From water buffalo to farmers, life in the Philippines is a multi-generational family affair.

When I read of immigrants from the poorest and fastest growing populations on the planet drowning in the Mediterranean while trying to reach the shores of countries that have achieved both population stability and (relative) prosperity for their citizens, I have to compare that to what I see in the Philippines. The missions I have been on have put me close to the poor for almost three years. Here, the poorest segment of society has the largest families, which is thought to be a way to guarantee security for the parents.

Families here commonly gain security and a better income by sending their offspring abroad to work. While the money sent home supports the extended family, taxes from that additional spending constitute the government’s largest income. Most of the workers are legal immigrants working with visas, and several large and well-funded government agencies are devoted to helping them find jobs and get visas. The praise they receive isn’t limited to government, politicians, media, or relatives; even popular telenovelas promote sacrifice for family. All of these forces have led to the Philippines being the fastest growing population in Asia, with nearly one hundred million people living on a land mass smaller than New Mexico, which has a population just over two million. The poor see short-term security in large families, while the long-term security of both the society and the planet are threatened by this out-of-control population growth.

A less savory way that poor families exchange offspring for security is by placing older daughters (or sometimes younger sons) into the sex trade. One 18-year-old daughter of a family of eight was first urged by her mother and her aunt to become an “entertainment girl” in Japan. When she refused, the two asked her to become a bar girl in Subic Bay, a notorious sex trade center. She again refused and left the family. This is not unusual and happens frequently.

When I first began my missions here, I thought consumption by the rich to be the main cause of pollution and climate change. I reasoned that the poor did not have air conditioners, refrigerators, or cars. After witnessing forest areas clear cut for production of charcoal and many fires started by poor farmers, many of which went out of control (the largest fire event in human history was started by Indonesian farmers in 1997), I realized that poverty is also a major cause of climate chaos and pollution. Addressing this requires a strong and creative effort by the government and NGOs.

Consider the carrot and the stick approach. First the stick. The legislature, with the leadership of several environmentalist individuals like Senator Loren Legarda, has created good laws, but enforcement is lax or missing. It is illegal to start a fire without a permit from the local fire department, but fires are everywhere, and many get out of control. It is illegal to cut the forests to make charcoal, but, again, enforcement is lax — largely because alternatives to cooking with charcoal are expensive or missing. But the benefits of enforcing the law on fires could lead to improvements in waste disposal, education in composting and cook stoves — like the rocket stove. that can both dispose of small burnable refuse and cook at the same time — and simple solar cookers that can be used most of the year.

After more than 30 years in Santa Barbara, Lane Anderson left for the Philippines in 2010, where he has been volunteering on missions to lessen poverty and pollution. Though this editorial was submitted before Typhoon Haiyan hit, we heard from him a day later that his tropical paradise near Davao City continues to sustain him.


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