Monday, 11 November 2013

Philippines, the environment and the Catholic Church

At least 10,000 dead, whole areas flattened and millions homeless - yet another terrible tale of natural destruction disproportionately affecting the poor.  The Philippines is well used to being battered and flooded, but this was on a different scale.  It is hard to imagine the fear of those caught in the few hours of atmospheric rage.  And now, as survivors sift amongst the wreckage for their loved ones we will see many pictures in the media of anguished and heart-broken people.


Last December another typhoon, Sendong, far less powerful than Haiyan, deposited a month's worth of rain in one day over the southern most island of the Philippines.  This is not a lot - a small typhoon by the standards of the area - however It left nearly 1500 dead and as many missing.

Sendong Victim

Both typhoons, the big and the small, hit the southern part of the Philippines where environmental destruction is quite simply terrible.   Logging, mining, quarrying, monoculture, land clearance for settlement etc have transformed a once richly forested area.  Natural vegetation absorbs water, tree roots stabilise the soils on steep mountains, mangroves dampen storm surges etc, etc, etc.  It is madness in such a dynamic part of the world to strip natural defences.  But after a century of such destruction for economic gain the rich are richer and the poor just as poor and more numerous -  and even more vulnerable to natural disaster.

The recent news footage post Haiyan, showed a priest saying Mass for the victims.  Many of the praying faces looked comforted because if there is one thing Christianity understands well it is suffering.  In fact of all the great world faiths it is the central role of a suffering Christ that makes Christianity of such poignancy for those whose daily lives are a battle against poverty with its accompanying torturers - mental and physical pain.

I'm glad he said  Mass in the ruins, it was a powerful image.  But for me on the grander scale it is also a sight that instills anger and frustration.

The Philippines is the third largest Catholic country on earth.  80% of the population is Catholic, that is just under 80 million people.  It is a Catholic country to its soul.  Shame then that it is one of the most environmentally devastated countries on earth.  This is a land that has literally been - and still is being - ravaged by commercial greed and over-population.  Forest cover has been reduced from 70% to less than 1% over the 20th C.

deforestation in Philippnes

Pasig river
Philippine mangroves have been reduced from half a million hectares at the beginning of the 20th C to about 100,000 hectares today - and 95% of that is secondary regrowth.  Mangroves, natures natural defences against storm surges and flooding, were ripped out to develop the coastline.

Industrial activity has polluted rivers.  50 out of the 241 rivers in the country are biologically dead.  The Pasig River which runs through the heart of Manilla is one of the most polluted in the world.

This environmental vandalism is not just a tragedy for the look of the country and for the fate of its wonderful natural history - like the magnificent Philippine eagle - it costs human lives.

Does the Catholic Church have a role to play here?  The Catholic Bishops are trying very hard in the face of massive commercial opposition.  As long ago as 1988 they wrote this statement:
What is Happening To Our Beautiful Land?

This is a wonderful piece of writing and there are many good people (clergy and lay) who are trying to do the right thing, but 25 years on the destruction continues.  The huge pressures that drive economic growth - a growth without any end point it seems - and the greed of the companies that mine, log and plant swathes of monoculture need more than one bishops conference and a handful of activists to face them.  They need the strong, powerful voice of a unified Church of 1 billion people to say enough is enough.  It needs a clear voice that sets a different agenda and shows a different example.  Simplicity, temperateness, a wise approach to money, equality and justice for people AND the natural world are counter-culture but these are values that chime with many. Is the Catholic Church the right origin for that voice?

To be honest I'm not sure - maybe if Pope Francis is allowed his vision.  But as things stand at the moment there is no clear teaching on what the Church thinks about nature.  Is it to be subdued for human use?  Or is it the face of God?  Does a Philippine eagle have the right to live or does the economic gain from mining take precedence?  Should the population growth of the Philippines continue as it is?

1.8 million babies are born every year here - although the rate of population growth is slowing.  The annual percentage increase was 2.04% in 2002, today it is 1.69%, but still one of the highest in Asia.

If the Catholic Church truly used its respected voice to show a different way - a way that urged restrained growth, shared spoils justly, saw men and women as equal, looked upon the earth not as some basket of goods but as a wonder of life, then maybe the combined Catholic voices would grow stronger and more unified.  At the moment it is too weakened by division and disillusionment.

Pope Francis looks like a man who can make a difference but he will face opposition from within and outside the church.  There are many vested interests and powerful people with a lot to lose if his vision of justice and renewal is enacted.  Let's pray for him.


  1. These problems of global companies' exploitation are enormous. I know the Catholic Church is also huge, and also influential, but I think it is hard to expect them to be able to effect much change. Governments and politics need to take some power from the multinational companies (and a lot more in taxes).

  2. yes Kate, I agree, but the Church has to do what it can. We all do.

  3. What a call to arms! It could happen if the Church took a strong lead.