Mudslides, Oling, Protectionism, and the Philippines

For all the space nerds reading my site, bear with me a bit, I want to post about something else near and dear to me. I realized that it was a little bit ironic to choose a name for my blog with references to both Space and the Philippines[1] and then forget to write anything about one of the two. In the last two or three weeks, I stumbled across several articles that gelled together into a semi-coherent thought that I wanted to write about a bit.

A few days ago, I noticed an interesting new article over on Paul Dietz’s blog about charcoal and agriculture. Paul is a very creative guy, and is always posting interesting and unusual ideas. I have to say that a lot of what gets discussed in the community these days is pretty much just rehashing of old arguments. While that sometimes leads to new insights, it’s refreshing to see a blog that regularly posts about stuff I’ve never heard of before. If you haven’t taken the chance, I’d suggest poking through the rest of his posts. Paul posts even less frequently than I do, but makes up for it with quality.

So, right after reading that article, like a day or two later, I started reading about recent mudslides in the Philippines. These ones happened down in Leyte, which is one of the bigger islands down in the Visayas part of the ‘Pines. From what reports I’ve seen, they’re looking at 1000 or more people dead. Leyte is a long way from where I served my mission, and I don’t know anyone from that particular corner of Visayas, but it’s still very sad. But what does this have to do with Charcoal? I probably wouldn’t have noticed the possible connection myself had it not been for reading Paul’s article, but unfortunately charcoal probably has everything to do with this disaster.

While there were several large cities in the two provinces I served in (Zambales and Pangasinan), there were also plenty of more backwards rural towns. Even those are starting to show plenty of signs of modernity: internet cafes, teenagers running around with cellphones, DVD players with pirated movies, etc. Compared to what I thought the Philippines would be like when I got there, I was actually pleasantly surprised. Many of the people were very well educated. Plenty of engineers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc. Most of them spoke pretty tolerable English.

However, there still were quite a few people who were extremely poor. Some of the people probably had less than $50 worth of posessions to them, and they live off of what would be less than $2/day in spite of having a large family. The cost of living in the ‘Pines is much lower than here in the states, but not that much lower. And here’s where I get back to my point. One of the things that some of the poorest of the poor will do to earn money is to make “oling” (charcoal in Tagalog). The way they’d do this is to chop down several trees, cut them up into small logs, surround them with some corrugated metal, and then pile dirt, and leaves and other things on top. They then start a fire underneath, and use the heat to pyrolize the wood above. This reduces the wood to a cheap grade of charcoal that really is only good for the roadside cooking stands that the not-quite-poorest-of-the-poor run in order to earn a living. They really don’t make a lot of money off of this. Going off of nearly 4 year old recollections, I seem to recall them only getting like 5-10 bags of oling from burning down over a dozen decent sized trees. I don’t think they made more than $50 on the deal, but for a starving family, that can buy food for over a month.

The problem is that those trees usually aren’t owned by the people making the oling. I’m not 100% sure, but I think a lot of the forests in the Philippines are owned and “protected” by the government. What that means in practice, as I found out in my last area, was that whoever was mayor at the time would let his poor relatives make oling with impunity in exchange for their votes. Those making the oling have no real incentive to replant, aren’t in the position to even if they were, and bear little of the costs associated with such a wasteful activity. Starving people tend to make lousy environmentalists. The local governments do try to replant trees a bit, but for the most part are ineffective. The result? More frequent mudslides, droughts from destroying the watersheds, more frequent floods, and other various ecological damage.

I could go on. The problem is that even if they had a less socialistic policy towards ownership of the forests (which I think would be a good idea), I’m not sure if it would entirely solve the problem. The economy in the Philippines is so corrupt, and so completely broken through protectionism and interventions that unless that gets fixed, I don’t think that we’ll see an end to people having to fall back on illegal logging and oling making for survival.

I stumbled across an excellent old article linked to by Reason’s Hit and Run, discussing the problem in more detail. This article is a definite must read, and jives very well with my own personal observations. I recall hearing in one of my towns I served in (that had one of the bigger smuggling ports in that part of the Philippines) that a smuggled, brand new, top-of-the-line motorcycle cost about 25000 Pesos, while a much less capable motorcycle that had gone through all the tariffs, and red tape could cost as much as 4-5 times that! And people wonder about why it’s so corrupt?

The tragedy of it all is that here you have a very resource rich island, with a well educated population, that speaks English well, located in one of the best locations in Southeast Asia, right along several major trade-routes, and yet they’re still one of the worst economic basket-cases of Asia. It really hurts each time I see a Filipina leave her family for years to work as a maid for some foreigner, when she has a college degree, but the thing that hurts even worse is realizing that most of the damage there in the ‘Pines is self-inflicted. Like most in the world, whenever their government makes a major economic fubar, their first reaction is to get the government to do something about it! So they pile intervention on top of intervention, each one make the previous worse. I’m not sure what can break the vicious cycle of economic ignorance. No matter how bad things get, people never learn that the moral of the story is that socialism and interventionism are the curse, not the cure. We have similar problems here with people refusing to learn economics except for via the schoo of hard knocks, but so far, here in the states economic ignorance is merely an inconvenience to the rest of us, there in the ‘Pines, it’s lethal.

[1] Boondocks is a corrupted version of the Tagalog word Bundok (pronounced like Boon-doke), which means mountain, hill, or high place.

The following two tabs change content below.
Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Mudslides, Oling, Protectionism, and the Philippines

  1. Juan Suros says:

    This makes me wonder if some kind of cheap steel wood burning Oling oven might be a really good idea for the Philippines. If it was designed to be manufactured as cheaply as possible, with the main criterion being to increase the conversion efficiency of cut trees to Oling, you might get some environmental benefits.

    Lease it to poor families at a cost that will give them slightly higher income for fewer trees cut. This would also create a layer of oven leasing entrepreneurs and so help some of the poor leverage their way up the food chain.

    Low tech, higher efficiency processes, improved financials.

    Sound familiar?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *