As the postcard shows, we see the Philippines as a myriad of pristine white sand beaches and emerald waters so clear you can almost see your own reflection. It’s the kind of image that makes most of us want to teleport from our dull grey offices right into that colourful postcard of sunshine, laying on a sunbed without a care in the world. I can’t say that was the only single element that enticed me to visit this interesting country, but it was surely on the list. As a backpacker though, and all round rough traveller, I wanted to get past the white sand beaches and emerald waters and off the track to emerge myself in the other aspects of the country and the culture. I wanted to see more.
Sometimes however, there’s a certain ailment that comes with wanting to see the world and not just see the world. That ailment becomes especially challenging when you’re an environmentalist/human rights activist that writes predominantly about topics surrounding people and the environment. And sometimes, when you’re delving deeper past the postcard images, you come across things you don’t want to see. Confronting things and heartbreaking things that make you think, maybe I should’ve stuck to that postcard.
The Philippines for me was a concoction of mixed emotion. While I did see the wonder and awe in many of the places, I was also confronted with some of the country’s most challenging issues. From poverty to pollution and inequality to injustice, this country disguised by all its beauty is concealing a certain ugliness to the eyes of the world.
There was not a day that went by where I wasn’t met with a provoking image of poverty. In main cities Manila and Cebu the eyes of a child desperate for sympathy would meet mine on several occasions. I remember on one occasion while eating lunch at a local restaurant a child approached me, her mother waiting anxiously in the background only metres away, just watching as her own innocent child begged for money. What kind of circumstance could lead a mother to allow her own child to be exposed to such a life on the streets? And watch as their children are forced into the same cycle of poverty that they have endured? Those were the images and questions that I was confronted with each day.
While the Philippines celebrate their 2015 economic growth of 5.8%, 1 in 4 of their population lives below the poverty line. While the highest 10-20% of income earners reap the rewards of economic growth, the poorest 25% see nothing of it, rather facing continuing challenges and increasing wealth disparity. This was only made clearer to me as I drove past the Philippines 4th largest shopping mall erected less than 1 kilometre from one of Cebu’s largest slums, towering over the country’s impoverished in some kind of sickeningly patronising manner. But this building is not a single example, but one of many examples of profitable endeavors built around slum areas of the Philippines, ignoring them like they were a dark stain in a shiny room. How much longer can a country continue to celebrate its growth while leaving the majority of their population disadvantaged? I cannot say, but I do hope that the newly elected government will start to consider an inclusive growth model that sees to the interests of the country’s lower class citizens.
It was not only poverty that put a dark cloud over my time in the Philippines but pollution as well. For a country so rich in natural resources and all-round natural beauty one would assume the preservation of that beauty would become high on the people’s agenda. I assumed wrong.
The Philippines is in fact the third biggest ocean polluter in the world. I was not surprised when I expected to be met with pristine beaches and instead was met with a line of plastic bottles and other pieces of trash on one of Bohol’s most popular beaches. I was quick to point a finger at the local people until I was made aware that 90% of the Philippines have no efficient, routine rubbish collection and there is very little recycling activity in the country. Some areas, including affluent areas, have reported that their rubbish, which is supposed to be collected weekly, gets collected, well, whenever it gets collected. Friends have stated they sometimes wait one month before the rubbish is collected and taken to a huge dumpsite out of town that is often located nearby waterways, toxic waste leaking straight into the oceans. There is no sustainable solution for this because there is no recycling and no sorting, just the quick, unsustainable ‘solution’ of throwing it all into a bottomless landfill. Just when matters couldn’t get worse, rural areas do not even have rubbish collection, nor do they even have rubbish bins – nor do they even know that rubbish, especially plastic, is bad for the environment. They just comfortably throw their plastic into the oceans, rivers and surrounding areas.
Unfortunately, as an environmentalist, every bit of plastic I saw in a waterway, or on the ground, or anywhere out of a garbage bin, broke a piece of my heart. The only slight cure finding out that activist groups in the country are trying to raise their voice about the issue. Thanks to the likes of Clean Up the Philippines and Save Philippine Seas I was relieved not to be the only one in dire concern for the state of the country. And that has been my liberator here in the Philippines – when I find out that the people of this country have a voice and are standing up to the darkness and the hidden ugliness that’s plagued the Philippines in the past. It’s those voices that give me hope that things will change.
Perhaps one day the impoverished will become middle class, and the elite will become empathic, and economic disparity will lessen, and the oceans will be cleaned and the streets scrubbed. Perhaps one day these things will happen.
On my journey to many of the worlds developing regions I’ve thought a lot about seeing the world through different perspectives. I wondered if maybe as travellers we don’t want to look deeper, in fear of what we might see. Maybe a post card is the only sight we can, or want, to mentally grasp, and that’s ok. But then there are some of us who can’t help but look deeper, because although the truth is sometimes difficult there must always be someone to tell it.