On The Move

Drones as plowshares, not swords

Filipinos are so prone to natural and human-made disasters. This is on top of living in a territory as fragmented as a 7,641-island archipelago, and a nation with almost 200 ethnolinguistic groupings.

When push comes to shove, the resources and attention of the nation focus on the problems of the center, and the problems of the periphery recede into the background. At the moment, the water woes of Metro Manila take center stage, even as communities in northern and southern Luzon are submerged in floodwaters brought by Typhoon “Tisoy.”


What innovations could make this nation less reactive and capable of greater foresight and holistic perspectives?

My candidate is the unmanned aerial vehicle or drone. This tool promises to be critical for national and community problem-solving. Like all new inventions that quickly respond to felt needs and expand capabilities and possibilities, drones have delighted Filipinos. Who has not marveled at the way drones give a bird’s-eye view of a wedding or birthday party, with the capability to zoom in on the newlyweds or celebrants at hitherto impossible angles?


At the community level, drones enable more effective work, learning, networking and community problem-solving. Barangay councils and assemblies who use drone images of their jurisdiction will have a better and more realistic appreciation of community work that needs to be done. In agriculture, banana smallholders are beginning to use drones for aerial spraying of pesticides. Drones are also beginning to be used for quick delivery of critical products like medicine to remote areas.

Government personnel see the benefits of drones in the delivery of their products and services to the public. Much of this is focused on environmental, humanitarian and disaster risk reduction and management, and infrastructure construction and monitoring work. Drones can also provide accurate information to help establish an objective basis for conflict resolution and strategies for development.

But drones are increasingly being acquired and used for military purposes in the Philippines. One trend has been the use of drones by US military or military civilian contractors during the Zamboanga, Mamasapano and Marawi sieges. The legitimacy of the use of drones as part or as an extension of the presence of foreign military forces, especially in internal security operations, is an unresolved issue.

The Philippine military and police have been avid acquirers and users of drones. While many Filipinos would have no problem with the use of drones for patrolling the West Philippine Sea, Benham Rise and our inland seas, there are reservations about the use of drones for “internal security purposes.”

There is yet unrecognized collateral damage in the use by the military of drones against the NPA and terrorist groups. During the Mindanao Peace Studies Conference in Butuan City last month, a researcher called attention to the fear inflicted by drones among lumad communities. Drones, to these communities, presage the appearance of soldiers. Lumad tremble with fear and flee in panic when they hear the sound of drones overhead, much like chicken cowering at the sight of an eagle or other predatory birds in the sky.

For their part, NPAs have been hostile to the use of drones in their area of operations. In one incident, the NPA detained DENR forest workers in Compostela Valley for operating drones, citing this as a — culpable violation of the People-s Democratic Government for bringing in surveillance gadgets.”Military checkpoints in Mindanao are marked as — drone no-fly zones,” as drones have also reportedly been operated by insurgents or their sympathizers.

But even in the peaceful uses of drones, there is a dark side to the technology. Drones can be used to identify land for acquisition by predatory political dynasties and enterprises. Drones can also be used for the surveillance and intimidation of the political opposition. As more users and uses for drones crop up, there could be an overall negative impact on society, the economy, and public order and safety. Drones exist in a twilight zone, where their legal, nonlegal and illegal uses have yet to be sorted out.


But as is true of most tools, drones cut both ways. Drones in the hands of exploitative elites will only exacerbate socioeconomic inequalities, imbalances and gaps. Drones in the hands of development agents and communities will promote the self-help, mutual help and institutional help needed to dissipate the sources of conflict. Without purposive promotion and regulation for the common good, drones may bring more harm than benefits.

As it is developing, drones are being used more for war than for peace. It is the duty of government to make sure that drones are wielded as plowshares and not as swords.

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