Philippine town pays heavy environmental price without reaping benefits Nature depleted

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August 26, 1993|By New York Times News Service

HINUNANGAN, Philippines -- "Hinunangan is a paradise created by God and destroyed by man," said Noe Dadap, who grew up on this rural coast.

The town's name means resting place for travelers. Inviting waves lap at its crescent beach against a backdrop of swaying palms, lowland rice paddies and verdant mountains.

Hinunangan offers simple charms: a relaxed pace, small-town friendliness, scenic beauty, chirping crickets, mellow juice from a freshly-hacked coconut and boys playing basketball alongside mats with rice drying in the sun. Daybreak is heralded not by alarm clocks but by roosters crowing, dogs barking and pigs squealing for a prompt breakfast.

But human subsistence is increasingly hard, bordering on primitive. Hinunangan paid the environmental price of the modern age without reaping its benefits.

Once there was running water. Now it trickles into storage tanks overnight to be dispensed by plastic dippers for bathing, toilets and cooking.

An ice cube is a luxury. Laundry is laboriously washed by hand. For most residents, home is a one-room thatched cabin. Their diet is mostly rice and salted fish, three times a day.

Electricity, once dependable, blacks out for hours, even weeks. Fans, the only relief from steam-bath weather, sit idle. In Manila, the power shortage has cost thousands of jobs and jeopardized foreign investment.

President Fidel V. Ramos has a crash program to build generating plants and has other ambitious catch-up goals. He cites improvements in the gross national product, inflation, interest rates, unemployment, growth, debt and foreign trade.

But he is the first to acknowledge that, with the majority still impoverished, the country has far to go.

Hinunangan is no tropical tourist resort. It has no hotel, no signs on its dirt roads, no telephones.

Beneath its idyllic surface, Hinunangan is suffering the Philippine syndrome of environmental devastation, poverty, tattered infrastructure, overpopulation and corruption.

This farming and fishing town on Leyte -- the island where Gen. Douglas MacArthur, making good on his promise to return, waded ashore on Oct. 20, 1944 -- is typical in this country of 7,100 islands.

The villagers are remote from the choking smog and traffic snarls of metropolitan Manila, with its skyscrapers, malls and shantytowns. But Hinunangan offers no refuge from the web of problems stunting the Philippines, once a candidate to become a "little dragon" of Asia but now the laggard among its non-Communist neighbors.

"Our nation is in trouble," Mr. Ramos said when he became president in June 1992. "Our neighbors have one by one passed us by."

At 93, Vedasto Dadap, Noe Dadap's father, is the town elder and unofficial historian.

"This used to be a great jungle forest with tall trees, bamboo, monkeys playing with seashells, wild boar, python, ducks, the Philippine ostrich and many other species," he said, waving one hand and leaning on a cane with the other. "The rivers were high, full of shrimp, and the bay teemed with schools of fish so tame you could touch their backs. Now, no more. Not only here -- the whole Philippines."

Most wildlife is now extinct here. Nets along the shore yield paltry fingerlings. Until the 1980s, the broad currents of the main river, the Dasay, claimed drowning victims. Now vehicles and pedestrians cross its shriveled streambed without bridges or boats, barely wetting hubcaps and ankles.

Dwindling water even threatens the vital rice crop. Farmers guard irrigation ditches by night, sometimes fighting with big bolo knives.

What happened was a chain saw massacre of the regal hardwood, especially the prized Nara, Mr. Dadap said. The results were barren hilltops, scrawny secondary growth, erosion, landslides, silted streams and depleted topsoil and ground water.

Without the forest's cooling insulation, even the climate changed. The weather veers from drought to flood.

Compounding the damage were the fertilizers and pesticides introduced for the two-crops-a-year "miracle" rice. Huge flocks of birds once perched in palm fronds, "so noisy you couldn't talk," Noe Dadap said. After the lethal chemicals, "we buried sacks and sacks of dead birds." Deprived of their nourishing droppings, coconut yields declined.

In the sea, ruthless fishing deploys explosives, poisons and weighted nets that smash the coral reefs. "It is pitiful," Mr. Dadap said.

The astonishing population explosion worsened matters. In a single decade, the national census leaped 25 percent, from 48 million in 1980 to 60 million in 1990.

As one of the world's most Roman Catholic nations -- 85 percent of Filipinos belong to the church -- this country resists artificial birth control. "It's family planting instead of family planning," Vedasto Dadap said. Mr. Ramos, a Protestant who appointed a condom-touting health minister, may change that.

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