On Our Own Terms: Women in Population, Environment, and Development in the Philippines

Author(s): Marilen J. DaƱguilan
Date Published: July 16, 2006

As far back as the late 1960s, I read about the population bomb and its frightening consequences. The scenes created by such terms were gray and somber. The images conjured up were equally dismal.

Filipinos would be too many so soon, and we would be standing shoulder to shoulder all over the islands - from Jolo to Batanes. We would be choking ourselves to death from the sheer pressure of people crowding in on us. We would be fighting among ourselves because we would not have enough food and water. We would go hungry and there would be riots and civil wars.

Tidal waves and massive floods would drown cities and submerge tiny islands if all those Chinese and Indians urinated or jumped into the sea at the same time.

Never mind if these scenarios carried racist overtones. Never mind if they sounded alarmist or pessimistic. Never mind if they distracted us from analyzing why the population gun was pointed at us. What is chilling is that, after more than thirty years, we still hear- no less from our political leaders and some international agencies-these very same arguments. The Malthusian legacy has been well imbibed.

An administrator of the United Nations Development Program was quoted as saying at a press conference held in Manila Hotel in 1992 that only one in five babies born today is white. "The others, he said, were from Third World mothers, and this concerned him" (Far Eastern Economic Review, May 13, 1993).
President Ramos declared that, "the serious imbalances of both our economy and our environment have arisen primarily from our pervasive and proliferating population growth."

Vice-president Estrada reduced the population, environment, and development debate to Malthusian proportions when he said: "Our resources are limited and even declining. Our population is increasing rapidly far beyond our capability to support and provide for the needs of our people in terms of food, shelter, social services, and basic amenities." He even went so far as to lay the blame for "criminal behavior" on overpopulation.

Security Adviser Joe Almonte wrote that "population pressure... has…generated instability, rebellion, and secession." He cited rapid population growth as one cause of the Huk rebellion in the 1950s.

Speaker Joe de Venecia, after "looking at some vital statistics," declared: "We cannot but single out our fast growing population as a major reason for our sluggish economic performance."

NEDA Director General Cielito Habito asserted that "the increasing land requirements of an ever-growing population often lead to other problems like decrease in soil fertility, degradation of forests, depletion of genetic resources, and conversion of productive cropland into residential or industrial areas."

Our leaders issued these statements with the government's blueprint for development - Philippines 2000 - in mind. The country will not join the ranks of the group of newly industrialized countries (NIC) in the year 2000 if the population continues to swell, so the argument goes.

But let's take a look at Philippines 2000. Its overarching goals are: to achieve global competitiveness through deregulation, liberalization, privatization, and the dismantling of monopolies and cartels; and popular empowerment through increased participation of people in governance and the provision of livelihood, education, health, and social services.

Its growth strategies aim to achieve these goals through free trade, specifically through:

a) promoting export industries:
This means pursuing the export of furniture, electronics, textiles, and food that have little or insignificant value added; this also means exploiting young women workers in export processing zones; and this further means, to put it kindly, discouragement of the formation and anti-management activities of labor unions, and implementation of an industrial policy of zero strikes;

b) industrializing from an agricultural base:
This means extracting, from our natural resources and environmental base, various mineral deposits such as platinum and gold, commercial crops, and raw materials such as timber and other forest products;

c) developing an educated workforce:
This implies an educational system that is being strengthened as a provider of vocational-technical knowledge rather than a base for scientific, philosophical, and industrial learning; and

d) building solid infrastructure:
This refers to dams, hotels, bridges, resorts, golf courses, among others, mainly for the benefit of foreign investors. And this may require the destruction of villages, rice lands, and mountains to accommodate such infrastructure. This may cause the displacements of peoples from these areas, as occurred in Ambuklao, Binga, and Pantabangan.

Like the government of Cory Aquino, the Ramos administration, through its Medium Term Philippine Development Plan, calls for "continued trade liberalization and tariff reform." Thus, it has lifted government restrictions on foreign exchange and reduced tariffs. Once more, the Ramos government reinforced its commitment to free trade in the Asia Pacific Economic Conference held in Indonesia recently. The Senate is bent on ratifying the GATT. This will institutionalize the government's commitment to free trade.

Under this administration, as it has always been since post-colonial times, free trade - the free flow of capital and goods across borders and boundaries - has been pursued to achieve economic growth and development.
But despite all the years of free trade in this country, we have not gone far enough in alleviating poverty.

This isn't surprising. For one thing, in the world's history, no developed country ever achieved economic progress through free trade. Not Japan, not the U.S., not France, not Australia, and not the NICs whom we want so much to emulate. They rejected free trade because they knew this would be tantamount to signing their death warrants. Malaysia is hesitant about free trade. So is South Korea. And so is Japan.

Strange that the Philippines embraced it. Stranger still, that it is the basis of this country's development. And strangest yet is that this kind of development should now be tagged as "sustainable."

The term "sustainable development" is a buzzword that should be challenged. We ought to question the development model the government wants us to sustain. This kind of development may not be at all compatible with the concept of sustainability.

In doing so, we cannot help but ask questions. Why, for instance, is the country importing almost everything when it has inadequate foreign exchange earnings and why do we keep on borrowing more? Why has the country adopted the import-based export-orientation as a strategy towards industrialization at a time when other countries such as the U.S., Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and China have chosen to protect their own markets, and when our products are susceptible to the whims of the global market? After more than forty years of adhering closely to policies supporting foreign exchange decontrols and an export-oriented kind of industrialization, why is the country still mainly agricultural? Why has the country not "taken-off," as economists love to say?

These questions are not academic or moot. They demand answers that locate the population issue in the context of poverty and underdevelopment. These answers may also reveal why the government attempts to control population growth, and specifically, women's sexual behavior, with much vigor, rather than exercising controls on transnationals and their use of technological power.

On the other hand, development approaches should be analyzed in the way they have affected women. Caroline Moser's categories of development strategies for women can be applied to the Philippines.

In the early 1 950s, the welfare approach viewed women as passive recipients of development benefits. It considered women's most important role as motherhood. Distribution of food aid by women, the Department of Agriculture's rural home economics clubs, and the Department of Health's maternal and child health programs are classic examples of the welfare development approach and how it uses women to implement its programs.

The anti-poverty approach which came next tried to ensure that men and women were included in the mainstream of development. Small-scale income-generating projects evolved such as handicrafts and pig-raising which were targeted at women.

The efficiency approach, the current development thrust is a response to the government's structural adjustment program (SAP). It relies heavily on women in implementing safety nets or self-help projects as a way of lessening SAP adverse consequences. One example is organizing women to care for the mentally ill in communities because the government, in complying with SAP, has to streamline mental institutions. Programs are thus designed to include women in development efforts as providers of services and, if possible, on a voluntary basis.

Population Management is Not Just Family Planning

Despite official pronouncements on "the close relationship among population, resources and environment factors"; despite the government's declarations on "broadening" population concerns to include "family formation, the status of women, maternal and child health, child survival, morbidity an mortality, population distribution and urbanization, internal and international migration and population structure"; despite all these, the policy thrusts remain singularly focused on family planning. And even within the narrow confines family planning, policies and methods are targeted at women. Numerous documents claim that "women hold the key to lowering fertility rates. Policy statements declare that women's empowerment is crucial. Education and employment delay marriages, increase the opportunity and actual costs of child-rearing, or increase the demand for contraceptives, eventually leading to decreased fertility rates.

But we know that attempting to lower fertility rates in vacuo, isolated from the entire development process and within an oppressive patriarchal system, does not significantly reduce population growth rates. Policies and strategies that directly raise the living standards of the poor are more likely to bring about a reduction in population growth than family planning services alone.

Economic growth is important in bringing about change in population size. But this is not enough. The relative degrees of income equality may affect fertility rates as well.

Comparisons made of countries with different levels of GNP and birth rates show that there does appear to be some relationship between lower (higher) birthrates and less (more) inequality in the distribution of income (Todaro, 1990).

These comparisons lead us to conclude that countries striving to lessen inequality in their income distribution or attempting to spread the benefits of their economic growth to a wider segment of the population - as in Sri Lanka, Costa Rica, and the Indian state of Kerala - may be better able to lower their birth rates than countries where the benefits are more unevenly shared, even if these countries have higher levels of per capita income.

Greatly improved living standards provide the necessary motivation for families to choose to limit their size.

Given this, we must challenge the fundamental assumption that widening access to family planning methods creates the motivation to curb fertility.

This does not mean, however, that family planning efforts should be disbanded and forgotten. These activities should be carried out alongside development efforts - not become the driving force that pushes them. Family planning activities should be an aspect of reproductive health care which, in turn, is part of comprehensive health care.

One more thing needs to be said. Women's right to education, as it is with our right to health and well-being, should be supported as an end in itself, and not as a means to bring down fertility levels.

Resources and Environment: The Politics of Being Green

Voluminous literature abounds on the relationship between population and the environment. We have heard about the earth's carrying capacity and its finite resources and how rapid population growth destroys the fragile ecological balance.

We are also reminded of a document written by then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1974 called the "National Security Study Memorandum 200." It relates resources to developing countries' population growth. It states:

"The U.S. economy will require large and increasing amounts of minerals from abroad, especially from less developed countries. The fact gives the U.S. enhanced interest in the political, economic, and social stability of the supplying countries. Whenever a lessening of population pressures through reduced birth rates can increase the prospects for such stability, population policy becomes relevant to resource supplies and to the economic interests of the United States."

Kissinger's statement fits very well within the logic of free trade. This is instructive as it compels us to view the environment and resource issues within the perspective of Philippines 2000, of AFTA, of NAFTA, and of GATT. It is crucial, then, that we well define our problem, and the perspective within which we view it.

For if the government states that the uplanders destroy our forests, then the government will look for solutions that will prevent uplanders from destroying our forests.

If the government states that overpopulation is the major problem, then it will have to look for solutions that will curtail population growth. Such solutions, experience has shown, are usually top-down and based on control strategies. They take the form of demographically-driven population policies and programs that disregard and disrespect women. This occurred during the Marcos regime and is probably implied when officials call for "the importance of a strong population policy."

In this country, there are multiple causes of environmental degradation. These include poverty, landlessness, technology, population distribution, and economic and trade policies.

In Cagayan Valley and Palawan, for instance, population growth does not figure prominently in the extensive deforestation there. Instead, political families and the powerful logging conglomerates bear much of the responsibility for the destruction of these forests.

In the Subic and Clark areas, U.S. military bases dumped their toxic wastes.

In the coastal areas of the Visayas, it is the prawn farms that have caused the widespread destruction of mangrove forests.

In Bataan, Laguna, Quezon, and Marinduque, the destruction of coral reefs and mangroves is due to the use of dynamite and cyanide fishing.

In Cebu, Bukidnon, Cagayan de Oro, and some areas in Mindanao, poor families have been forced to occupy or farm elevated areas because of war and land conversions.

One important fact becomes clear in all these cases. To fell forests on a large scale; to create cavernous mining pits; to devastate more than a thousand kilometers of coastal reefs; to pollute rivers and bays - to be able to do all these, one needs power, money, and technology. The poor, who are said to proliferate rapidly and on whose doorsteps the blame for the country's miseries has been laid, do not have the power, the money, or the technology to destroy the environment.

In the meantime, policies of international agencies are beginning to tap women as managers of the environment. Women, they say, extract many resources from the environment. They gather fuel, collect water, clear lands. Apart from this, women, being close to nature, have a natural feel for the environment. They can thus be used to nurture, sustain, and care for trees, seas, oceans, soils, and probably even patch the big hole in the ozone layer. Women seem to be both a problem and solution in this line of thinking. Are we being used again as stop-gap solutions to the environmental problems that we now face? Is there any attempt to deflect us from analyzing the nature of environmental issues as they relate to development?

One other aspect is "resource depletion" which has also been blamed on a "large population size." Let's focus on food, the most basic resource we have.

Within the context of Philippines 2000 and free trade, the Department of Agriculture (DA) in its Medium Term Agricultural Development Plan 1993-1998 intends to "produce 'export winners' competitively if we can put our land and water resources to best use."

There are some 2.5 million hectares presently planted to rice and another 2.5 million hectares to corn. The DA, for the coming five years, intends to use only 1.9 million hectares for both rice and corn. This leaves us with 3.1 million hectares. Out of this 3.1 million hectares, the DA plans to use 1.8 million hectares for livestock raising, primarily cattle, and the remaining 1.3 million hectares for the cultivation of commercial crops such as asparagus, sayote for luffas, or cut flowers.

The implications of this plan are staggering. It means we will have more agricultural lands devoted to "export winners" and will end up with less to satisfy our own food requirements. And we should ask the DA whether the corn planted in the future will be for our food or for cattle feed.

Meanwhile, the fourth survey of the Food and Nutrition Research Institute reveals that malnutrition stalks pre-schoolers and children (mostly girls), pregnant women, seasonal farmers, and fisherfolk.


And Finally

We challenge official pronouncements on population, sustainable development, the environment, and national security.

We instead urge the government to recognize the principles of equity and social justice which assure that women and men, especially those who fall below the poverty line, stand to receive the benefits of development. Besides land, food, and other basic needs, we have to have political power too.

We ask the government to articulate and apply the principles of autonomy and self-determination. No self-respecting country or agency should accept a population and development policy that has been shaped and imposed by foreign institutions in exchange for aid and loans.

We want the principle of pluralism to guide the country's development program. This derives from the recognition of the diverse socio-cultural characteristics of localities and regions of the country. As such, no one group, institution, or sector - local or foreign, religious or sectarian - should impose its beliefs and morals on the entire country.

We ask the government to practice the principle of participatory democracy. This should not be confused with mere "consultative dialogues." Genuine participation means that people without power engage in the process of having their needs articulated and addressed.

We demand that the principles of responsibility and accountability should be central to any population and development policy. The government and international agencies which push population programs should be accountable to the women whose fertility they very much want to control. They should be held accountable if they violate our bodily integrity, autonomy, and self-determination in the pursuit of their programs, introduce and impose reproductive technologies that put our health at risk, or use our fertility as an instrument of any foreign industrial or military policy.

Unless the government and international agencies accept these conditions, we will remain wary of any population control intervention, whether it be in the context of greening the environment, women's reproductive health, or sustainable development. We women stand at the center of these. And it is on our terms that we should participate.

Marilen Dañguilan, MD, has been involved in health policy in the Philippines and internationally since 1987. She headed the technical staff of the Committee on Health of the Philippines Senate, and has consulted for the WHO and the UNFPA Currently, she is a member of the review team assessing the Ford Foundation's reproductive health programs.


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