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TEARS OF ASIA: ECOLOGICAL CRISIS AND SUFFERINGS OF THE POOR

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Carlito M. Gaspar CSsR/Redemptorist Brother, Philippine Mindanao Church worker and anthropologist

 

Before, I address the dramatic theme of this symposium dealing with − Tears of the Earth: Ecological Crisis in Asia and the Sufferings of the Poor − I propose that we first do a scanning of Asia. Our Asian continent is such a vast territory covering the world! It covers almost 9% of the earth’s total surface, with the land area making up almost 30% of the total. The total Asian population is now huge with 4 billion, roughly 60% of the world’s total population. Say the word Asia and you think of the word “religion” as this continent is the birthplace of Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Sikhism, Jainism, Zen Buddhism, Shinto, Zoroastrianism, Shamanism, Animism and Christianity. In this wide landscape, we Christians are a miniscule minority, making up less than 3% of the total population.

But say the word Asia and you also think of the word “poor”. There might be people who will disagree with this statement as there are those who would claim that some parts of Asia are now at par with the United States, Europe and Japan. In fact it is claimed that “over the past quarter century, the global economy has doubled every 10 years, going from $31 trillion in 1999 to $62 trillion in 2008” and “more than 400 million people across Asia have been lifted out of poverty.” (Zakaria 2009, 38)

But let us not forget that we have huge populations. China has 1.32 billion. India has 1.12 billion. Indonesia has 234 million. Even if there are growing number of their populations whose income is increasing, there are still millions of the poor with no access to food, potable water, shelter and other basic needs. Even if we place the poverty incidence in China, India and Indonesia at a low 20%, that would still total 554 million people out of a total of 2.77 billion people.

Haruhiko Kuroda, the President of the Asian Development Bank sees this as alarming setback for the vision of the poverty-free Asia and urged government to spend on social safety needs, education and health, especially for the poor. We no longer speak of poverty in terms of non-access to material goods. We speak of poverty in terms of disjointed social commitments, fragmented human relationships and long-term ecological destruction. In the event of a greater ecological crisis, it is the poor who are the most affected.

Now we can ask the question − What has been the impact of climate change in Asia and why has this caused a lot of suffering among the poor?

THE ENVIRONMENT IN ASIA TODAY

First let us look at what has happened to nature in this part of the world. We have a few examples where Asia is in peril:

One of the major causes of global warming is deforestation all across the world which now account for 15% of global emissions by human activity. Today, the only remaining vast forests are in some parts of Africa and the Amazon.

Already there is no let-up in logging operations across the world where there are still forests left. From 2000 to 2005 alone, in Brazil 3.1 million hectares forests were cut; in Indonesia 1.9 million hectares, Burma 466,000 hectares, Congo 319,000. Main causes for logging were logging(10~15%), large-scale agriculture(10~15%), small-holder agriculture(35~45%) and cattle pasture (20~25%)(Ibid, 35). One of the major impact of the disappearing forests is that the world’s richest habitats have been destroyed. Apart from its impacts on local and global climate patterns, it affects people’s livelihood and health. It is estimated that tens of thousands of species on earth have disappeared because of deforestation to the tune of 10,000 species annually.

From forests, we go to rivers and waters. There is a place known as “the third pole, but when it comes to clear and present threats from climate change, it may rank first. The high-altitude glaciers of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau − which cover parts of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and China − are the water tower of Asia. When the ice thaws and the snow melts every spring, the glaciers birth the great rivers of the region, the mightiest river system in the world: the Ganges, the Indus, the Brahmaputra, the Mekong, the Yellow, the Yangtze. Together, these rivers give material and spiritual sustenance to 3 billion people, nearly half of the world’s population − and all are nursed by Himalayan ice”(Walsh 2009, 34).

China has been criticized by its neighbours for the dams it built along the rivers that flow into other nations. For now the conflict over water between India and Pakistan is still at low level, but if water becomes scarce, these countries with nuclear capabilities could create havoc in the area.

Environmental problems are now a major cause of health problems for many people in a number of Asian countries that experienced spectacular economic growth in the past few decades, including South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hongkong, South China and recently Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. But countries are pitted against each other in terms of keeping labor costs down to attract investments. The drive for big profit has also lead to large quantities of hazardous wastes. In Taiwan, there has been an accumulation of solid and hazardous wastes, air and water pollution that have destabilized natural resource systems.

In South Korea, the annual mean level of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide concentrations in Seoul are among the highest in the world. This is especially true around the huge industrial export zone areas. Hospitals have reported increasing numbers of patients with bronchitis, asthma and pneumonia. Cancer-producing substances benzene, asbestos, vinyl chloride and cadmium are regularly released into the surrounding areas. There have been acid rains affecting nature. Workers in many plants are routinely exposed to toxic substances. In the Wonjin rayon factor in Kuri City, workers have died from debilitating illness caused by exposure to carbon disulphide poisoning. Water pollution is also widespread and has impact on human health and fishing industry in coastal areas. Large companies such as Hyundai, Doosan, Samsung and Lucky-Goldstar are among leading polluters.(McDonagh 1995)

The impact of the ecological crisis has been devastating. We have witnessed more changes to global weather patterns. With the unpredictable changes in the weather, there are now more frequent and terrifying storms, floods and droughts. While all are affected by these, it is the poor, those who have done least to cause the problem, who are already suffering its consequences and will be hit the hardest. They are the most vulnerable and will suffer most with the worsening poverty, poor infrastructure, dependence on rain-feed agriculture and little resource to protect themselves from extreme climate changes. From 2000 to 2004, 262 million people were affected according to the data from the UN Development Programme with 98% of them in poor countries.

ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEMS IN THE
PHILIPPINES

I will now share with you our experiences in my country, the Philippines and give you more concrete stories regarding our ecological problems and how these have impacted the lives of the poor in my country.

Deforestation:

The Philippines used to be covered with forests. When the Spaniards colonized us in the late 1500s, the forests accounted for 92% of total land area, covering almost 30 million hectares. In the 1920s when Japan began to industrialize, they began to import wood from us and this intensified after the Second World War. The peak of the deforestation was in the 1960s when an average of 300,000 hectares of forests was cut per year with no reforestation taking place. In the 1990s, the deforestation was still at 100,000 hectares per year. By 1991, only 6.5 million hectares were left. By 2000, only 1 million hectares were left; today it is less than a million hectares. (Vitug 1993, 13)

The ones most affected by the deforestation are the indigenous peoples whose total way of life is connected to the forests from hunting and food gathering to finding herbal medicine to cure their illness. The 15 million Filipinos who belong to more than 100 ethnolinguistic groups used to reside mainly in the uplands where the forests where. When the forests disappeared, their economy, culture and kinship systems were destroyed. They have been forced to live in the lowlands. Having no skills to find jobs in the towns and cities, they end up as beggars or vendors who sell all kinds of goods in the markets. They are forced to live in slum areas where the sanitation and health situation is appalling. Many of them get sick but there is little access to hospitalization. Their elderly die earlier and there remains a high infant mortality rate. They also cannot send their children to school owing to limited income. In the end, they are fragmented from their ancestral domain, their culture and their indigenous faith traditions.

But all Filipinos are affected with the massive deforestation in terms of the regular floods and landslides that take place in our country. On 5 November 1991, floods hit Ormoc City in central Philippines, with four thousand people killed and 2,000 could not be found as they were buried in mud. Just last October 2009, a super typhoon named Ondoy hit us. Hundreds drowned and 7 million Filipinos were affected as they lost homes and property. Farmers lost their crops and animals. The total cost of damage in terms of infrastructure and agriculture totalled US$ 5 billion. There have been communities opposing the continuing logging. But they are harassed by the forest guards of logging companies, often supported by the State military and police. Recently, a Higaonon chieftain, Alberto Pinagawa, 54 years old, who lead an anti-logging campaign was shot and killed by unidentified men in Minalwang, Gingoog city. Their tribe opposed the city government’s issuance of a forestry agreement that overlapped with their ancestral domain claim.

Dams:

In order to produce more energy, the government has been building dams for hydro- electric power. In Mindanao, the major sources of electricity are from these hydro-electric plants. But in building the dams, hundreds of farmers were dislocated from their homes and farms. In cases where there are indigenous and Muslim communities, cemeteries were desecrated like those in Lanao del Sur. A proposed dam known as Pulangi V is being pushed by the First Bukidnon Electric Cooperative (FIBECO) in central Mindanao. This is expected to add 300 megawatts of electricity but it will submerge 80,000 hectares of 6 towns dislocating 6,000 households and affecting the indigenous people’s sacred sites. The problems with dams apart from the cost shouldered by the poor, is that during long droughts, the water level go down which means power stoppage or brown-outs affecting everyone. And when there is too much rain, water needs to be released thus causing floods to the communities in the lowlands.

Aerial Spray in Fruit Plantations:

Most of the fruit plantations in my country are located in typhoon-free Mindanao. The banana plantations were set up here since the 1960s by a number of multinational corporations. To maximize profits they have been using aerial spray across the thousands of hectares of plantations but which also affect the health conditions of human communities of farmers living side by side with the plantations. In a statement prepared by a coalition of communities and NGOs that was recently published in the national papers, they declared that:

“Aerial spraying or the use of small planes to drop agrochemicals… disregard the people’s right to health, environment and livelihoods. In aerial spraying, people have no choice. People’s personal boundaries are violated by the chemical trespass. The most adversely affected are the rural poor, the small farmers who live within and around the plantations.”

Hundreds of people have been affected with skin diseases because of such practice.

Fishing and Aquatic Resources:

Because the Philippines are made up of more than 7,000 islands, we have an extensive coastal areas for fishing. This is why for many years we were a fish power in the world owing to our enormous marine species. As the world’s fish stocks have been reduced to one third of what it used to be, the Philippines, too, is experiencing the reduction of the volume of fishing which has brought the fishing industry on the brink of collapse. We used to be the eighth most productive source of fisheries in the world, and third in the production of seaweeds and other aquatic plants. We have lost the status as a major source of fish catch due to the impact of climate change and destructive fishing practices like the use of dynamites.A big percentage of our people, especially poor farmers-fisherfolk who live near the sea rely on the sea for their source of protein. With the diminishing fishing catch, not only is there less supply of food but also source of income to pay for their basic needs.

Mining:

The most serious cause of worry for many Filipinos who are monitoring the ecological crisis in the Philippines is the expansion of mining operations, especially open-pit mining. In the last two decades, the government has been pushing for more explorations and mining operations, inviting many foreign mining companies to invest in the Philippines. My country is very rich in all kinds of minerals. We have 17% of the world’s nickel resources; we are the world’s fourth biggest copper producer; fifth in terms of gold deposits and now we are Asia’s 3rd largest gold producer. We not only have gold, nickel, copper but also silver, cobalt, chromite and others.

This is why many mining companies want to invest in the Philippines. Our government is doing its best to attract more foreign investments to raise more money to pay for our huge external debt. From 2003 to 2007 alone, 40 major mining companies entered the country bringing in US$ 1.4 billion investments. By next year, the amount could rise to US$ 9 billion. China has been very interested to do mining in the Philippines, recently it had US$ 1.5 billion joint ventures with local businessmen.

But there have been serious ecological problems due to mining. Most of the areas where mines are located are part of the ancestral domain of the indigenous people and they are dislocated once mining begins. There have been many disasters caused by these mining firms. The most dramatic examples involved the flooding of 3 million tons of metal-enriched and acid-generating tailings in the Marcopper firm operating in Marinduque island in 1993 and the cyanide spill by the Canadian Placer Dome Co. in Rapu-rapu, Bikol region in 1996.

In both disasters, there were people killed, residents lost homes and farms. Both areas affected rivers and the coastal areas. There were fish-kills and thus, fisherfolk were deprived of their livelihood. Children and old people got sick. In some cases, like the one of the OceanaGold Philippines’ mining operations in Didipio, Kasibu, Bayombong, Nueva Ecija, the company demolished the houses of the indigenous people living in the area and threatened the leaders who oppose the mining corporation.

Climate change has brought about scorching days in the Philippines during the summer seasons. This year, the maximum temperature has reached 37 to almost 40 degrees Celsius. Most affected are the urban centers such as Manila where the heat becomes unbearable. The elderly and sick are prone to heat strokes and a number of deaths have been reported in terms of this heat. Many of the poor in the urban areas are able to earn money through jobs that involve being outside in the streets, like drivers of public transportation, vendors selling all kinds of goods, policemen guarding the streets and peddlers of all sorts of services. Mostly these people are poor as they are mainly migrants from the provinces who flock to the cities in the hope of earning a living. But their livelihood put them at risk owing to the scorching heat which could make them sick.

There have been many citizen’s groups opposing these mining explorations and operations. But as the people take a militant stand to stop the mining exploration and operations then the combined armed forces of the mining companies and the State military harass them. In some cases, some leaders have been killed.

As you can tell, the Philippines is a good case study of a country beset by many ecological problems. So you can tell that thousands of our poor people suffer the consequences of these problems and disasters. You can also imagine the tears that are shed as they face all these pain and suffering.

WHY CHRISTIANS SHOULD ENGAGE IN THE ISSUE OF CLIMATE CHANGE

A number of reflections should encourage us to deepen our commitment on behalf of Mother Nature:

“Poor people are the victims of the world order of over-consumption and ever increasing profits, fuelled by human greed, which is proving so ecologically damaging… Ours is a project of hope for a better future: that God’s creation will be treated with reverence, that the poor will be better off and that we will be living more true to ourselves and to what God has created us to be − one family, living in solidarity with one another and with the many generations yet to come” (Holman 2009, 11).

“God created the earth and entrusted its care to us. We have seriously neglected this important responsibility. It is now time to restore a more sustainable relationship with our environment, so that all human beings have the opportunity to live in dignity. As Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his recent encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Love in Truth), “the environment is God’s gift to everyone, and in our use of it, we have a responsibility towards the poor, towards future generations and towards humanity as a whole”… (O’Brien 2009, 7).

Our own bishops in the Philippines, who were the first Bishops Conference to issue a pastoral statement on ecology in 1988, made this statement:

“To put it simply: our country is in peril. All the living systems on land and in the seas around us are being ruthlessly exploited. The damage to date is extensive and, sad to say, it is often irreversible…. As we reflect on what is happening in the light of the Gospel we are convinced that this assault on creation is sinful and contrary to the teachings of our faith… At this point in the history of our country it is crucial that people motivated by religious faith develop a deep appreciation for the fragility of our islands’ life−systems and take steps to defend the Earth.” (Cited in Josol 1991)

Compared to the Roman Catholic Church, the Protestant churches under the World Council of Churches have been more advanced in pushing the ecological agenda. Through the years, the WCC has developed many documents on global warming. In May 1994, it published the Accelerated Climate Change: Sign of Peril, Test of Faith. In 2002, another document on climate change − Solidarity with victims of Climate Change − pointed out that the extreme weather conditions caused by climate change costing a fortune. (Ibid, 99)

MY OWN PERSONAL REFLECTIONS:

Having worked with indigenous peoples and rural poor communities, I have been immersed among the poorest of the poor. I have shared their lives, listened to their stories, engaged in their struggles and participated in various pastoral programs aimed at responding to the issues − social, cultural and ecological − affecting the poor. I have been a witness to how the poor have suffered because of their poverty and powerlessness, the neglect of the government who have continued to be indifferent to the plight of the poor and, lately, owing to the impact of climate change. I have been engaged in the campaigns and programs of the Church and NGOs in the fields of human rights, alleviating poverty, and engaging in justice and peace as well as integrity of creation. I have also been privileged to listen to their cry and lamentations. I have been touched by their deep faith in God’s providence and compassion. Despite their poverty, they continue to trust and depend on God’s love for them. They are convinced that God is Creator of everything in creation and that we all share the responsibility of loving one another and loving the whole of creation. This is why they can so easily be convinced of the need to work for social and ecological issues.

On the part of the indigenous people, I have been very moved by their wholistic view of their cosmic religion, namely, that everything in the universe is inter-related. There is a wholeness in their respect and appreciation of creation; their belief in their Deity is such that nothing − human beings, forests, the soil, animals, trees, etc. − is to be considered useless and destroyed. All are intertwined and thus, we should all do our best to protect Mother Nature.

I share many of the beliefs and commitments of the poor to reverse what used to be the dominant discourse of most people, namely, that the world was created for peoples and that human beings can just decide what to do with forests, soil, trees, waters, animals and plants. We have to change this mentality that has led to the destruction of the environment and which has provided the loggers, miners, construction firms, fruit plantation companies, with the power to be the ones solely to decide on what we do with nature. We should view the whole universe from the lens of those who have been provided by God with the wisdom to value the integrity of creation.

My own awareness of the ecological crisis and my faith commitment to help protect Mother Nature only arose in the late 1980s when I was immersed among poor communities who opposed the continuing logging operations. Through the years I deepened this communities in advocating for the end of aerial spraying and destructive open-pit mining. These engagements have not been easy as we’ve been faced with powerful enemies, greedy corporate firms supported by a corrupt government with a military-police machinery supporting the interests of the elite. But I continue my ecological commitment because:

As a Christian, I fully believe that taking a preferential option for the poor today also means taking a preferential option for creation, since the ones who suffer the most from the ecological crisis are the poor.

As a Christian, I fully believe that all of God’s people have a right to a fullness of life. Today in terms of the context of all kinds of crises including the ecological one, there is fullness of life if we are able to provide what the poor needs in the context of their biological, physical, social, cultural, faith and ecological concerns. All these cannot be attained if the whole of creation is fragmented, disrupted and destroyed. The fullness of our life necessarily requires the full integrity of creation which is the locus of God’s love for the whole of humanity.

As a Christian, I fully believe that God’s gift of salvation for humanity is situated within God’s gift of creation. We cannot be saved only from the perspective of a dream of a heaven beyond life and beyond this earth. We are also saved in the here and now, in the joys and pleasures that we are able to enjoy with the people/communities/persons we love. But these expression of joys and pleasures are brought about by the beauty, goodness and generosity of the universe which is our abode, our home and locus of our being creatures of the one Creator.

As a Christian, we show compassion for the rest of humanity − people of various races, genders, creeds, cultures, faith traditions, ages, social classes, ethnicities, etc. − by doing the little we can so that the whole of humanity are not made to suffer in a world characterized by pollution, disease, suffering brought about by ecological damnation. Instead, that we are able to do the little we can to provide humanity with a world that was truly God’s gift to all of us, but an earth that manifests God’s love and generosity because it is an earth that mirrors creation when it first appeared in the horizon before human beings began to destroy it.

Having been gifted with this insight which is truly a gift from the Creator, I continue to do my ecological engagement despite the difficulties that I have faced along the way.

OUR RESPONSE TO THE ECOLOGICAL CRISIS

One wonders why is it that despite the fact that the ecological crisis is already felt by millions of people and that many of the Asian faith traditions exhort us to be engaged with life and creation, there seems to be a very weak response on our part to protect Mother Nature. We should drastically change our attitude and ask ourselves: What should we do to end the tears of the suffering poor of Asia? We should think globally but act locally.

We should find ways to join civil society groups engaged in the environmental issues to push our individual governments not to focus their attention only on their own national short-term interests.

We should also be part of the advocacy for the development of a technology towards a Low Carbon Future. The reductions needed could be achieved in investing in energy efficiency by using lower-carbon energy sources, and through reducing deforestation (Kirby 2010, 6).

We could join the United Nations campaign to protect the biodiversity of the wildlife in our countries, as the UN declared 2010 as the International Year of Biodiversity. Let us all help in the campaign to protect our forests which is one of the easiest and cheapest ways to take a bite out of the apple when it comes to emissions.

Let us join all kinds of campaigns that help bring ecological awareness. Every March 29 there is the Earth Hour, when even for an hour we put off all lights.

In today’s Asian realities, there continues to be such a major need to bring the members of Christian communities to study the concrete ecological situation, do research and documentation on environmental issues, reflect on the realities in view of the consolidation of globalization including its impact on the delicate eco-systems, exchange views on what are the root causes of the people’s poverty and powerlessness and even theologize on this situation. All these are seen as integral steps towards encouraging and empowering all the faithful to act on the basis of their reading of the signs of the times in the light of the Gospel.

There are also little actions we can do in terms of our everyday lives. We could participate in campaigns towards zero waste management. In terms of our garbage we can adopt the practice of garbage segregation, so that we don’t throw too much waste. If we ever do gardening we can stop using fertilizers and chemicals, instead adopt organic farming. If we are in contact with farmers groups, we should encourage and support their efforts in sustainable agriculture. We could refrain from using too much plastic materials. We could stop buying junk food in the supermarkets. We find ways to keep our lifestyle as simple as possible. As Gandhi said, the world has enough for everyone’s needs but not for everyone’s greed.

It is my wish and prayer that all of us would be able to generate enough energy in our hearts and minds vis-à-vis our faith tradition and cultures to sustain our efforts to work for the sake of the coming generations. For it is said that our generation today only borrow the resources of the world today; we are only stewards. It is the future generations who have a claim to the earth’s bountiful resources. And for the sake of the generations still to come, let us end the tears of the earth now!

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Journal <Theology & Solidarity> Vol.4  2010