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Illegal Logging, Fiscal Crisis, Culture and Development

N. Perlas, 10 December 2004

"Culture is central to the development process. This article illustrates what happens when culture is ignored. Although it speaks about conditions in the Philippines, the principle applies to all countries."

The Philippines is in the global news with the death of over 500 residents in the town of Infanta, Quezon, and other parts of the country. A string of four typhoons, especially the third one, blasted through the denuded mountains and sent thousands of tons of mud sliding down, destroying houses and burying hundreds of people in over 6 feet of mud in some places.

Meanwhile, at around this time, the fiscal crisis of the Philippine government flashed back in the news. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (GMA) recently declared that the fiscal crisis of the country is over. Some believed. Many others promptly criticized her for trying to water down a serious national issue. And the debate continues.

On the surface, these two events seem to have no connection with each other. Yet they are deeply intertwined. They demonstrate the alarming lack of understanding of culture as a central part of the development process. Continued neglect of culture can only mean continued invitation to national disaster.

Mud slides, especially in a national park, do not happen if the mountains have adequate forest cover. Why were the trees removed? Because illegal logging is rampant. And why is it rampant? Because the culture of short-term benefit for narrow individual interests is stronger than the culture to preserve the diverse ecological and economic benefits of a primary forest. Because the culture of corruption, benefiting powerful economic and political interests, is more powerful than the culture of a country governed by decent behavior and an adherence to just laws.

Sure there are anti-logging laws. But do the laws work? Of course not. Otherwise, this country would have not destroyed over 95% of its primary forest in less than 30 years. And why do the laws not work? Because, among other things, the design of the laws and their implementation have not taken into consideration the cultural and behavioral dimension of the problem. They did not understand why people cut down trees, even at the risk of their lives. The laws are meaningless especially to rural folks who have been neglected by corrupt governments for decades.

Why do we have a fiscal crisis? It is not simply because the government spends more than it earns. It is because, in the revenue side, corrupt government officials siphon off custom duties and tax income. And on the expenditures side, another related network of corrupt government officials appropriate almost 50% of the total government budget for their own personal interests.

It is simply a cruel joke to swiftly create technical measures to address the fiscal crisis and then announce that the fiscal crisis is over. Even if, for the sake of argument, such measures are technically correct, it does not mean that the fiscal crisis will disappear overnight. The fiscal crisis is a mere symptom of the workings of a pervasive social structure that economically, politically, and culturally rewards corruption.

Take the case of traditional politicians that swore that they would give up their pork barrel worth billions of pesos for the sake of helping solve the fiscal crisis. Yet barely a few months later, they were back claiming their right to feed on their favorite diet of political patronage. They simply could not overcome their ingrained habit and perverse intentions that bring them short term benefit at the expense of larger society. It is like expecting a drug addict or a drunkard to become sober the following day after declaring that they will now abandon drugs or alcohol.

Those who want to stop the hazards of illegal logging and the on-going devastation of the fiscal crisis, need to go beyond the obvious. They need to go beyond paper calculations and policies and move into the uncharted territory of cultural structures, resistance and transformation. Culture may be hidden and invisible. But its workings nevertheless have an inexorable logic that has large-scale societal impacts.

A culture of destruction cannot simply be wished away. One has to introduce a new and more powerful cultural framework, including operational norms, to create the necessary development infrastructure to overcome illegal logging and stop the hemorrhage of nationís coffers.

Given this central importance and role of culture, it becomes totally understandable why, a few years back, GMA infuriated artists and cultural workers. She basically castrated and commodified culture by equating it with mere entertainment, especially entertainment for foreign tourists who will bring in the dollars.

If GMA and others in various levels and realms of responsibility do not understand the strategic lesson and importance of culture, then one disaster after another can only follow. But if we all learn the central role of culture in creating flourishing societies, then this will be the dawn of a better Philippines, the Holy Grail of generations of Filipinos.

Nicanor Perlas

Editorials also appear on TruthForce!


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