Green Devolution: Contradictions in the Marcos Environmental Agenda
In a speech to the First ASEAN Forestry Congress in 1983, Marcos declared:
I believe we should begin by asking ourselves how we are going to utilize our forest resources. Shall we, for example, continue to parlay our future, the future welfare of our people and the environment, to satisfy our immediate need for foreign exchange? Shall we allow our loggers to push back our tribal forest settlers to the innermost recesses of our forest lands? The answers to these and similar questions are quite obvious.
The above passage demonstrates Marcos’s keen understanding of the role that forests play in driving economic development, but at the same time the necessity of safeguarding their natural wealth as an investment in future generations. Marcos criticizes in this speech how businesses at present seem to be exploiting the environment, compromising the nation’s long-term welfare for short-term gratification. Moreover, Marcos displays sensitivity to how environmental exploitation even has immediate effects on indigenous peoples, who are otherwise easily forgotten in mainstream discussions of the utilization of natural resources.
However, as much as Marcos trumpeted his love of the environment in his public rhetoric, the environmental programs his administration implemented turned out to have many adverse effects. During the Marcos regime, abuses were rampant on both the environment itself and the indigenous people who subsisted on it, often for the benefit of Marcos and his cronies. In this exhibit, we look more closely at the contradictions which constituted the Marcos environmental agenda, reflecting on how the destruction of the forests and countryside left a scar on the nation in more ways than one.
Projects were envisioned to enrich the countryside. But they were often detrimental to the communities that lived there.
Every April 24 since 1985, the people of Cordillera celebrate Cordillera Day. They started celebrating it in memory of the Butbut tribe leader Macli-ing Dulag, slain by military men on the same day in 1980, for opposing the Chico Dam project headed by the National Power Corporation and funded by the World Bank. The project would have seen the construction of four dams along the Chico River, used by thousands of villagers of Kalinga and Bontoc for irrigation and domestic purposes. The dam would have disrupted their customary activities and even caused flooding in the areas.
Due to the strong opposition following Dulag’s murder, the project was cancelled. It was on the fight against the Chico Dam that the World Bank based its 1982 operational policy statement concerning indigenous peoples. The World Bank emphasized the necessity of prior consent and communication with the community before taking on projects. While the Marcos administration did speak with tribe leaders like Macli-ing Dulag, they persisted even when the locals did not agree.
The Cordillera peoples’ opposition was informed by the intimate relationship that they—like the rest of our indigenous brothers—had with the environment. For them, the environment—mountains, rivers, woods, plains—are not for individual humans to own, and hence certainly not for big corporations either.
The green revolution introduced new rice technology to boost farm production. But it increased inequality instead of benefitting the farmers themselves.
With the establishment of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in 1962 also came the beginning of the so-called green revolution. The green revolution, targeting to enrich the vast Filipino fields, was meant to boost rice production and hence feed more Filipinos, particularly the poorer of our countrymen. More than solving hunger, it was also meant to solve unemployment— the more rice needed, the more farmers could work in the fields. The program was going to achieve this through scientific advances of IRRI, which would produce rice that could yield more crop.
However, the reality was that rice was not prioritized. Instead, other crops like corn, pineapple, and coconut received greater attention because they turned out to be more profitable than rice, especially as export products. This demonstrates how reliance on export profits often serviced industries and businesses over ordinary Filipinos. The priority given to exports served the interests of landowners and those engaged in trade over the people who worked in the fields themselves. It made the rich even richer and the poor and hungry, poorer and hungrier.
During the era, Philippine log exports helped boost the economy to be competitive in Asia. But these developments rode on the back of massive deforestation, crony capitalism, and displacement of indigenous peoples.
During the Marcos regime, the Philippines became a major exporter of logs to the US and Japan. At the same time, however, it also became notorious for the denudation of local forests. And while fewer and fewer trees made up the country’s forest cover—from two-thirds to one-third of the country’s land area—timberlands that were supposed to be publicly owned became the logging empires of fewer than 200 individuals.
The result: over 8 million hectares of forest trees gone, 2 million of which had been severely damaged beyond the point of restoration. In comparison, the island of Mindanao is about 9.8 million hectares.
And it was not that countries like Japan have no forest cover or trees to cut down for lumber. It was precisely their desire to preserve their forests that they turned to countries like ours to supply them with lumber. Thus, biodiversity was preserved and erosions prevented in other Asian countries, while the opposite prevailed in our own. This is an example of the global inequality Marcos condemned in his speeches, whereby more developed countries advance at the expense of less developed ones.
But despite Marcos’s public support for the preservation of forests, his real actions spoke otherwise. In his speeches he decried careless deforestation for short-term economic benefit, but Marcos has also been documented to use logging licenses as leverage for his cronies. For example, while strictly imposing economic sanctions on competitors, Marcos would give concessions to crony-owned logging companies like Herminio Disini’s Cellophil Resources Corporation. On top of the advantage of being able to operate at lower costs, Marcos cronies in the industry were also allowed to log in heritage lands supposedly reserved for ethnic minorities. To accommodate crony activities, the people would be displaced from their homes, and the military would be used to neutralize any opposition.
The environmental concerns during the Marcos regime demonstrate the following: first, that the affront to the environment was simultaneously an affront to the people that dwelled in it, especially indigenous peoples who treat land with a special reverence; second, that the threat to the environment in the country was tied to the selfish interests of big corporations—often owned by foreigners or local cronies—thereby affecting the country’s economy and citizens as a whole.
Looking at these contradictions in Marcos’s environmental agenda lets us see that exploiting the country’s natural resources is always interconnected with human rights, agriculture, and the economy. Whereas Marcos spoke grandly of preserving the forests for the greater good of the people, as it turned out, the greater good was only for a privileged few.
Illustrations by Joreen Navarro
Bantayog ng mga Bayani. (2016). Martyrs & heroes. Retrieved from http://www.bantayog.org/?page_id=217
Bantayog ng mga Bayani. (2015). The Cordillera Resistance against Chico Dam and Cellophil. Retrieved from http://www.bantayog.org/the-cordillera-resistance-against-chico-dam-and-cellophil/
Boyce, J. K. (1993). The political economy of growth and impoverishment in the Marcos era. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press.
Hirsch, P., & Warren, C. (1998). The politics of environment in Southeast Asia: Resources and resistance. New York: Routledge.
Vitug, M. D. (1993). Power from the forest: The politics of logging. Manila: Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.
World Bank (2016). Indigenous Peoples. Retrieved from http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/indigenouspeoples