No Free Lunch

Squandered wealth

Are we a rich country pretending to be poor? Or could our problem be that we don’t recognize our wealth enough? Or is it because we don’t know how to handle our wealth?

There’s no question that we’re exceptionally blessed with nature’s bounty. With 30 million hectares of land area, 36,289 kilometers of coastline and abundant inland waters, we have an extremely rich array of terrestrial, marine and freshwater resources known to be among the richest and most diverse in the world. According to the Convention on Biological Diversity, our country hosts two-thirds of the earth’s biodiversity, and between 70 and 80 percent of the world’s plant and animal species.


The Philippine archipelago lies within the “Coral Triangle,” center of the most diverse habitat in the marine tropics. Philippine coral reefs make up more than one-fourth of the total reef area in Southeast Asia, and are recognized to be among the richest and most diverse in the world, with about 464 species of hard corals and more than 50 species of soft corals identified. All these have given the Philippines the distinction of being named one of the 18 “megadiversity” countries of the world, which collectively account for 60-70 percent of global biodiversity.

But we have also been tagged internationally as a biodiversity “hot spot” — meaning, a country where biodiversity is under extreme threat from deforestation, conversion, fragmentation of natural habitats, unregulated trade and low overall environmental quality. Nearly 200 of our vertebrate species are now threatened by extinction, the best-known being the Philippine eagle. In the sea, nearly a third of our coral reefs are considered to be in poor condition. There has been a steady decline in the quality of the coral reefs, and it has been estimated that we have lost a third of our corals in the last 20 years. Overfishing, pollution and other human economic activities on the coasts are further degrading our erstwhile rich marine resources. Strong population pressure in coastal communities has stretched the country’s coastal fishery resources to their limits.


In our forests, illegal logging and rampant conversion of uplands to monoculture (single-crop) farming has been the single biggest enemy of biodiversity in the Philippines. Our animal biodiversity is severely threatened by hunting, including by aliens, of animals in our seas and forests, much of it feeding illegal trade. Another source of damage is the reckless introduction of invasive alien plant or animal species to our islands, such as the giant catfish, black bass, golden snail, various toads including the marine toad, and the American bullfrog. Invasive aquatic plants like the water hyacinth and water fern have also adversely affected wetland biodiversity. Few of us notice it, but the risks from such biotic invasions have risen enormously in recent decades.

Jesus Christ told the parable of the three servants who were entrusted by their master with portions of his wealth. The first two had doubled their portions upon the master’s return, but the third, who merely buried the wealth and kept it intact, incurred the master’s ire. We’ve done worse than that third servant, having recklessly squandered the abundant wealth God has entrusted us Filipinos with.

It’s no surprise, then, that with all our natural wealth, we seem to be a classic illustration of the so-called “natural resource curse” described by various authors, notably economist Jeffrey Sachs.

Also called the “paradox of plenty,” this is the phenomenon whereby countries rich in natural resources end up much poorer than those far less endowed. We only need to look at neighbors like Singapore and Japan to appreciate the contrast.

Wealth, after all, is not just about natural or material assets. One Buddhist philosopher defined “wealth” to comprise three elements: material wellbeing, the common good and beauty. We’re certainly well endowed in the third. And while we have much of the first, too much of it is in the hands of too few. It is thus in promoting the second — the common good — that we as a society appear to have fallen short, both in our personal actions and in our government decisions.

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TAGS: Cielito F. Habito, No Free Lunch, Philippine natural resources, squandered wealth
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