Geographic illiteracy and Filipino apathy
I’m wondering why, despite frequent news on China’s brazen grabbing of Philippine territories in the South China Sea, most Filipinos seem indifferent to the despicable acts of this next-door bully. We seem to go about our nonchalant ways, hoping, willy-nilly, that the problem would simply fade away. I’m reminded of Edwin Markham’s lines from his poem that seem close to describing most Filipinos: “A thing that grieves not, and that never hopes; Stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox.”
Our docile behavior stands out when compared with that of the Vietnamese. In May 2014, when China positioned an oil rig within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, the Vietnamese quickly sent a flotilla of ships to drive the interloper away. After a short standoff China pulled out its rig, but what followed were riots in Vietnam that saw the Vietnamese attacking Chinese factory workers, resulting in death and injury to many workers.
No world power can intimidate the Vietnamese. We saw this in the 1976 Third Indochina War (when the Chinese retreated in the face of fierce Vietnamese resistance) and in the 1960s Vietnam War (when America simply gave up on its smug presumption of vanquishing Vietnam). To think this small state did these all by its lonesome! Indeed, the Vietnamese are made of sterner stuff.
But what to make of Filipinos’ apathetic behavior? One explanation can be traced to our geographic illiteracy. Filipinos have a dismal knowledge of their physical geography, and one crucial aspect of this disciplinary branch that our educational system has failed to stress is our marine environment. Within our baselines, the area of our archipelagic waters is 171,146 square miles; in comparison, our land area is only 115,830 square miles. If we consider our archipelagic waters together with those within our 200-mile EEZ, these would add up to 691,233 square miles, or about six times bigger than our terrestrial domain! Indeed, we are a water world!
If, early in our modern history, this maritime milieu and its resources had been strongly inculcated in Filipino pupils in their formative grade-school years, we should have been influenced to become good builders of ships, bridges and ports and adept producers of a myriad of marine products. If we had been taught that the maritime territories are part of our national patrimony that we should love and defend, it should have been easy to kindle nationalistic fervor against intruders. The iconography of places and resources as symbols of power, wealth and prestige should have been drilled in the minds of the young and, in the process, evoked in them topophilia, or love of place, and, by extension, love of country.
Perhaps we can also hark back to our history for insight into our maritime blinders. Today, we have this myopic inward orientation to the land, which was ingrained in our national psyche by the Spaniards’ introduction of the Regalian Doctrine that eliminated communal land ownership and supplanted it with private ownership. This system has led to the intergenerational diminution of land and agrarian conflicts.
Today, with the failure of the land reform program, there is even more competition for land. It has driven lowlanders to the uplands, where they engage in unabated deforestation that, in turn, has caused the disasters triggered by heavy rains. By law, only land with slopes lower than 10 degrees (or 18 percent) should be used for farming and urban activities—a proviso that limits the legally usable land to only 60 percent of the country’s total land area. Amid the dearth of tillable land, we need to reorient our attention to the sea, where bountiful alternative resources are waiting to be tapped and, in so doing, engender in us the need to protect them.
Had we this maritime orientation during the Philippines’ formative years, we would have realized that the emergence of airborne weaponry negates the role of our maritime insularity as a protective buffer. Or, considering the global power realignments toward the end of the 20th century, it should have dawned on us that we bear this curse of proximity to potential enemies in a water world from which we cannot escape. It is like the curse suffered by western African countries whose nearness to colonies in the Americas forced them to become convenient suppliers of slaves, which left deep scars in their social fabric. Had we been conscious of our maritime curse, we could have made appropriate preparations early on.
But what do we do now that we are trapped in this Asian shatterbelt—i.e., this region of conflict? Even if our case with the Permanent Court of Arbitration turns out positive for us, it is uncertain if China can be moved by the verdict or by world opinion.
Meanwhile, there are still the areas that we occupy in the Kalayaan Island Group and which could be further grabbed by China, with its knowledge of our puny defense system or its perception that we lack the temper to put up even token resistance. There is no sense of urgency in our 20-year-old military modernization program, which so far can show few visible accomplishments. We need to acquire the siege mentality that has made countries like South Korea, Taiwan and Israel militarily and economically strong. Even as we pursue the peaceful tack, realpolitik dictates that a necessary response to our predicament is to accelerate posthaste our socioeconomic development, strengthen ourselves, and strive for self-reliance.
Meliton B. Juanico is a retired professor of geography at the University of the Philippines Diliman. He is a licensed environmental planner and a professorial lecturer, and is active in consultancy work in urban and regional planning.
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