:32), reveals the continuation of his incarnation. He is still risen and alive in our midst, to nourish believers with his body and blood.”iv Christ, the Lord of Creation, takes bread and wine, parts of the material creation, sprung from the soil of the earth, and transforms them into his glorified humanity to become present among us. Out God is truly Emmanuel–God with us.
If we learn to really love Christ present in the Eucharist, then this love should express itself in a deep concern for Creation because:
Christ loved the earth, loved it as a lover because it was God’s earth;
He loved it, because it was created by His Father from nothingness to be Life’s temple. v
For the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines
+ORLANDO B. QUEVEDO, O.M.I.
Archbishop of Cotabato
July 5, 2000
i Environmental Science for Social Change, 1999. Decline of the Philippine Forests, Phils: Bookmark.
iii Gilson Etienne, 1939. Christianity and Philosophy, London: Sheed and Ward.
iv Paul II, John Paul. The Mystery of the Incarnation, quoted in Gift of Divine Life, prepared by Theological and Historical Commission for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, Phils: Paulines Publishing House, 1999.
v O’Malley, B. 1989. A Welsh Pilgrim’s Manual, Gomer Publisher, quoted in The Elements of Celtic Christianity by Anthony Duncan, Element Books Limited 1997.
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