Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Sum of all fears: the future under a new Philippine president

On June 30, Rodrigo Duterte will take over from outgoing President Benigno Aquino for a term of six years. His main agenda is to eradicate corruption and criminality within six months of office. He wants to bring back death penalty and promises to give dictator Ferdinand Marcos a hero’s burial.

“As I have said in the miting de avance, my parting words was that, ‘if you destroy my country, I will kill you. If you destroy the youth of this country, I will kill you’.”

This is incoming Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte during a thanksgiving rally in his hometown Davao City.

As he sends his message to drug pushers, criminals and policemen who take bribes from drug syndicates, the crowd cheered to their new hero, their David who is ready to slay Goliath.

He ups the ante by calling on ordinary citizens to arrest suspected criminals.

“Feel free to call us, the police or do it yourself if you have the gun. You have my support,” he encourages.

TOUGH LOVE. Incoming Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte will be sworn in office on June 30, 2016. He has promise to eradicate criminality by all means within six months. PHOTO FROM OFFICIAL DUTERTE FACEBOOK PAGE
Duterte also says he will give a reward to anyone who would turn in or kill a drug pusher.

Journalist Redempto Anda thinks the bounty pronouncement is dangerous.

“The bounty issue is a very dangerous issue. I think he will going to have a lot of issues with Congress on this because as a policy, war on crime has not worked, not in Colombia, not in United States. In Davao, it is claimed to have worked but if you look really deep into it, it’s an arguable thing,” he says.

Many Filipinos have a fear for crime, particularly drug related.

Duterte claims that as mayor he has rid Davao City of criminality, with the help of vigilantes who extrajudicially kill suspected criminals and drug pushers.
MESSIAH: Duterte addresses an engaging crowd of supporters who find him the saviour of all ills plaguing this Southeast Asian nation. PHOTO FROM OFFICIAL DUTERTE FACEBOOK PAGE
Civil activist Jane Timbancaya-Urbanek says this is not something Filipinos should support.

“He promised killing, killing, killing. You cannot right a wrong with another wrong. I am not for extrajudicial killings. We have our constitution, we have our laws. If we must stop criminality and drugs and corruption in his country, we cannot avoid going through the long process of education,” Jane says.

The 71-year-old Duterte is colorful, outlandish, and occasionally uses vulgar language and sexist jokes.

But for his supporters, he is as the messiah who can solve the ills plaguing the Philippines.

“A lot of Filipinos are looking for a saviour. They think somebody like Duterte can really stop corruption, drugs and criminality in 3 to 6 months. Nobody in the past has ever promised something like that. And people in their disillusionment and their feeling so helpless, they really pinned a lot of hopes on Duterte,” says the civil society activist Jane Urbanek.

Duterte is also toying with the idea of bringing the death penalty back.

Meanwhile, at the office of Roots of Health, a local NGO catering to poor and marginalised women.

Amina Evangelista-Swanepoel, the director, says she is very much against death penalty.

“So many studies from all over the world have shown that the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime. (7:18-7:35) My biggest problem with death penalty and why I don’t support it is because it is not full-proof. I think there’s always a chance that somebody did not do the crime but will be killed for it. And even if that’s a minority, one person’s life is enough to stand against it,” she reasons.

There are fears that Duterte is more of a divisive figure than a unifier.

He prefers to have a separate inauguration from incoming vice president Robredo on June 30, the first time in history.

He also won’t give Robredo a Cabinet position.  In the past, vice-presidents got posts regardless of party-affiliation. Duterte explains why.

“I am non-committal…You know why?  I know Bongbong Marcos. I do not want to hurt him. Leni should understand that she belongs to the opposite side,” he says.

Bongbong, the son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, lost to Robredo by a very slim margin.

Duterte is keen on giving Bongbong a cabinet position after a one-year ban on losing candidates.

Journalist Redempto Anda explains Duterte’s relationship with the Marcoses.

 “There’s a natural link between Duterte and the Marcoses, his father being part of the Marcos administration. He has made up his mind to be really cozy with the Marcoses and he is not transparent about these things.”

Duterte also commits to give Bongbong’s father a hero’s burial.

Marcos’ Martial Law years were marred with killings and tortures.

He was accused of amassing billions of dollars, a big portion is still believed to be hidden in offshore accounts.

Marcos’ waxed remains are kept in a family mausoleum in their home province of Ilocos.

Again, for journalist Dempto Anda, this is a contentious idea.

“This will be one of the major issues that will divide not just the country but can even divide his own organisation. In his own organisation, not everybody is on the same page, it seems.”

Sensitive to criticisms, Duterte has a reputation of snapping at critics rather than engaging them.

He is the complete opposite of incoming vice-president Robrero.

Robredo is seen as a silver lining to the election of populist but obviously flawed Duterte.

NGO leader Amina Swanepoel says Duterte has lost a golden chance for bypassing Robredo.

“I do think it’s a missed opportunity for him because she was chosen by the people as well. She is incredibly popular and she is a very capable leader, with good experience and has had good policies that have improved the lives of her constituents and I she think she can do a lot on a large scale as vice president.”

Most of Duterte´s plans involve domestic issues and not much on foreign policy.

The least he has said is a bilateral discussion with China over the South China Sea dispute.

Under the Aquino administration, the Philippines is the first country to challenge China at the Permanent Tribunal of Arbitration in the Hague, Netherlands.

The decision is expected to come out this month.

Whether Duterte will follow through with the decision of the tribunal or deal with China bilaterally remains to be seen.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Is the Philippines' call center industry reaching a saturation point?

This is the typical night in a call centre in Manila.

A Filipino service representative is patiently giving advice to an American customer regarding car insurance.

She is one of the 1.2 million Filipinos employed in the Information Technology-Business Process Outsourcing or IT-BPO.

For the last seven years, Maria Aguilar, has been working for an American-owned firm.

“We have rotation schedules. Sometimes I work in the night shift and sometimes I work in the mid-shift. That would be from 1pm to 10pm," says Maria.

Since most clients are from the West, a regular shift is from 9pm to 6am.

The names of multinational BPO companies are displayed outside an office building in Eastwood, Quezon City, Philippines.

Jobs at the IT-BPO vary—from making and receiving calls to making animation and accounting services.

Jaren Atrero works for a Canadian company.

“Basically our clients are some who are dealing with engineering, electric, mechanical kind of thing like automation equipments.”

The IT-BPO industry generated US$22 billion in 2015, second to remittances of Filipinos abroad, which was at US$25.8 billion.

Leian Marasigan is a research specialist at the University of the Philippines. She is finishing her PhD at the University of Amsterdam by looking into the career path of employees in the IT-BPO.

“It is still mainly voice-based work that we’re providing. Sixty percent of the businesses that are coming in are voice-based; meaning, call centre, contact centre jobs. And then you have health management transcription services that are also becoming quite big in terms of the numbers of firms doing that particular kind of function,” says Leian.

The Philippines is called the ‘call centre capital of the world’, after overtaking India four years ago.

The Filipinos’ English language skills and affinity to the Western culture makes it an attractive destination.

But working in a call centre can be stressful.

Joel Contrivida gets at least an angry customer a week.

“Especially in our kind of account, we have a lot of irate customers, angry customers. We are in order releasing. When they receive the item, it’s defective; there is something wrong, lost or missing. So usually the customer would call us and they’re so angry about it. So mostly we try to listen to them at first.”

Despite working night shifts and encountering abusive callers, Joel says it is outweighed by the salary and benefits he gets.

Call centre work can also be home-based.

Chini Decujos works from home doing phone surveys for a Canadian company.

“I think it’s an answer to unemployment especially to people, especially for mothers. I’m not a mother but if I am to put it in a context where a mother had to work, and had to look after her children, then this can be an answer to add up to their income.”

Chini is paid 5 US dollars per hour, comparable to the daily minimum wage locally.

The average starting salary for IT-BPO work is 450 US dollars a month.

With more than million Filipinos who graduate every year and unemployment rate hovers at 6.6 percent, the IT-BPO provides the well-needed jobs.

Accenture is one of the biggest employee of call center workers in the Philippines.
“There are many opportunities in the BPO sector that are opening up for many workers in the Philippines, both from those who are unemployed, or long unemployed and also from recent graduates who are transitioning from school to work. And there are also a very diverse group of workers that are able to find employment in the sector,” according to academic researcher Leian Marasigan. 

The outsourcing industry has been criticised for moving jobs to low-wage countries like the Philippines and India to save costs.

But former employee and now insurance agent Ely Valendez sees the bright side.

“It’s true that multinational companies for example in the US, Canada or Switzerland go the Philippines to employ the local workforce because it is cheaper than the Americans. But it you compare it to the local setting wherein they give higher salary than local counterparts then it’s not exploitation at all. In fact it is beneficial to the workforce because they’re paid higher, they get more benefits.”

IT-BPO firms that set up offices in the Philippines are given tax incentives.

Dr. Jana Kleibert, who also did her PhD research on the sector at the University of Amsterdam, says clearly the benefits of having the IT-BPO are there.

“The salaries are above average compared to other jobs within the Philippines. Also the government is capturing some revenue through the taxes of employees’ salaries. But if you look beyond that, there’s not much value capturing happening because most firms in the offshore service sector in the Philippines are foreign-owned firms so a lot of the profits were not necessarily reinvested in the Philippines but will be transferred abroad.”

Dr. Kleibert suggests that the Philippines should do more.

 “I would think one important thing is to strengthen domestic entrepreneurs who have been existing in the industry but lots of Filipino-owned firms were bought by foreign firms…Also support small and medium but also large Filipino companies that try to export services to global markets and make them more competitive. The second important part and related to that is to strengthen the education system, to have more Filipino workers being able to take on management functions, to have run their own businesses and firms,” she ends emphatically.

It is interesting to watch how the new administration in the Philippines will treat this sunshine industry in the coming years. Will it allow the current industry players to thrive or will give more support for homegrown companies to take charge?

Friday, May 13, 2016

Dangers of being environmentalists in the Philippines

Green activists are facing deadly dangers in the Philippines. In a 2015 report of the London-based Global Witness, it lists the Philippines as the most dangerous country in Asia for environmentalists.
Environmentalist and social activist Gerthie Anda during a forum. Being an environmentalist in the Philippines has its share of perils. (Facebook photo from Gerthie Anda)
Ask anyone in Palawan province about the ‘Green Lady’ and the name of environmentalist-lawyer Gerthie Mayo-Anda comes up.
She has become the poster girl of the environmental movement here.
Amid the mining rush, development and other environmental issues, she established the Environmental Legal Assistance Center, or ELAC, in the 1990s.
“It’s basically to utilize my knowledge and skills as a legal professional to be able to help the least of our brethren by focusing mainly on how we can survive as a people, anchoring our survival on healthy ecosystems,” says Mayo-Anda.
For more than 25 years, she has defended almost every environment issue. That has also earned her the title ‘Forest Heroine’.
Gerthie’s center has fought against illegal logging, fishing, mining and other resource extractive activities.
“When you talk of extractive projects like mining, energy, development of fossil fuels,” she pauses before continuing, “and even pushing for good environmental governance, these are very difficult because you’re dealing here with powerful stakeholders who can actually make the advocacy work difficult.”
Declared as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve for having most number of key biodiversity areas, Palawan is the Philippine’s last ecological frontier.
It is also a battleground for environmentalists, where the majority are women.
Cynthia Sumagaysay is a vocal critic of a planned coal-fired power plant.
She has earned the ire of many pro-coal politicians and investors. 
“The people of Palawan are being tricked into something that [they] didn’t completely understand, she says, “I feel that they were being lied to. They were being told that the coal plant was urgently needed. That was a big lie.”
But she isn’t afraid.
“I’m beyond fear,” says Sumagaysay, “I have said before that everybody dies anyway even the perpetrators of the crime. I will be more fearful if my life has been wasted for not doing something to better this world; if I’m just part of the problem rather than the solution.
The Philippines is the most dangerous country in Asia for green activists according to international watchdog Global Witness.
Between 2012 and 2013, a total of 88 environmental activists were killed in the country, next to Brazil’s 448 and Honduras’109.
Lawyer Gerthie Anda says this is because of the culture of impunity.
“We find it disturbing that it happens in a small country. It only shows that the culture of impunity is still there,” she notes, “The lack of political will to hold liable those who are liable, those who are responsible is still a continuing challenge.” 
Fellow green activists Marivic Bero, the secretary-general of the Coalition Against Land Grabbing, says there is inherent danger in being an environmental activist in the Philippines.
Her group is working with peasant organizations, farmers and indigenous peoples who are affected by land acquisitions for large-scale plantations such palm oil and mining activities. 
“As a female NGO worker, I feel some fear every time I go to the field,” she says, “That’s inevitable, especially in the course of protecting the environment you bump up against powerful people, powerful companies, politicians and other government officials.”
Palawan is a microcosm of the Philippines where environmental activists and politicians clash. 
Politicians often disregard environmental impacts to give way for investments, which are often resource extractive.
This creates a more dangerous life for environmentalists. 
Again Marivic Bero.
“I can say that whenever we are in the field we face danger. But for me, if your time is up, it’s up. If you’re going to die, you’ll die,” says Bero, “It’s better you die a worthy death by doing something to help others.”
Environmental defenders also experience threats and physical violence, restrictions on their freedoms and depriving them of opportunities.
And it is not safer to women.
Lawyer Gerthie Anda says they are equally vulnerable.
“I have listened to fellow human rights and environmental advocates, discussing in several fora about women indigenous leaders being killed in the Cordillera or even in Mindanao,” she says, “And therefore, there is no full-proof guarantee that women continue to be safe. We are just equally threatened like men.  
Gerthie believes that killings of environmentalists will continue if a corrupt system persists. 
But for her and other women green activists, they will continue to defend the earth without fear. 
For colleague Marivic Bero, they are doing it for the future generation.
“I’m doing this for my children besides fighting for the rights of the indigenous people,” says Bero, “I want my children and grandchildren to live in a peaceful environment where they can still smell fresh air, see different kinds of birds, climb trees and forests to wander.” 
(Originally appeared on Asia Calling)

Like Boxing: The Philippines’ Obsession with Beauty Pageants

Filipinos know the names of their beauty queens like Brazilians know their football heroes.
Candidates for Miss Puerto Princesa City pose for photographers during a press conference.
 It’s the middle of a gruelling practice for girls who are competing in a local beauty pageant. They sashay back and forth in high heels to perfect their walk without tripping. Their trainer, Thom Favila, explains the rigours of his beauty boot camp.

“During training, when the girls wake up, we start the day with jogging. After jogging, we have breakfast, followed by walking exercises,” he says, “After that we teach them how to put on make-up and that is followed by question and answer exercises.”

Most of his students come from impoverished backgrounds.

One of them is 20-year-old Janicel Lubina who represented the Philippines in the Miss International pageant in Japan last December.

Janicel was close to winning the Miss Philippines-Universe title, where the winner, Filipina, Pia Wurtzbach, became Miss Universe last year.

In 2013, Janciel was the runner up in Miss World-Philippines. She is often called the Filipino Cinderella.

“When I was in 3rd year high school, my father had a stroke. I went farming and worked as a housemaid because my mother was also a housemaid,” says Janicel, “I’m proud of where I came from. I think I have inspired a lot of girls who also came from a poor background,” she says.
Most of the candidates idolize local girl Janicel Lubina, who made it to Miss International pageant recently.
Janicel was spotted when she was 16 by a local talent scout in a farming village in Palawan province.
Joining the beauty contest world, says Janciel, was her way of escaping poverty and helping her family.

“It helps a lot,” she says, “I have started to have a house built for my family. My priority also is to establish our education. I am sending my two brothers to school.”
The Philippines is a nation crazy for beauty pageants.

It started in 1969 when 19-year-old Gloria Diaz became the first Filipina Miss Universe.
The Philippines has won three Miss Universe titles, four Miss International, one Miss World two Miss Earth, and dozens of smaller international beauty contests. The Filipinos’ love for beauty pageants intensified after Pia Wurtzbach was crowned Miss Universe, after 42 years.
Candidates for Miss Puerto Princesa City pose for photographers during a press conference.
During Pia’s homecoming in Manila, traffic was completely halted and life momentarily stopped.
Psychology professor Vincent Quevada explains why Filipinos are addicted to beauty pageants, even when the interest is already dwindling in other countries.

“I think the reason why we love beauty pageants is that Filipinos are rooting for someone to epitomize their wants to become somebody someday. Most likely it’s because of poverty,” he says, 

“Filipinos love to see Cinderella-like stories. Maybe a part of it is because we are a developing country so we desire to be someone, someday.”

But the path to beauty queen was not easy for Janicel Lubina.

It took her more than three years in beauty boot camp and several attempts in beauty contests.
She spent months of rigorous training – six days a week, 12 hours a day – including make up and catwalk training, and what they call ‘personality development’.

Some girls fainted during the first day of training, she says, and others quit after a few days.
Here at this local beauty pageant for Miss Puerto Princesa City in Palawan, candidates are being introduced.

One of them, 24-year-old Sheerah Dalisay, looks up to Janicel.

But unlike Janicel, Sheerah is from the middle class, a college graduate and an English teacher.

“Janicel Lubina is a very, very strong person because despite all the negative comments thrown to her by the public because she’s very poor and she admitted that,” says Dalisay, “Most of the people, during her pageantry, they were very much doubtful about her qualities and capabilities but Janicel is very strong to face all these negative comments and made it a challenge on herself to improve on it.”
Most of the candidates idolize local girl Janicel Lubina, who made it to Miss International pageant recently.
Another candidate, 24-year-old Mia Bianca Dantes, thinks she has a chance at the crown. A registered nurse, Bianca is studying for her masters’ degree.

“I really wanted to join first to pursue my dreams,” says Dantes, “to boost my confidence and of course to empower, educate and inspire the new generations of today, to help them show their talents and what they can, whoever they are.”

Back at the bootcamp, talent scout Thom Favila says he is grooming another candidate who could win him the Miss Universe title. She is a dusky young woman from a remote island who stands almost 6 feet tall.

After all, Thom says, Filipinos like beautiful underdogs.

(Originally published as a radio feature on Asia Calling.)

Monday, November 03, 2014

Coal-Fired Power Plant Threatens Philippines Tourism Paradise

“Another bird trips the power line?”

Every time the electricity gets cut off, residents of a small but booming tourism city of Puerto Princesa in the Philippines flood their Facebook shout outs blaming the power supplier for inefficiency. The local electric cooperative then passes the blame on miniscule reasons like tree branches falling on electric lines or birds treading on them. It cannot be discounted, however, that ageing power lines and generators running on crude oil cannot cope with the increasing demand of the city, which has seen the number of hotels and restaurants grow exponentially. Three years ago, a three-storey mall also opened. This so-called development has driven local politicians to find ways of delivering the much-needed electricity within a short period. Gil Acosta, the governor’s spokesperson, said “the governor believes that Palawan has been left behind by other provinces, even though it’s the biggest in the region. Power plays a big role in development. Those who want to invest in Palawan first ask whether there is a stable power supply.”

The limestone karst of Saint Paul Subterranean River National Park, a UNESCO heritage site in Palawan, Philippines.
Faced with criticisms and pressure from local leaders, the Palawan Electric Cooperative (PALECO), which is mandated to deliver uninterrupted power supply to the residents, signed a 25-megawatt supply contract with DMCI Power Corporation, a privately-owned company that specializes in power utilities, in July 2012. Aside from a coal-fired power plant, this also included a 5-megawatt diesel-fired power plant that began commercial operations at the end of 2012. The company, meanwhile, positions itself as a saviour. In a press release, it stated: “DMCI Power Corporation is building a power plant in Palawan to avert a looming power crisis in the fast-growing province, which thrives on tourism as a main industry.”

Much has to be said about the company that was contracted. Its mother company, DMCI Holdings has interests in construction, water and ore mining services. DMCI’s subsidiary Semirara Mining Corporation is the largest coal producer in the country and is one of the biggest in Asia. DCMI both exports and supplies its power plants with the coal it mines. While boasting of its corporate social responsibility and promising to follow environmental laws and regulations in building the coal-fired power plant in Palawan, DCMI doesn’t have the perfect grade in environmental protection. Its open pit-mine in Antique province’s Semirara Island has been blamed for a host of environmental destruction, causing low yields for farmers and low fish catch for fishermen.

El Nido, in Southern Palawan is touted as one of the best islands in the world.
In 2013, a part of a wall in its open pit mine collapsed that killed five workers and five others went missing.  Moreover, according to US-based Carbon Monitoring for Action (CARMA), which holds information about the carbon emissions of over 60,000 power plants and 20,000 power companies worldwide, DCMI’s  power plant in its mine site in Panian, Semirara emits 1,370 kilos of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour, while its plant in Calaca, Batangas province emits 1,190 kilos of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour, third and ninth respectively in the top 10 highest CO2 emitters in the country.

CARMA claimed that the usual intensity of CO2 emission among power plants in the Philippines is 506 kilos of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour while the intensity of pollution caused by two of DCMI’s power plants is more than twice the usual. In a press release, the company said it will use the newest and cleanest coal technology in a proposed power plant in Palawan. “DMCI will employ the Circulating Fluidized Bed Combustion (CFBC), also known as the ‘clean coal’ technology, which is the latest and cleanest in coal combustion.”

Man and Biosphere Reserve

Opposition to the proposed coal-fired power plant is mounting because of the province’s fragile state. Since 1990 the entire Palawan holds the status of UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve. It is cited as a “site of excellence where new and optimal practices to manage nature and human activities are tested and demonstrated”.

It’s also home to two UNESCO natural heritage sites – the Saint Paul Subterranean River National Park and the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Marine Park. According to Worldwide Life Fund (WWF), the province may lose its status if the proposed coal-fired power plant goes ahead. RJ Dela Calzada, the Palawan project manager for the WWF-Philippines, said “the Man and Biosphere status is like a Nobel Prize for good sustainable development management in one area. Palawan is one of the two recipients in the Philippines. When we say man and biosphere, we’re talking about how human beings consciously use its biosphere for its own benefit… If we fail to meet those criteria then we might be delisted. Having a coal power plant may be a reason to be delisted.”

When DCMI got the approval from a government environmental body to first build said power plant in the municipality of Narra, environmental groups immediately organized petitions citing the fragile flora and fauna surrounding it. Haribon Foundation, a forefront in biodiversity conservation in  Palawan, opposed the plan arguing that the coastal town of Narra is so close to Rasa Island, which it called “the last stronghold of the unique Philippine Cockatoo”. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists the bird as Critically Endangered as only 1,000 individuals exist in the world. Haribon also claimed that the coal-fired power plant will threaten the proposed site’s surrounding air, land, water, vegetation and wildlife.

“These impacts can be felt during plant construction; when the plant’s physical structures are already in place; and when the plant is already operational,” the NGO said in a statement. “During construction, the dredging of barge unloading areas could affect fish, mussels and other aquatic life… Power plants build water intake and discharge facilities, so vegetation in surface waters can also be affected… But the coal power plant’s operation, when it is already spewing its emissions into the open air, can impact vegetation or result in air pollution.” After fierce opposition from environmentalists and the rejection of the municipality of Narra, the proponents moved the location of the power plant to the adjoining Aborlan municipality.

At the village of San Juan, the new proposed site, Tagbanua tribal chieftain Dominador Badilla could not hide his anger. “The ones who are pushing the project are better off. They have regular salaries. We only depend on our coconut trees and our plants. If our farm yield will be affected, where will my grandchildren get their livelihood? We, the members of the Tagbanua tribal community, do not want this coal-fired power plant. We would rather live with what little we have now. We can sacrifice without electricity,” he said in Filipino.

Outside his bamboo hut hangs a poster showing a picture of a coal plant emitting black smoke and dirty air. The poster reads: “Is this what you want to happen in Aborlan?” And in red bold letters it says: “NO TO COAL”. Badilla’s family and others in the community live through fishing and copra farming. On a good month, they earn about US$100 but they are content. The land they live on has been through many generations as their ancestral land.  “We inherited this land from our ancestors. This belonged to my grandfather since the 1930s. He was buried here. Then they will just put something that will destroy our land? What will happen to us?” he said.

The tribal chieftain is even angrier that the project has divided a once harmonious community. He insisted that there has never been a proper consultation for the project. “The proponents are saying they have consulted us. When things have stirred up because we voiced out our opposition, that’s when they said there will be public hearings. At first, they were hiding the meetings from those who opposed. They bring their own people using their own trucks to show there is a support from the public. If they only record what’s been happening in the public hearings they would know our reasons for opposing and how many people are against it,” he said.

As another resident Melvin Badilla enthused, “we didn’t like the process that our local leaders did. Before they let us know that the coal-fired power plant will be built in our village, they already prepared the documents for building it here. We were caught by surprise.”

The once opposed barangay (village) officials of San Juan, Aborlan stamped their endorsement on the project after they were reportedly showed around in another plant in Iloilo province. They argued that they saw first-hand that the company was responsible enough and the environment in the showcase piece in Iloilo was intact and unaffected. It was suspected, however, that aside from being dined and wined, they were only shown the sanitized version of the power plant.

The endorsement even came much easier from the provincial council of legislators who are allies of the governor who wants the project started as soon as possible. Allegedly without proper consultation and ignoring environmental impact assessment results, the provincial council unanimously endorsed the project to be built in Aborlan town.

As the proposed site is also near a fish sanctuary, the waste water discharge from the facility is deemed hazardous to the marine ecosystem. Dr. Lita Sopsop, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences of the Western Philippines University that is in the heart of Aborlan, said “we oppose the coal plant because of the negative impacts to health and the environment, particularly to locally declared fish sanctuaries in the area. The residents get their livelihood from fishing. The discharge of waste water from the coal plant will cause thermal pollution that is hazardous to the marine ecosystem, especially coral reefs.”

Marlene Jagmis, a staunch environmentalist before joining the university’s faculty, said “the coal plant poses many hazards like the threat of lung disease or damage to the brain, especially in children. Burned coal can produce chemicals like mercury, which can’t easily be dissolved by so called new technology. This particle can be hazardous to humans, and even babies inside the womb are not spared.”

Last Frontier

Often cited as the Philippines’ last ecological frontier, Palawan has been battering environmental degradation. It has the largest forest cover and fish biomass in the country, rich mineral resources and the surrounding West Philippine Sea has vast potential for oil and natural gas. Tourism is also thriving because of its beautiful islands, beaches and dive sites. These attractions are irresistible to miners, oil and gas drillers, illegal loggers and fishermen and other investors.
Palawan province has the biggest fish biomass and richest marine life in the Philippines and in the coral triangle.
Ironically, given the fragile state of the province, past and current political leaderships have never been serious in using renewable energies (REs). This is despite repeated demands from environmentalists and NGO such as World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Even President Benigno Aquino III seems reluctant to support REs believing these are unstable. In a recent visit to the province, Aquino insisted that it is important for Palawan to have sufficient power supply to complement the government’s target of attracting 10 million foreign tourists by 2016. He said the province needed more power supply to fuel construction projects, upgrading of airport facilities, as well as the upstream and downstream industries and the only reliable available source of energy is coal or diesel.

The governor’s spokesperson Gil Acosta said officials at the provincial government have been discussing new and renewable resources for 10 years but this never took off until this coal plant proposal came along. “The most viable proposal for the governor is to use coal and biomass fuels. We’re looking at hydro and wind power, but these won’t be enough,” he added.

RJ dela Calzada of WWF-Philippines disagreed. “If you go into renewable energies and strategize how to put those REs  in Palawan, then again we can supply the requirements of Palawan…There are places already that say REs are very efficient in providing energy… A one-megawatt requirement only requires you 2.5 hectares of solar farm. How much megawatt do you need in Palawan? There are new technologies in terms of solar that it can provide electricity even without sun for seven days.”
It also has the largest forest cover in the Philippines. Environmentalists argue that it is ripe for Palawan to have new and renewable resources because it gets plenty of sun and is usually typhoon-free throughout the year.
Environmentalists also argued that REs are cheaper than coal. “Why should Palawan buy more expensive, dirty power when we have cleaner, cheaper alternatives available?” said Atty. Gerthie Mayo-Anda, Executive Director of the Environmental Legal Assistance Center.

REs experts said while the fixed cost of renewable technologies is higher than conventional fossil-fuelled alternatives, this cost is borne by the developer and not the consumers. “Renewable technologies also generally have much longer life cycles than fossil options and have no or very low fuel costs,” according to Diana Limjoco, a resident of Palawan blogging on the power of REs. “In addition to lower generation rates, renewable energy requires little or no subsidy and consumers are exempt from payment of the 12% value-added tax (VAT). The net result of integrating renewables into the power mix is lower rates and reduced subsidy requirements.”

Environmentalists also assailed the government’s reasoning that there are no serious investors on REs in Palawan. WWW-Philippines said that since 2010, there had been proposals for mini-hydropower plants for the capital Puerto Princesa and Narra municipality but these mini-hydro projects failed to obtain contracts with PALECO. “Despite obtaining all the other requirements, they have been unable to start generating power for the people of Palawan,” WWF-Philippines said.

Limjoco said the Palawan Chamber of Commerce and Industry receives many inquiries from foreign and domestic firms and funding agencies to develop REs on Palawan. She said, “there are currently three private firms, two of which hold renewable energy service contracts with government, which are active in the development and pre-development stages of installing solar, biomass and run-of-river hydro power plants on mainland,” adding that “the problem is not a lack of investor interest, but the existence of policy, political, and bureaucratic constraints and a lack of clear guidelines for development and implementation of REs on Palawan and throughout the Philippines.”

At the end of the day, the government seems to show that solving a perceived power crisis is only solvable through a quick solution that is coal, notwithstanding the fragile state of the environment that is Palawan. As Haribon Foundation puts it: “people do need electricity, but we think this should not be at the expense of biodiversity loss. It would be misleading to approach the issue by choosing between two seemingly disparate choices of ‘power’ and ‘environment’. The need for electricity only makes sense for a community that has an adequate resource base for thriving and where ecological benefits can be enjoyed by the majority over a long period of time.  Agenda No. 1 should be the protection and conservation of remaining natural habitats and its biodiversity. Without this prerequisite, notions of ‘progress’ are self-deceiving.”

(Originally appeared on Climate Journal Asia 

Friday, October 10, 2014

Philippines’ Prison Without Walls

Carlo Mercedez works, like many people, behind a computer in this simple office for 8 hours a day – Monday to Friday.
“Then I get weekends off to spend time with my family,” says Carlo.
The only thing is that Carlo is a prisoner, who is serving 30 years.
“At 6 in the morning we have head count, then we go back to prepare to go to the office at 8am. We go home at 12noon to have lunch then go back at the office at 1pm. At 4pm, there is another head counting. Then we can go home.”
He is one of 3,000 inmates in this unique prison without walls.
“I’ve been here in Iwahig for seven years. I don’t know when I will be released but I already served my minimum sentence since 2011.”
Carlo’s is finished the minimum of his sentence so he is allowed to live in his own house with his wife and three young children– who go to a school inside the open air prison’s facility.
Inmates at Iwahig Prison in Puerto Princesa City, Philippines wait for the flag lowering ceremony. Some of them have the privilege to live in their huts within the vicinity of the so-called Prison Without Walls.
Inmates who are just convicted of more serious crimes like illegal drugs dealing, murder or rape are free to work inside the prison during the day but are locked up at night.
“At present Iwahig is directly receiving committals from the Regional Trial Court of the Province of Palawan but the New Bilibid Prison is transferring in Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm those who are already classified as medium security status. Inmates are categorized by the inmates classification board based on their sentence and shall be further reclassified when they have meet requirements to be granted other privileges. They are allowed to live with their own families because there is certain programs being implemented but in infantile stage—what we call the halfway house wherein inmates are being prepared to return to a free society”, says Richard Schwarzkopf Jr., the Penal Superintendent.
And he is proud of Iwahig being one of the biggest open prisons in the world and the only one of its kind in Asia.
“We can say about the uniqueness Iwahig as prison without bars maybe because of its vast location, natural environment and way of treating inmates…I must say that some of our existing programs being undertaken can be adapted, if suited to other prison facilities,” he adds.
The area was used to exile people during the Spanish colonial period and later as a penal colony under American rule. Now there is a rice farming, coconut plantations, poultry, fishpond and vegetable farms on the 30,000 hectares prison. Based on their skills, inmates are given jobs from farming to office work.
The prison is surrounded by a thick mangrove forest, a mountain range and a highway in the Philippines'last ecological frontier.
And the place has also become some what of a tourist attraction.
Aldrin who is serving for 20 years makes a living from selling handicrafts to people who come to see the unique prison.
“Those who want to see Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm and our historical buildings, please visit us. You can help us, inmates, by visiting this facility and buy souvenir items,” he encourages tourists.
One of his customers today is Jobert James from Manila.
The entrance to the souvenir shop, a building which dates back from the US-colonial era.
“When you heard the word prison, normally you think of inmates being behind walls. So I thought Iwahig would be dangerous because inmates are outside. I was afraid that they might harm us. Because you see, they’re convicts… But my impression has changed. It is really safe here,” says Jobert who is surprised with what he saw.
The souvenir shop at Iwahig Prisons and Penal Farm where tourists can buy cheap handicrafts and other items made by the inmates themselves.
The prison is surrounded by a thick mangrove forest, a mountain range and a highway.
These natural surroundings are the only thing that separates the prisoners from the outside world.It’s Xerxes Sebido’s job as a prison guard to keep track of the inmates. He says each year around four or five escape.
“It’s not easy to guard so many inmates but the number of guards has been increased. We have also implemented new security measures. And we strengthened our rehabilitation and reformation programs. This helps the inmates to have a clear outlook in life and not think of escaping anymore,” he says.
Xerxes and the other guards also live on site.
“We are given a piece of land here to build our house so our families can stay with us. This is also one strategy of the Bureau of Corrections to keep the employees near when something happens like when a prisoner escapes.”
Penal Superintendent Richard Schwarzkopf Jr says those who escape are usually easily caught. He would like to see zero escapes but instead of building walls….he is working on making prisoners want to stay.
“We have many reformation programs being implemented and enhanced such as the basic education and technical-vocational education for the inmates; the moral and religious, sports and recreation, behavioral modification, health and welfare and work and livelihood programs”.
Back at the office inmate Carlo Mercedez is encoding a file in the computer.
He says while he feels lucky that he can still live with his family he longs for life outside Prison Without Walls.
“As an inmate who lives with his family, I am happy but as a prisoner, it is not as happy as when you are a free man in the society.”
He has planned out his future when he is released from prison.
“I am only considering two options. First, my idea is that we would go back in my hometown in Camarines Norte. We have a piece of coconut plantation there that I can improve and continue. My second option would be to stay here in Palawan. I have seen the nature of Palawan. So there is part of me that would prefer to stay here if we can buy a piece of land.”
Penal Superintendent Richard Schwarzkopf Jr says that 10 percent of Iwahig’s prisoners became repeat offenders after being released.This is lower than the national average. The jail has also had no recent history of riots or mass breakouts.Most other jails in the Philippines have brutal conditions, with inmates packed beyond capacity in dingy, airless cells and having to take turns sleeping.
(Originally appeared on Asia Calling as a radio feature)

Thursday, December 05, 2013

A Tale of Disaster in the Philippines

The recent devastating typhoon that hit central Philippines has illicited international response and pooled resources from different countries and individuals, much like the earthquake in Haiti and tsunami in Japan. Too much have been said about the enormity of the typhoon and the effects it brought to the affected. My heart bleeds. Blaming the Philippine government's slow response was the order of the day. The social networking sites have become a platform of motivating more help and of course discussions and bickering on what went wrong, who to blame and what should have been done. Facebook and Twitter have become a stage for heated debates and surely Filipinos don't run out of opinions to say online. Filipinos seem to be good at making their points of view highlighted online than face to face.

A truck lies on it's side after the typhoon in Borbon town, Northern Cebu, Philippines. Photo by C. Baldicantos
If you are caught on the other side of the debate and who doesn't join the blame-game and instead explaining that this catastrophe was just so enormous even the strongest state will be caught off-guard, you always lose the discussion. So much so you are branded as an apologist for the government even if you also don't like the government so much, past or present.

Three days before Typhoon Haiyan (locally known as Yolanda), Philippine President Benigno Aquino III made an appeal on national television to affected areas that the typhoon could be the worst ever to land in the country. He warned that wave surges can go as high at 5 to 7 meters and ordered all local government units to do all necessary means to evacuate to safety residents in most vulnerable areas. He also dispatched his military chief of staff and interior secretary to oversee preparations for the landfall and relief and recovery operations.
Fallen trees and electric posts block the main roads in Daanbantayan town in Northern Cebu, Philippines. Photo by C. Baldicantos
The afternoon before the typhoon struck, it was calm, the sun was shining and no signs that a strong typhoon number 5 was on its way. Residents of Leyte, the province mostly hit, went through their day, many showed reluctance in leaving their houses to go to evacuation centers. One local government official said it was not easy to tell the people to leave their houses. Forcing them would mean putting a gun on their head. What the local government did was just to convince as many as they can to voluntarily move out.

The epic typhoon only lasted a maximum of three hours according to some accounts. Winds started to blow early in the morning and then came rains and then came stronger winds and storm surges that blew almost everything away. The country and the resilient people that have dealt with almost 20 typhoons every year were caught offguard. Perhaps being caught offguard was not even the appropriate word. It just struck like nobody expected it. A coastal community was flattened, debris were lying around and the destruction and death was beyond belief. Leyte was no more, one survivor said upon seeing her environment and smelling the stench of dead bodies on the streets.
Guiauyan Town, Eastern Samar, after Typhoon Haiyan. Photo by C. Baldicantos 
More than 24 hours have passed and it seemed the response from the other side of the world was nowhere in sight. Electricity was cut off, communications line were down and people were desperate for water, food and clothing. Even before disaster response came, there were reports of looting from survivors who were desperate to last a day. It was only after two days that help came trickling in via the small port and partly functional airport.

Photos by C. Baldicantos
Why did it take more than two days to reach the affected areas? One explanation is geography. The Philippines is an archipelago of more than 7,000 islands. The most affected areas were part of the chain of islands that were not easy to reach when a typhoon of this magnitude happened. It is true that Leyte is is just 6 hours by boat from Cebu but to clear the port also took time. The airport was also devastated that it had to be restored to functionality so helicopters and aircrafts can land safely. There roads connecting to the mainland of nearby provinces were completely unpassable due to debris lying around. The ones expected to help in the first level of recovery operations, the local government units' disaster coordinating councils were non-functional because they too were affected. Another explanation is the lack of facilities of the government to deal with this huge natural disaster. The Philippine military only had a handful of C130 planes and helicopters to ferry goods, medicines and other important survival kits to the affected areas. That is why the early response of the US military, bringing in a ship that has everything (from filtration system to floating hospital) and air assets was very much welcome. Without such help from other advanced countries, the death toll would soar and the country would be as miserable as Burma during the Typhoon Bopha.

A Philippine Coast Guard ship looks for bodies near Bantayan Island, Cebu, Philippines days after Typhoon Haiyan made a landfall. Photo by C. Baldicantos
There's much more to say about the disaster response and how the Philippine government reacted, but for now... I believe the survivors need more than what netizens on Facebook and Twitter have been complaining about.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Thailand's (R)evolving Politics

Every Prime Minister in Thailand has his/her own very unique challenges. After the controversial Thaksin Shinawatra was forced out of power by a coup more than 6 years ago, politics has been topsy-turvy in this Kingdom. The Democrats, with the backing of the generals, successfully put Abhisit Vejjajiva at the helm, only to be disturbed by a massive Red Shirt protests that put to test his mantle as a statesmen.

The handling of the Red Shirt protests and the assassination of the former military officer leading them sunk Vejjajiva and his Democrats' popularity. Another election followed and it was time for the Red Shirts, known alternatively as Thaksin's thugs (or band of brothers), to take a revenge. The newly-formed Phuae Thai party (after Thaksin's party was dissolved due allegedly for election violations) fielded Thaksin's loving sister Yingluck. And the rest was history. She is Thailand's first prime minister. It was not because the Thai people were ready to have a female leader. It was more of Thaksin's influence (and his money) rubbed on her.

Yingluck Shinawatra: The Loving Sister
The pro-democracy movement, also known as the anti-Thaksins, are now occupying the streets where the Red Shirts where once before. They no longer wear the royalist yellow colour but are garbed in white mask ala V for Vendetta.

Supalak Ganjanakhundee, a veteran political journalist with The Nation newspaper (which is known as anti-Thaksin paper--Thaksin bullied the paper when he was in power so there's reason for the antipathy), wrote a sobber explanation on what's happening recently. He said instead of sitting in the park in front of the Royal Palace protesting against the prime minister, why do these protesters start to campaign not to elect Thaksin's annointed next time.