“We need to confront the biggest elephant in the room insofar as our hopes of creating a better quality of life and addressing our worse and worsening poverty level are concerned”
Let’s face it. Let’s be honest. The numbers do not lie.
One of the principal reasons for many of the socio-economic problems that continue to hound us is a simple fact: there are far too many Filipinos in the small and dispersed geography that is the Philippines.
Our more than 7,000 islands constitute a land area of 300,000 square kilometers, equivalent to 30 million hectares. That is not such a big land area.
Vietnam, our leading source of imported rice, has 33.2 million hectares of land in a basically contiguous whole land mass, or a tad higher than 10 percent bigger land mass than ours.
Yet its population as of 2021 is less, at 97 million, compared to ours at 110 million (all figures rounded off for simpler appreciation).
Thailand, our second biggest source of imported rice, and largest source of imported sugar, is also basically one contiguous land mass with an area of 51.3 million hectares, or 70 percent more than the Philippines.
But its population growth has been properly managed such that in 2021, they had 66.2 million people. In fine, the Kingdom of Thailand has 70 percent bigger land area than the Philippines, but with 66 percent population size compared to ours.
Malaysia has about the same land area as Vietnam, although a large part of it, Sabah, is disputed by us through the heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu. With around 33.1 million hectares, it feeds a population of a similar 33 million.
Indonesia is much larger, with almost 276 million people, on similarly dispersed islands as the Philippines, totaling 190 million hectares, or more than six times bigger land area than ours, but with a population just two and a half times larger than ours.
Let’s compare it to another ASEAN member state, perhaps on the extreme — Myanmar.
The largely under-developed country has a land area of 67.6 million hectares, more than twice that of the Philippines, in basically one whole land mass like neighboring Thailand, but has a population half ours, at 54.5 million.
Myanmar has a per capita income of just 1,200 US dollars, about a third of ours, but wait till it gets its political order and governance fixed. It has so much undeveloped land, and so much mineral wealth to tap.
My favorite country comparison insofar as food production and self-sufficiency is concerned is Thailand.
We always drool with envy by saying that the Thais learned modern rice cultivation practices from UP Los Banos and its neighbor IRRI, which is supported financially by American foundations, yet now we import rice and sugar from them.
In 1978, the Philippines and Thailand had basically the same demographics: 43 to 44 million people. But in a span of 44 years, or barely two generations after, we have 110 million, and they have 66 million people. They have more than a third less mouths to feed, with 70 percent more land than ours.
Because they consciously practiced sound population management, and prioritized food production in the 70’s up to the turn of the century, they are now the second or third largest exporter of rice in the world (depending on annual comparative export volumes), and leads other ASEAN countries in the export of fruits and sugar (of which we were once Numero Uno, with a little help from the American sugar quota).
Indonesia and Malaysia are the world’s largest producers of palm oil while our coconut oil industry, once the envy of every other country, has become a laggard, and poverty haunts our coconut-producing provinces.
So this article wants to dispel the notion that we are a big country. We are not.
In fact, if we compare our land area to that of the Pinoys’ favorite state in the US of A, it should be informative to know that California has a contiguous area of 42.4 million hectares, and a population of 39 million with diverse ethnic origins.
If it were a country, it would rank among the world’s 10 richest by per capita income standards, although the “golden” state’s reputation is now slowly tarnishing with very high costs of living and many social problems.
The ideal ratio of people to land mass, looking at our ASEAN neighbors, should be that of Malaysia, which supports a 33 million population out of an area of 33 million hectares.
One person per hectare. But we are now too far removed from that, with 3.67 persons per hectare, mountains, rivers and lakes included. And the population density worsens in our urban areas.
From 2015 to 2020, our average population growth rate was 1.63 percent per year. While there has been a slight tapering of our population growth in the last 10 years, it is still the highest in the region.
Our Commission on Population and Development (PopCom) is relatively happy about the lower growth rate.
“Filipinos remained prudent by continuing to delay having children or forming families during the COVID-19 period. Couples in growing numbers continue to avail (themselves) of family planning commodities and services … with 8 million users of modern family planning methods in 2020, or an addition of about half a million couples from 2019,” explained PopCom’s head, Dr. Juan Perez III.
If our annualized population growth rate was in the vicinity of 1.5 to 1.6 percent since 1978, we would have much less than our 110 million people by now, but still higher than Thailand’s 66 million people.
So if we want to have a lesser population density, we need to set an initial goal of 1 percent to 1.2 percent per year. And progressively lower based on a timetable our demographers and statisticians can calculate.
Serious attempts at population management started as early as 1967 when President Ferdinand Marcos Sr. signed, with 16 other heads of state, the United Nations Declaration on Population which stressed that the “population problem must be recognized as a principal element in long-range planning…to achieve economic goals and fulfill the aspirations of their people.”
In fact, the first head of the United Nations Population Fund established in 1969 was no less than Marcos’ second executive secretary, the brilliant Rafael M. Salas, who served as such until his death in 1987.
In 1971, Congress enacted RA 6365 or the Population Act creating the Commission on Population, which through a series of executive orders, has been transferred from the ambit of DSWD, DOH, NEDA and the Office of the President.
There was a marked slowdown in population management efforts started by Marcos Sr. when Cardinal Sin became the eminence grise of President Corazon C. Aquino, but, under the recently buried Fidel Valdez Ramos, serious emphasis on family planning was again spurred.
And it was under the presidency of Cory’s son, Benigno S. Aquino III, that the RA 10354, known as the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act, was enacted in 2012.
But the intent of the principal authors, Rep. Edsel Lagman of Albay and Sen. Pia Cayetano, and subsequent speedy implementation of its goals were hobbled by continued resistance from pro-life advocates, principally the conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church who brought legal challenges to its constitutionality.
The Supreme Court has since ruled on its constitutionality, although eight provisions were struck down.
We are now in the presidency of Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr., whose candidacy was opposed by a majority of our Roman Catholic bishops. But the people rebuked their ministrations, some of which bordered on the sacrilegious manner by which they openly supported Leni Robredo.
It is hoped that FM Jr. will support and fully implement the provisions of RA 10354, and strengthen efforts at population management, consistent with our socio-economic goals. It is not one of petty political vindictiveness against the leaders of the numerous church, but of plain socio-economic sense given the demographic situation.
Add to this complex problem the “learning poverty” we have seen through the last 20 years where even as we grow our population and claim this to be a “demographic sweet spot” which allows us to export labor, the biggest support system of our economy, our young population has continuously been retrogressing in abilities and skills.
This is compounded by the food security situation which we have written about in several articles in this space, where food production lags woefully behind the consumption demands of a large population.
Verily, we need to confront the biggest elephant in the room insofar as our hopes of creating a better quality of life and addressing our worse and worsening poverty level are concerned.
Government has to pro-act on this serious problem.