Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Written for The Diplomat

Though transboundary haze pollution and the El Niño phenomenon are often reported these days across Southeast Asia, these issues deserve greater attention from regional leaders.

These are no longer national problems that local politicians can easily address through rhetoric; the situation already demands a stronger action which can be effectively realized through regional cooperation.

The haze has become an annual problem involving Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia. This year, the haze is darker and more hazardous than ever; but this time it has reached the skies of south Thailand and some parts of southern Mindanao in the Philippines.

The ‘ground zero’ of the disaster is in Indonesia where forest burning and land clearing operations have worsened the air pollution levels across the region. But equally to blame are Malaysian and Singaporean companies which are financing the expansion of rubber and palm oil plantations in Indonesia.

Some are also insisting that small farmers should be probed for causing the forest fires in western Indonesia. But while traditional farm practices should be reviewed, the more essential issue is the unsustainable production being pursued by large plantation companies. Besides, traditional farming has existed for decades if not hundreds of years without generating a massive haze pollution across borders.

The haze is a reminder for regional leaders to think of innovative solutions to address an old problem. Offers of financial and technical assistance must be welcomed, regional economic initiatives must be expanded, and cross-boundary interventions must be given a chance to work.

The haze should also alert the public about the direct link between human activities and environmental degradation. There’s nothing mysterious about the haze: stop the forest burning to bring back a clearer sky and cleaner air.

But this requires more than just enforcing of environment laws. Countries must be persuaded to review their economic models and growth targets, the business sector must be enticed to adopt a sustainable production output, and consumers must be informed to buy less and to choose only the products that do not harm the environment.

As Southeast Asian countries prepare to integrate their respective economies, they should also reconsider the impact of this undertaking on the region’s ecological integrity. Should traditional economic indicators such as high production levels, profitability, and expanding trade surplus trump other concerns such as environmental sustainability?

How Southeast Asia will address the haze issue could determine the future of the region in terms of its viability as a developing bloc of livable nations.

Another concern requiring regional discussion and action is the recurring El Niño or the prolonged drought affecting the lives of millions of farmers. El Niño is worse and deadlier than haze, but it is less visible and evokes a quieter indignation from urban residents.

Before Typhoon Koppu devastated northern Philippines last weekend, farmers there have been reeling from the harsh impact of El Niño in recent months. During his weekly speeches aired on national television, Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha never forgets to remind his rural constituency to support state programs on irrigation and other measures in response to the El Niño which is unusually more intense this year.

Southeast Asia may be more famous because of its cosmopolitan cities such as Singapore, Bangkok, and Kuala Lumpur or its exotic beach destinations in Phuket, Bali, and Palawan; but this rising region is primarily an agglomeration of agricultural economies. El Niño affects not just the region’s food security and the export of food crops, but also the backbone of its economy. It is particularly ruinous to ordinary farmers. As El Niño stalks Southeast Asia, the region’s economic prospects also falters.

El Niño should lead us to rethink the relevance of several trade agreements that some Southeast Asian governments are negotiating with other bigger and more developed countries. Should Southeast Asia first address the impact of El Niño as a regional formation? Should this inspire the implementation of a bold climate action that will benefit all economies in the region?

In relation to the trade agreements concocted by richer countries, the more crucial issue to ask is whether these economic instruments will uplift the lives of farmers who are already suffering from El Niño, or whether the farmers will lose from unfair trade competition.

The haze and El Niño are more than just minor concerns affecting the environment. They are not just an inconvenience. They destroy lives, weaken economies. and constitute a national security threat.

Choking from the haze and coping with El Niño, is it the right time for Southeast Asian counties to sign new and bold but divisive trade commitments?

Typhoon Haiyan Two Years Later: The Philippines is Still Recovering

Written for The Diplomat

Recovery continues to be slow two years after super typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Yolanda) devastated the central part of the Philippines.

To be sure, the failure to complete the rehabilitation process in Tacloban city and Leyte province, the ‘ground zero’ of the typhoon disaster, is seen by some as understandable considering the massive destruction left behind by Haiyan. To reiterate the extent of the damage, Haiyan affected 44 out of 80 provinces in the Philippines. It killed more than 6,000 people and cause more than $2 billion worth of property damage. It is reportedly the strongest typhoon in recorded history.

The government, for its part, has been defending its post-Haiyan relief efforts. A presidential spokesperson even bragged that the Philippines did better compared to the post-Hurricane Katrina performance of the United States government.

But critics have been citing official audit reports about the inefficient use of calamity funds and donations from other countries. They question the slow disbursement of funds intended for Haiyan survivors. They point out that thousands continue to live in temporary shelters or tent cities with inadequate services and livelihood opportunities. The government’s “Build Back Better” initiative is mocked as a program favoring big business at the expense of ordinary residents.

But the government has denied the accusation of underspending. It also countered the charge that it neglected the plight of Haiyan victims. Economic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan insisted that the government is now “transitioning into the medium-term phase of recovery and rehabilitation efforts.”

However, Balisacan acknowledged that “reconstruction efforts were stymied by a whole set of serious policy and implementation issues.” As examples, he identified contradictory policies on procurement and land acquisition as well as the red tape involved in completing certain projects.

“We learned that several national laws, policies, and practices have been getting in the way of resource mobilization and fund disbursement, and have been a major hindrance to project implementation,” he added.

Balisacan’s statement, released a few days before the two-year anniversary of Haiyan, reflected a more moderate assessment of the government’s post-Haiyan achievements. It highlighted the new infrastructure and other economic programs that benefited Haiyan-hit communities, but the statement also mentioned the cause of “implementation bottlenecks” that delayed the delivery of a comprehensive reform package for Haiyan victims.

What Balisacan did not say was that these bureaucratic weaknesses could have been easily addressed through decisive leadership by the national government.

The government of outgoing President Benigno Aquino III will be remembered for its success or failure to restore normalcy in the Eastern Visayas region. Naturally, it is going to be an election campaign issue that can be invoked by opposition candidates in the next few months.

Adding to the pressure is the global media attention that the Philippines faces as it prepares to host the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit this month. If journalists decide to visit Tacloban and report the real situation of the city, it will not be difficult for them to pinpoint the unfulfilled promises and incomplete projects of the administration.

For its part, the government hopes to lead a discussion during the APEC summit about the need for building economies that strengthen the disaster resiliency of countries in the Pacific Rim.

Meanwhile, the deadly impact of Haiyan in a small underdeveloped archipelagic country like the Philippines is expected to be shared once more by climate justice advocates at the Paris Climate Conference next month. Many activists are hoping that the specter of Haiyan will convince world leaders to come up with a more effective climate pact.

Two years after Haiyan made history and traumatized an entire nation, many continue to debate its consequences and the inaction or slow action of concerned agencies. But as bureaucrats, politicians, economists, and climate experts exchange notes on the lessons to be learned from Haiyan, let us not forget that the essential task is still to bring fast relief, real recovery, and progress in the lives of ordinary residents in the communities which have remained calamity areas up to this day.

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