The Politics of Disasters in the Philippines

The Reproductive Health Bill, popularly known as the RH Bill, has been a matter of debate in the Philippines for the past eight years. On 7 August 2012, the House of Representatives voted to end the debate and moved to amend the bill. With a population of at least 90 million, at which least 16 million reside in the capital, and as one of the few countries in the world without a comprehensive reproductive health policy, these past few months could be seen as a critical turning point for the country’s development in the future. Anti-RH groups continue to misrepresent scientific evidenceblackmail politicians,violate standard educational conventions, throw away common sense, and continue unethical practices—such as plagiarism and personal (irrelevant) attacks.

For many, there is little to debate about the bill’s main principle. It guarantees state responsibility in, as well as complete information and access to, reproductive health care. The bill also has the confidence of the majority of trained economistsacademics, and medical doctors. While the bill is an issue of development, it is fundamentally an issue of women’s choice. The bill’s passage mandates the state and its apparatuses to inform women of their reproductive health choices—many of which are crucially sinful in the Catholic Church’s perspective. As such, pro-life groups both in the congress and in everyday life appear to be desperate; they claim that the Southwest Monsoon, is a response to RH’s bill recent progress. Talking about the RH Bill, the Philippines Representative, Ma. Milagros Magsaysay, recently said that ‘Heaven must be crying… we have to undo what has been done.’She was referring to the recent Southeast Monsoon, which ravaged Metro Manila, the capital of the Philippines, and left at least 62 dead and 2.4 million inhabitants affected.

The misuse of science and nature to advance political goals is nothing new. Elsewhere, I wrote about the historical tendencies of powerful institutions to interpret the roots of, and prognosis to, natural disasters in the Philippines; whether it’s the ‘frailocracy’ of the Spanish regime or the ‘scientific’ American colonial power in the 19th century. Many before have emphasised the tendency of powerful institutions to use emotions, specifically the ‘fear’ of ‘extreme events,’ to pursue political agendas. Uve Frevart, a well-established historian of emotions in the Max Planck Institute, has written extensively about the use, misuse, and manifestation of emotions in history. Fear mongering by powerful institutions often conjure images of the worst case scenario—a catastrophic, perhaps apocalyptic, point of no return.

To echo critical theory, perhaps as dangerous as the hazards themselves and the disasters created after are the groups, actors, and institutions seeking to reinterpret natural events to foster fear in the population to derail a much-needed national legislation. Disasters, after all, happen when a confluence of ‘social, political, and economic developments’ collude with these naturally occurring physical processes. The contributions of population growth, the lack of urban planning, the politicisation of scientific findings, and ‘unnatural’ weather collude to form disasters. As shown historically in many cases, this is an attempt by powerful institutions to twist established research in population growth and climatology, take advantage of fear and uncertainty in the unknown, so as to hold the very future of Filipinos. Science and proper governance still offer the best tools to limit these political goals—after a process of democratic deliberation, careful socialisation, and ‘experiential learning.’

However, even science and better governance are necessary, they are not sufficient factors to limit the power of institutions. In mature democracies where science has taken root, the misuse of science and the politicisation of nature give little hope that better decision would be made in issues such as acid rain, climate change, and smoking. Living at a time when public attention to science-related issues is most salient, whether it is positive or negative, and when increasing environmental catastrophes are taking place, public vigilance and further democratic participation become even more important to limit self-servicing political goals within the context of scientific controversies and environmental shifts. Fear mongering, using hazards, which are so historically recurrent in the Philippines, is an inevitable strategy of those who refuse to accept change.

By: Alvin Almendrala Camba |


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