(STAR) STAR SCIENCE By Raul Kamantigue Suarez - (Third of three parts)

In his book entitled “Collapse” (Viking Press, 2005), Jared Diamond describes how the ancient inhabitants of Easter Island completely deforested their island in the course of building huge stone statues.

Centuries later, archeologists discovered a sharp drop in fish and bird bones found in ancient islander trash that occurred along with the loss of forest cover. This meant that, unable to make boats for lack of wood, the Easter Islanders could no longer fish. Destruction of nesting and roosting habitat led to a decline in bird abundance.

So the Easter Islanders’ diet shifted to rats and chickens, and may have eventually included humans before their society collapsed. When he lectures on the subject, Diamond points out that surely, the Easter Islanders should have seen their forests disappearing as they cut them down. Yet, they continued.

When I heard him give this lecture, he included the Philippines as one of the countries headed for collapse. But there are various roads to collapse and, from the work of researchers, it is now possible to understand important elements of the process in the Philippines. It is this understanding that, I hope, shall lead to realization that the road to collapse is not the only one available to Filipinos.

When the Tokugawa Shogunate in 17th century Japan, for example, became aware that deforestation had become a serious problem, they implemented a successful nationwide program of forest conservation and replanting. Today, despite having one of the highest population densities among developed countries, 67 percent of Japan is forested. In China, floods that killed 4,000 and displaced 18 million people led to a total ban on logging in 1998. In interviews, Diamond says he remains “cautiously optimistic” because there are examples in human history of societies that recognized the problems they faced and chose to solve them.

Diamond points out that societies that chose the path to collapse did so either because they failed to recognize the problems they faced or because they thought the available solutions to be against values they held deeply. In some societies that collapsed, the elite did not see clearly what was happening because they were insulated by their wealth and power from the adverse consequences of their decisions, policies and actions. Let us consider a couple of Philippine examples:

We have seen how Philippine deforestation is best understood within a socio-economic and political context. There are now more than 90 million Filipinos to feed, many of whom live in a degraded environment, depleted of natural resources, in an economy that cannot provide enough jobs. Child poverty, malnutrition, school dropout rates, illiteracy, child labor and child prostitution are serious problems. Yet, even now, when condom vending machines have been installed in high schools in the province of Rome, government support of birth control programs in the Philippines continues to be opposed by the leaders of the Catholic Church as well as by religious politicians.

At the recent (July 2009) conference of the Philippine-American Academy of Science and Engineering at the Ateneo de Manila University, mangrove ecologist and conservationist Jurgene Primavera publicly asked why everything being presented was about technology and engineering; why, she asked, was there no mention of environmental problems and the need to address them? An official who had just presented the government’s program to increase investment into research and development answered that they had to be able to sell the program — in other words, make it attractive — so it would receive political support.

Luna’s Spoliarium won a gold medal in Spain in 1884. It served as a symbol of Filipino excellence. Its brutal images helped inspire Filipinos in the Propaganda Movement to action. Among them was Rizal who, through his writings, inspired a revolution. Again, there is a need for the revolution of the mind that Rizal so passionately promoted. Societies that survive are those able to recognize the challenges they face and able to correct their self-destructive behavior before it is too late. While there are forests, reefs, mangroves, rivers, lakes and fertile fields left to save, Filipinos must be careful to choose the right path.

* * *

Raul Kamantigue Suarez is a professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, California and an editor of the Journal of Experimental Biology, Cambridge, UK. E-mail him at

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved