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The Green TigerThe Costs of Economic Decline in the Philippines$

Barbara Goldoftas

Print publication date: 2006

Print ISBN-13: 9780195135114

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195135114.001.0001

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“No Need Cement”

“No Need Cement”

(p.111) 6 “No Need Cement”
The Green Tiger

Barbara Goldoftas

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

In the mid-1990s, a proposal by the Pangasinan Cement Corporation to build a cement plant and sprawling industrial center in Bolinao, Pangasinan, split the fishing town, which is the home of the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute. The undersecretary responsible for the case at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Antonio La Vina, focused the decision about the necessary Environmental Compliance Certificate on the principal of social acceptability: whether or not the rapid industrialization would be acceptable to the community. This case study provides an important example of how difficult decisions about sustainable development can be made at the local level, how they can be made with transparency and community involvement, and how a community may respond to the potential changes brought about by rapid industrialization.

Keywords:   Bolinao, Pangasinan Cement Corporation, Antonio La Vina, Environmental Compliance Certificate, Department of Environment and Natural Resources, social acceptability, rapid industrialization, University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute

In July 1996, a delegation of government officials from Manila rrived in the out-of-the-way town of Bolinao, Pangasinan, almost halfway up the island of Luzon. By then, Bolinao was already well known for a conflict over a proposal to build a cement plant that would abruptly transform the string of fishing villages into a sprawling industrial center. For nearly two years, the debate over the proposal had split the town. The future of the cement plant—and therefore the future of Bolinao—depended on the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). The agency could either issue the needed environmental compliance certificate (ECC) or deny it, and its decision was imminent. The DENR delegation arriving in Bolinao that afternoon included Antonio La Viña, the undersecretary responsible for the case. The time that Tony was devoting to the case, including making the long trip to tour the town and meeting with the public, underscored its importance. The situation there was charged, and Bolinao had become the highlight of national attention and public debate.1

The Philippines was moving into a new stage of industrialization. The Fidel Ramos administration stressed regional development: to attract investment, to facilitate trade with the booming economies in the region, and to even out the development that previously had been concentrated in Manila and Cebu.2 The industrialization focused on industrial zones identified for each region. In these zones, often just provincial towns, change was coming quickly. In many of the towns, residents felt as though they were about to embark on an entirely new trajectory—toward traffic and traffic lights, toward cement roads and motor vehicles, toward factories and wage labor, toward all those irreversible changes (p.112) that reverberate through society and might be called progress. In Bolinao, this shift was in question.

In another time and place, the construction of the plant and transformation of the town might have been inevitable. The Philippine government had echoed the call for sustainable development put forth by the 1992 United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development. The country’s national plan for economic development for 1993 to 1998 described the “urgency of industrialization,” an industrialization that would be sustainable so it would not burden future generations.

The plan stressed the importance of local autonomy, made more possible by the recent decentralization of the national government. Provincial and local governments could improve the management of natural resources, as with small marine protected areas, but greater local autonomy also might bring a higher level of democratic participation, which too often had been lacking. “The past is replete with lessons from grandiose schemes that have foundered on community resistance, simply because local opinion was not taken seriously,” the plan continued. The goal would be “genuine consultation” at the local level.3

There was much discussion about whether this vision of sustainable development could actually translate into real decisions and effective policies, and Bolinao had become the test case. Democratic consultation meant asking whether or not the community wanted the plant, despite its size and economic promise. That question turned out to be difficult to answer. At the community level, part of the town supported the plant, but part opposed it. While the dilemma in Bolinao mainly focused on how the decision about the town’s future would be made, it also raised the larger question of whether the Philippines should accept notoriously “dirty” industries, such as cement, that other countries refused or instead try to pursue a cleaner, more environmentally sound path of development. Finally, the newly devolved government was not yet coordinated at the national, regional, and local levels. In Bolinao, as elsewhere, development policies conflicted, agencies’ responsibilities overlapped, and there was minimal land-use planning. Given all this uncertainty, the real question in Bolinao had become who should make the decision.

As DENR undersecretary, Tony La Viña was in the middle of the debates and confusion. A human rights and environmental lawyer, he had spent a number of years working in NGOs before being appointed undersecretary. He was part of an influx of young government officials, many of them from NGOs, expected to be dedicated more to public service and less to their own enrichment than officials molded by the Marcos era. In an agency known for corruption, Tony was hoping that the Bolinao case could set a precedent for future decisions.

(p.113) Late one July afternoon, I joined Tony and his staff on their way to Bolinao. The Usec, as his staff called him, is a handsome man who exudes intelligence. He sat in the front seat, simultaneously instructing the driver in Tagalog, answering my questions in English, and talking to his staff in both languages. For the first hour or two, we made good time, moving steadily north on the concrete road.

Heading north. Northern Luzon MARISSA ROTH

At first the air-conditioned van insulated us from the heat and poverty and made it easy to forget the conveniences left behind in Manila. Even in the mid-1990s, though, it was not possible to travel through Central Luzon and remain unaware that the violent eruption of Mount Pinatubo had transformed the region. The largest flat area in the Philippines, the rich plains of Central Luzon had been its rice basket. Across the provinces of Pampanga, Tarlac, and Nueva Ecija, flooded fields had stretched in all directions, and the rice grown there had made the region a prosperous place dotted with two-story wooden homes. Each season brought to the landscape field laborers bent over in different tasks and new hues of green plants, lengthening in unison, that rippled in the wind.

Mount Pinatubo’s initial eruptions in 1991 deposited several million tons of volcanic debris that covered mountains, crushed buildings, and collapsed bridges. What followed, although little known outside the country, proved more destructive. Year after year, the seasonal rains beat down, mixing the (p.114) sand, gravel, and boulders that blanketed the peaks into a slurry that ran down the hills toward the ocean. As riverbeds filled with volcanic debris, mudflows of lahar—the Indonesian word for this liquefied ash—forged new pathways into the valleys, spreading out over the plains. The color and consistency of wet cement, lahar can flow quickly enough to overtake a running man. It never dries fully, and with each heavy rain, it absorbed water and surged ahead, downing bridges and covering up villages. The spreading lahar had turned whole parts of Central Luzon into new desert punctuated only by occasional roofs and tree-tops poking through the rough ash. In some towns a few families, rather than abandoning their homes, raised them on high stilts, transplanting fruit trees into the hot, gray wasteland and futilely closing their windows against the dust and grit.

Five years after the eruption, the lahar zone intruded through large parts of Central Luzon, following the valleys and rivers. For road travelers, it remained a bleak bottleneck. Trips between Manila and the northern provinces that once had taken three hours required an unpredictable five or six. Driving through the lahar zone was like driving through a lingering sandstorm. In jeepneys and other open vehicles, the airborne sand reddened eyes, coated skin and hair, dried mouths, and settled scratchily in one’s lungs. Even in an air-conditioned vehicle, the air would grow thick.

When we reached Pampanga, two provinces away from Pangasinan, traffic slowed, and then in Tarlac, not far from Pinatubo itself, it slowed further. Deep in conversation, the undersecretary looked up in apparent surprise. It’s the lahar, someone offered. There was no more to say.

After one trip through the devastated parts of Central Luzon, the remaining trips seemed the same. They began with the slowing of traffic, the delays in the middle of blackness. There would be a few lights up ahead, single lights low to the ground that jerked around, the lights of flashlights or torches. As the vehicle inched forward, there would be shouting in the dark, as boys or young men came into view, the contours of their faces almost visible as they halted the vehicles or waved them forward, their eyes shadowed in the uneven light, their heads swathed with towels, their noses and mouths covered with handkerchiefs as they stood calf- or thigh-deep in muck. There was always the same dependence on them to guide the vehicle, the same wondering about who they were and what they themselves had lost to Pinatubo. There was the same blackness; the worry about the vehicle; the laboring movements over uneven ground; the eerie, sloshing echoes beneath the undercarriage; the barriers of sand-filled rice sacks that the lahar would eventually overwhelm.

By night, the government van had reached Dagupan, Pangasinan. The lahar was far behind us. Through the darkened windows, I could see evidence of the (p.115) new wave of economic growth. The roadsides that a few years earlier had been dark now were lit by the bright signs of hotels and fast-food restaurants. They were also a sign of the changes being seen across the country. In the provincial areas slated for industrial development, including Pangasinan, buildings, bridges, and roads were being constructed. With them came a growing need for building materials, particularly cement, and particularly cement that did not have to be trucked through Central Luzon. Along the Lingayen Gulf in Pangasinan, the deep, high-quality coastal deposits of limestone, a key ingredient of cement, looked promising.

Pangasinan is a crescent-shaped province on the western edge of Northern Luzon that is flanked by the Zambales Range and the Cordillera Mountains. The province is often described as a gateway, both to Baguio and the north and the rice fields of Tarlac and the south. The province also cups the Lingayen Gulf, a wide, deep channel that opens to the South China Sea and shipping routes to Asia.

Pangasinan is one of four provinces that make up northwestern Luzon, a coastal region that, according to the main business newspaper, despite the region’s “natural attributes” remains “raw and left out.” In 1996, about half its residents lived below the official poverty line, and about 96 percent did not have enough work. The provinces planned (although the planning was more in the hoping stage) to develop ecotourism, particularly in the Lingayen Gulf. As along Malalag Bay, however, plans conflicted; in 1992, northwestern Luzon had been identified as a new industrial zone, the North Luzon Growth Quadrangle (Northquad). With its proximity to Taiwan, Northquad would be the “springboard into the Asian tiger economies.”4 Pangasinan, the birthplace of then president Fidel Ramos, was to be a model growth area. The first step toward Northquad’s economic makeover would be the cement complex in Bolinao.

At the farthest end of Pangasinan, at the edge of the Lingayen Gulf, Cape Bolinao juts like a fat thumb into the South China Sea, pointing northward to Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan. At the tip of the peninsular knob sits the town of Bolinao, named after the Tagalog word for herring. The second largest of the towns along the gulf, it is made up of 20 barangays, most of them coastal, with nearly 10,000 families in 1992, or more than 52,000 people. There was little agriculture, mainly fruit trees and cattle; the major industry was fishing, on which nearly one-third of the families depended. The subsistence fishermen barely eked out a living, and as the fishing degraded the coast further, their economic future grew bleaker.

(p.116) The town of Bolinao dated to the Spanish era, its center the traditional square bounded on one end by a church with barred windows and stone walls streaked black with lichen. In the evening, a sole window shone near the church’s roof. Most of the shops closed by seven o’clock, but long after sunset a line of vendors continued to sell hot dogs and pork barbecue from small tables. Hands exchanged meat for money in the light cast by oil lamps, the small yellow flames each a smear that barely pierced the dark. The sky was black and, to those just arrived from Manila, full of stars. The town awakened early, and by sunrise, uniformed children walked to school and lines of tricycles and jeepneys waited for riders. Along the steep and winding road leading down to the shore, tricycles maneuvered one by one over the rutted mud, at the most precarious turn each waiting until the one in front had slid to safety before moving ahead.

On the coast, not far from where the road straightened out, stood the Bolinao Marine Laboratory of the Marine Science Institute of the University of the Philippines, in Bolinao called simply MSI. Its main research building abutted the water with a view of the island and cove so fetching that, said an older resident, the area should have been developed as a resort instead. Scientists at MSI had been doing research there since the mid-1980s, and in the early 1990s, they had gotten involved in organizing the community and helping develop conservation programs. In the controversy that developed over the proposed cement plant, the presence of MSI proved important, as did the quietness of the town and its long history, the large number of people living along the coast and their dependence on fishing. In retrospect, it seemed surprising that the corporation seeking to churn out cement in Bolinao could have so underestimated the objections that would be raised.

In the mid-1990s, the cement industry in Southeast Asia was growing quickly. Construction in the region was booming, and dozens of plants were being built to supply it. In the Philippines alone, the industry’s capacity quadrupled from the 1980s to the 1990s, with most of the expansion taking place in just a few years. Between 1993 and 1996, the DENR approved about 25 projects related to quarrying and cement production. Only three were in Northern Luzon and one in Pangasinan.5

In 1994, with the Philippines still apparently facing shortfalls of cement, the Pangasinan Cement Corporation, a consortium of companies from Taiwan, Japan, and the Philippines, proposed building a 525-million-dollar cement complex in Bolinao. With a power plant, cement factory, wharf, and sites for 22 limestone quarries all linked by 6 miles of covered conveyor belts, the complex eventually would spread over parts of five barangays and almost one-third of (p.117) the town. It was expected to provide cement for the Philippines and other parts of Asia—it would be equipped to ship bulk cement to Taiwan—and to jump-start industrialization in Northquad. The consortium’s promotional brochure promised that the proposed complex would help transform the country into “an emerging economic force in the Asia Pacific.”

The company also presented the facility as one that would usher in greater efficiency and better environmental measures for the growing cement industry. As a “world-class cement plant,” read the brochure, the complex could, like its sister plant in Japan, coexist productively with fishing, farming, and tourism. “[A]s long as the state-of-the-art anti-pollution devices are installed and used continuously, and the recommended safety measures [are] … faithfully adhered to, there shall be no objectionable impact to the environment,” particularly the Lingayen Gulf. Most existing plants in the Philippines used outdated technology, and the presence of a more modern one would spur others to “update their processes and equipment to remain competitive” and thereby help raise the industry standards.

When the plant was first proposed, it met with a strong and divided reaction. Some citizens, fearing the instant metamorphosis from fishing villages to factory town, formed the Movement of Bolinao Concerned Citizens to mobilize against the project. The sangguniang bayan, municipal council, came out in favor of the plant. Barangay officials signed petitions on both sides, and the mayor fluctuated. MSI, located a few hundred meters from the proposed site for the plant, worked with local citizens’ groups that opposed the project. Faculty of the University of the Philippines lobbied hard against it, and scientists from around the world sent letters of objection.

While the quarry alone would replace about 200 families and affect at least 3,200 more, the main concerns focused on the health and environmental risks. Construction of the wharves would require dredging the ocean floor, and once in operation, the plant would pollute both air and water. The quarrying operations would cause erosion and siltation, which would further erode the reef. The complex was expected to need hundreds of tons of fresh water an hour, near a town center that did not use three tons per hour. It also would need for cooling about 1,000 tons of seawater that would be returned to a coastal area valued for having the gulf’s most intact reef. Overall, the development was likely to destroy the natural resources that supported thousands of families. Bolinao’s “land, coastal and marine resources are the lifeblood of its people and economy,” said a letter signed by university board members and faculty, faulting the project as one that would “introduce an extractive industry into a natural-resource based municipality.”6

(p.118) A response from the Pangasinan Cement Corporation claimed that because the complex would be so much more advanced than plants currently operating, comparisons with them were “quite unfair and unfounded.” The proposed complex was being “criticized for acts or omissions of old and pollutive cement plants.” Besides, it suggested, other types of development in the town were unlikely; while plans might promote ecotourism, there were as yet no investors, and the infrastructure—roads, telephones, and other basic services—could not support a swell in tourists.

Late in 1995, after a year of debate, the DENR denied the project its necessary certificate of environmental clearance because of the “yet serious and unmitigated problems.” There were, the letter said, “technical issues related to pollution,” and there was a “land use conflict” over the northwestern part of the Lingayen Gulf. There also was a “lack of social acceptability” based on the democratic consultation, which the development plan had identified as important to the process of sustainable development. “There is still strong opposition to the project,” read the letter; the community had objections that had not been addressed.7 The lack of social acceptability was critical.

Over the next months, the cement corporation submitted a revised proposal. The DENR added new members to the committee reviewing the project—specialists in marine biology, hydrology, and geological sciences. By July 1996, as the deadline for the committee’s new decision neared, the debate grew increasingly contentious. Beyond Bolinao, from the provincial to the national level, more voices had joined the fray: the governor (opposed), regional officials (opposed), a congressman (in favor). The powerful Speaker of the House of Representatives criticized as “fake patriots” faculty at the University of the Philippines who organized against the plant. Stung, they in turn sent the press documents showing that the Speaker’s family owned the site for the plant. In Bolinao, divisions deepened even further.

Bolinao might have received less attention if not for an environmental calamity on the small island of Marinduque a few months earlier. Marinduque, which lies about 100 miles south of Manila, had been the site of a large copper mine managed by the Canadian mining company Placer Dome. For decades, waste from the mine had been dumped in a drainage tunnel, which in March 1996 collapsed without warning. More than 3 million tons of dense mine tailings “burst forth,” according to one account. The spill “choked off all life” in the 16-mile Boac River, one of the island’s two major rivers. Although no one died, the river flooded, covering croplands and stranding thousands of villagers. The sulfur-colored tailings contaminated the river channel all the way to its coastal mouth. The island was declared a calamity zone.8

(p.119) Images of the Boac River clogged with orange mine waste made clear to Filipinos who might never have seen a smokestack or effluent pipe the environmental consequences that industrialization could bring. Marinduque gave a name to fear. What might previously have been a vague unease about the unknown became a more specific worry. The disaster also put pressure on the DENR to be more careful in awarding its certificates of environmental compliance. The agency’s next major decision was over Bolinao.

In the early 1900s, when the Philippines stirred endless fascination in the United States, Emma Helen Blair and James Alexander Robertson translated from Spanish 55 volumes of fastidious records kept over hundreds of years by navigators, missionaries, and functionaries. Like Dean Worcester’s books, the accounts of the islands are detailed but slanted. They do, however, give a feeling for day-to-day life and for the origins of the rural villages. According to a 1590 account, barangay, the old Tagalog word for tribal communities, originally meant “boat.” Individual barangays—-as many as 100 homes—consisted of people who had arrived on one boat. They were only loosely clustered into towns. “This barangay was a family of parents and children, relations and slaves. There were many of these barangays in each town, or, at least, on account of war, they did not settle far from one another. They were not, however, subject to one another, except in friendship and relationship.”9

Today, the barangay remains the smallest political unit, although it in turn is made up of individual sitios, or communities. A sitio can still reveal a person’s identity. In a rural area, people asked where they live will begin with their immediate cluster of homes—the sitio—and then name the barangay and municipality. If people know what sitio you are from, they know your family, a young fish warden from the coast of Mindanao told me, and if they know your sitio and your family, they know who you are.

On an earlier trip to Bolinao, I had learned the importance there of knowing who you are and where you are from. I had taken a midnight bus with an oceanographer and his research assistants, bouncing north along the same slow road that I would take seven months later with Tony. The conflict splitting Bolinao was obvious. Banners for and against the proposed plant hung from windows. “NO NEED CEMENT” had been painted in large letters on a bridge overlooking a brackish inlet where coconut husks lay heaped in high piles on the shore. The question of what would happen to Bolinao came up in most conversations: when we had beer in the two-story restaurant built around a thick, (p.120) gnarled tree; when we chatted with the grandmother next door; when we talked with people in outlying barangays.

On Sunday, the oceanographer’s assistants delivered me to Josue Aragon, the Methodist pastor in the village of Balingasay since 1978. Probably the most educated man in the village, the pastor would undoubtedly want to talk with a visitor about Bolinao’s decision and its future. We headed down the narrow beach, away from the knot of homes where he lived with his wife and three children in a nipa house on stilts. It was high tide, and the waves washed onto the sand near our feet. In his late 30s, the pastor considered Bolinao his home, and he was open about how townspeople had responded to the proposed cement complex.

They were all grappling, he said, with the kind of economic development they wanted. Those promoting the plant “only present one side of the coin: employment, money, infrastructure,” he said. But they did not talk about what those changes could mean. “There will be a lot of people striving to get the jobs. There will be a lot of businesses, bigger stores, and nightclubs. Wed have employment perhaps; we’d have money,” he said. But there was no way to know for sure what they would lose, and he worried about that. “If you overwater a plant, it will soak up too much. It’s like that with development,” he said.

It is easy for an outsider to look at a community such as Balingasay and see only its beauty. Tourists travel half a world for this: the blue line of the horizon, the open sand, the palms, the simple homes. Once when I praised a landscape of hills to a Filipino friend, he stopped me, correcting my failure to see them fully. There’s nothing there, he said, nowhere for people to work, nothing for people to live on. That’s what makes them so beautiful.

The pastor, however, was not an outsider. He valued Bolinao the way it was, not for the beauty, but for the life there; he valued it because it was his. “They’re talking about putting the plant here, whether we want it or not. Do we want this plant? That should be the question, instead of it being pushed on us. The development will bring factories that will pollute our air and water. Where will their waste go? Into the sea. And what will happen then? The corals will be destroyed. A few hundred people may benefit from the jobs, but thousands of fishermen will lose the privilege to fish.” He seemed to mean “opportunity,” but the word he used was privilege: “Thousands of fishermen will lose the privilege to fish. What will happen to their children? What will they eat?” He also was concerned about the cultural influences that the development might bring. American television and movies have infused cities and villages around the world, but, the pastor made clear, they were not always welcomed, even in a country dominated by colonial powers for hundreds of years.

(p.121) The beach was lined with long boats painted red and blue and yellow with matching outriggers and gunwales. The houses, built close to the shore, were hidden by lines of drying laundry. Sunday was family day, and as we walked, we passed groups of all ages gathered on the woven floors of gazebos and boys and adolescents lounging on the boats, as in another setting they might have gathered around a pickup truck or car. The pastor waved the back of a hand toward them. What will be lost is this, he said, a kind of life that revolves around families, a life where people have time for each other, and where having time for each other matters. That culture and those values would change. “Do you see how we are already losing our culture?” he asked. “We always adapt to foreigners. It makes me very sad.”

We left the houses and boats behind and walked beside a line of squat coconut palms leaning toward the water. The pastor, skeptical about the cement corporation’s claims, brought up another concern. “The question should be asked, ‘Do we have the right technical skill to handle this situation?’ I understand the Filipino character. We have a lot of complacency. If a reactor is broken, the manager will pay the engineer not to speak up. ‘The people aren’t complaining,’ he might claim. ‘It’s better not to say anything.”’ So if a problem comes up, no one will mention it, he said; “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

In spirited academic conversations in the United States, risk shrinks to an abstraction, something that people with choices can accept, or not, something that benefits could eventually balance out. Risks and benefits then become compressed further into an equation that disinterested observers might use to force a decision. Here in Bolinao, where choices were fewer and life was lived closer to the margins, instead of being chosen, risks were more likely imposed from the outside. The benefits themselves, rather than balancing out the risks, probably accrued to someone else. The pastor understood the equation well. “We don’t need their money if it harms our health and environment,” he said. “We do need their money, but not at that cost.”

At the end of the beach, as we turned back, the pastor also reversed the direction of the conversation, asking if he could ask me some questions. My guides in rural areas often made this request, although typically after several days. The questions usually were personal, about marriage and belief, and sometimes political, about the United States or about how regimes in other countries I had visited treated their poor.

The pastor’s questions came quickly, as though stacked up in his mind. He started with personal questions and broadened to queries about the United States and its recent recession, then raised a few metaphysical ones. Do you think it is possible to be all good or all evil? Do you agree that the source of (p.122) the life force is the tension between good and evil? He then circled back to our earlier conversation, and this line of questioning gave me a deeper understanding of how people living in a coastal village might imagine the more modern world that they had only glimpsed in newsreels or movies. The pastor wanted to know what I, coming from an industrialized country, might predict for Bolinao. I had grown up around factories; they were real places to me, not unknown specters. He wanted to know what living in an industrialized society might be like. Was it something to fear, or just another kind of life? “What will happen if the plant is built?” he asked. “What will be lost? What do you think we should do?”

There were no answers to his questions. Instead, I told him about some of the history of the Great Lakes and the cities that had formed on their shores, and about my personal history of growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, and how that had influenced my views of environmentalism. Lake Erie was still fouled with pollution when I was a child, and I thought that dead fish littered all lake shores and that all lake water smelled of rotting flesh. The environmental laws enacted in the late 1960s and early 1970s quickly had a noticeable effect, and by my eighteenth birthday, the lake was clean enough to swim in. I told him about the Cuyahoga River, which runs through the city, its broad floodplains, the Flats, lined with vast factories. In the 1960s, their waste had so saturated the Cuyahoga that more than once the oily slick on its surface caught fire, bringing the city ridicule for having a river that burned. In time the Cuyahoga, too, was somewhat revived, and nightclubs were built along its banks in the shadows of the bridges and smokestacks. When environmental laws are enforced, industrial waste can be cleaned up, I told the pastor. I held back from sounding either too optimistic or too pessimistic. This is what can happen, but it’s expensive, and it takes political will. Maybe this is what can happen in a rich country. It did not mean the same thing would happen there, and it did not mean that the Philippines should take the same path.

We neared the pastor’s home. One of his young daughters, just learning to drive a motor scooter, was circling in small loops beside the stilt house. Her eyes shone with confidence. On Mount Kitanglad and in remote villages, I had met people who had never driven a motorized vehicle. Here, no one seemed concerned; she might have been chasing a hen or turning cartwheels. Before the young researchers came to collect me, the pastor poured Coca-Cola from a glass liter bottle into coffee cups, and we drank it, squatting on our heels beneath a tree outside his house.

He had kept a request until the end. “Many writers come here and portray the Philippines in a negative light.” The stories that westerners told about his country and many other out-of-the-way places too often focused on the lurid (p.123) and chaotic, on the despair and hopelessness. He phrased what he said next politely, although he spoke directly. “Please don’t do that,” he said. “You have seen enough of our country not to need to do that.”

Fisherman’s house. Lingayen, Pangasinan. MARISSA ROTH

In the early 1960s, with one of the strongest economies in East Asia, the Philippines seemed certain to develop faster than the rest of the region. Instead, as its neighbors bounded ahead with decades of unprecedented growth, it lagged behind. Analyzing why the country did not prosper continues to occupy economists, historians, and journalists alike, with each historical period bringing a new explanation: The centuries of colonialism fostered dependency. The islands are fragmented without a sense of unity. The allegiance to the family as society’s central unit further obstructs national unity. The Marcos dictatorship and martial law destroyed the economy. The small elite acts only to enrich itself. The weak government—marked by an unreliable bureaucracy—in turn has favored the wealthy and curtailed economic development, impoverishing much of the population.10

By the mid-1990s, the weakness of the government was drawing particular attention. The economy was growing, the United States had withdrawn from (p.124) its military bases, and both nationally and locally, the political situation was relatively stable. As in Malalag, new local politicians were being elected—and judged on their ability to exercise political will—and there was hope that the national government could similarly improve. In Manila, this hope was obvious in daily life. People had begun objecting to the governments corruption and inefficiencies, a sign that they were expecting change. From taxi drivers to economists, I heard complaints about how consistently day-to-day decisions were made in an inconsistent and unreliable manner. An official might make a decision for purely political reasons, because he owed a favor, because he needed a favor. As a result, most dealings with government officials—whether about a license for a jeepney, an import-export business, or an environmental compliance certificate—tended to be arbitrary.

At the DENR, Tony La Viña was part of a group of young reformers trying to steer the agency in a new direction. He believed that with Bolinao, the DENR could show that it could make consistent decisions—what he called “technical decisions”—that were not swayed by pressure or favoritism. Instead, they would be based on standards, so that decisions would become less arbitrary and more predictable. “The DENR secretary, Victor O. Ramos, was from Pangasinan and was close to the president and the Speaker of the House,” said Tony, reflecting on the case some years later. “But he was consistent in his instructions: ‘Be fair, be transparent, base your recommendations on technical facts.”’ Whether the decision was yes or no, Tony said, “the goal was to arrive at the decision with the right process, with the right science, with the right relationships with all the stakeholders, with transparency—openness.” At each step, the undersecretary kept the stakeholders informed, from the company to the community to the scientists. They also had good access to his staff, who came from the business, government, and NGO sectors. “This was very reassuring to people,” said Tony.

While arbitrariness hampered the government, so did conflicts among different agencies and different branches as well as a general lack of planning for development. According to Candido (Dids) Cabrido, an urban and regional planner and then the chief technical adviser for the DENR’s Sustainable Development Program, the crux of the problem was that the Philippines did not have a national plan to guide land use and development. Such a plan would set guidelines—region by region, province by province, and municipality by municipality—for determining which land would be industrialized, which would be protected, which would be used for roads and other infrastructure, and which would be devoted to what were called human settlements. Too often, projects were located based solely on a site’s suitability—whether the land was flat enough and whether it was near raw materials and roads. But that was not (p.125) enough, Dids said. It was also important to look at the potential effects on the environment and the local community.11

The conflict surrounding the Lingayen Gulf was typical of the conflicts that arose without coordinated plans for land use and development. Settled more than 400 years ago, the gulf has been an important fishery in Northern Luzon for about 200 years. As migration surged during the 1970s and 1980s, thousands were drawn to the area, doubling its population in just a decade. By the early 1990s, more than half of the 12,000 fishermen settled along the shores of the Lingayen Gulf were squatters living in shacks.

As in other fisheries, the increased pressure was eroding the fish stocks. Old-timers remembered when a fisherman could feed his family with just a few hours’ work. By the mid-1990s, five times as many boats plied the gulf as its waters could support. There were regional efforts to ban commercial fishing, which the national government would not approve, and competition for fish had intensified, particularly between commercial and municipal fishermen.12 As the yields dropped, fishermen began using cyanide and dynamite. The only reef left at all intact was the 20,000-acre reef near Bolinao, which served as the spawning ground for fish and small invertebrates and was some of the most productive reef in the gulf.

In the late 1980s, the state of the gulf drew the attention of the regional development authority, and a master plan eventually written for the area acknowledged the ecological importance of the Bolinao-Anda reef. According to the plan, the coastal resources should be conserved, rehabilitated, and managed for local use. The “appropriate development strategy” for Bolinao would be ecotourism, which would not damage the reef further or interfere with local fishing. President Ramos went a step further and declared the Lingayen Gulf an “environmentally critical” area. He launched a campaign called “Save the Lingayen Gulf War” to ensure “sustainable use development of [its] resources before they reach the stage of irreversible damage.” To oversee management and rehabilitation of the gulf, in 1994 he created a regional commission, an unwieldy body made up of cabinet members, governors, and the mayors of 17 coastal towns.13

About the same time, the industrial zone, Northquad, was set up, also overseen by a commission, to draw industry to the region. These two commissions had opposing goals: one to support conservation for small-scale use and the other to pursue industrialization. There were no guidelines to determine which had authority over the gulf’s future.

The morning after he arrived in Bolinao, Tony La Viña met with the Lingayen Gulf commission. Its office was decorated with mottoes: “The Lingayen Gulf is a God-given treasure, richly endowed with natural resources for this (p.126) and the next generation to enjoy. It is our sacred duty to protect, conserve, develop and manage these resources.” The gulf, another said, is “God’s gift, our heritage, our responsibility.” During the meeting, the commissions executive director, Valerio Perez, spoke with great seriousness, as though burdened by responsibility for the body of water. He was an older man, thin and intense, and I was told that when he presented his position at an earlier meeting with the DENR, he nearly cried. There was no single plan for the Lingayen Gulf, he said. Although it had been designated an environmentally critical area, the various government bodies involved had conflicting opinions and policies. “There are those who would like tourism to come in, and there are those who would like nonpolluting industries to come in,” he said. Plans for Bolinao and the Lingayen Gulf created at the local, provincial, and national levels did not always mesh, and no one knew whose authority counted the most, that of the mayors, the commission, the provincial agencies, the regional bodies, or the national DENR. “If the commission has come up with a land-use plan, would an environmental compliance certificate override that? Who,” Perez asked, appealing to the undersecretary, “can make the final decision?”

Tony did not take long to answer. Bolinao is a test case, he said. Where jurisdictions and land-use plans overlapped, it was not clear who had the right to define the land use of a place. He had come to Bolinao because he believed that a town so deeply tied to its own natural resources should have a say in the future of those resources and its own economic future. The decision over the environmental compliance certificate for the proposed cement complex should be socially acceptable to the community. But no one was quite sure what social acceptability would mean.

When the undersecretary’s van pulled into the town center that morning, several hundred people filled the plaza in front of the church. Umbrellas mushroomed over the crowd, as did hand-lettered signs in both Tagalog and English: “No to Bolinao Cement.” “No to ECC.” “R.I.P. Bolinao 1575–1996.” The crowd did not yell or cheer. They just watched and continued to wait.

After a half day of meetings with local and regional officials, the undersecretary and his staff headed to the Marine Science Institute, where several hundred people again had gathered. About 40 or 50 of them were allowed into a large room; the rest waited outside. A tall man, Tony towered over almost everyone in the room. Although he exuded certainty, he was also restrained. Speaking carefully, with respect, because he knew that people were afraid, he explained what they might expect over the next few weeks. By early August, the DENR committee would decide about issuing a permit for the cement plant. “Social (p.127) acceptability is not a question of numbers, of who wants what,” he said. It is a process by which the DENR determines whether all the issues that have been raised—pollution, health risks, land use—have been resolved. “It is a purely technical question, a scientific question.”

The idea of a decision unmarred by political fracas seemed wise. When Tony La Viña discussed this in his office in Manila and in the air-conditioned van, it had even begun to sound possible. In Bolinao, where it would become reality, it sounded precarious. People were used to one system—government officials who either ignored them or could be bought—and whether this system favored them or not, it was familiar. In this highly emotional setting, the possibility of a decision based on technical criteria seemed unreliable. Could such criteria be broad enough and flexible enough to accommodate local needs?

People stood to ask questions: What is social acceptability? Why don’t you call it environmental acceptability? Who should make the decision? As they spoke up, addressing the undersecretary, they began formally and slowly in English, but as their emotions rose, they sometimes would burst out in the more personal words of their own dialect. Some tried to stay composed, some could not. The voices in the room grew slightly louder, and the several languages being spoken blended into one sound. Emotions rose more and more to the surface, and then, as a woman jumped to her feet, they broke through, spilling out like the words that tumbled into informality. Her voice was full of distress. She spoke about the plant and Bolinao and the life there. The undersecretary turned to face her across the room. She kept talking, raising first her chin, then her voice, then her hands. “Why are we discussing all this in a scientific way when the people of Bolinao don’t want it?” she said. “Ayaw ko!—we don’t want it! That is social unacceptability.” There were more voices as others agreed. “We don’t want another Marinduque in Bolinao,” someone cried out. More voices rose, and the meeting ended with confusion. People had been heard but not reassured. No one knew what the decision would be.

A few weeks after the visit to Bolinao, the DENR released a statement from Secretary Victor Ramos, announcing his final decision. “Please be informed,” read the letter addressed to the general manager of the Pangasinan Cement Corporation, “that we have resolved to deny with finality the issuance of an environmental compliance certificate (ECC) for your proposed Pangasinan Cement Complex project in Bolinao, Pangasinan.” The committee had found the project to “pose adverse impacts to the environment which are considered irreversible and non-negotiable,” particularly the environmental risks to the aquatic life and coral reefs and risks to residents’ health. There were still conflicts over (p.128) land and other resources. The letter also addressed in detail the “problems of social acceptability.”

“The project has deeply divided the Bolinao community and the larger society of stakeholders. These deep divisions are rooted in the fundamental conflicts of interests rather than … mere ignorance or lack of information on the project.” The letter recognized the political support the project had received as well as the “unwavering opposition.” “[W]hat is regarded with equal, if not greater, importance are the issues raised against the project that are found to have remained unresolved which make the project socially unacceptable.”14

It was clear to all involved that the Bolinao case had been long and laborious. The corporation spent several years planning the project and then several more waiting for the final decision. The town and MSI spent years organizing and negotiating the conflicts splitting the community. Tony and his staff devoted almost as long on the bureaucratic end. “This can’t be done for every decision,” he said at the public meeting, his voice lowered as though he were speaking to himself. He believed that a community should be involved in managing its own natural resources, and he believed that the government could make better decisions, but there were so many practical obstacles to overcome.

I have been asked whether the decision over Bolinao was the right one and whether it was an environmental success story. The two are not necessarily the same, and when a local economy and its natural environment are so closely linked, it is not clear what a right decision or an environmental success story would mean. Although fishing could continue in the short term, condemning Bolinao fishermen to a life of declining catches would hardly constitute success. On the other hand, industrialization that forced fishermen to migrate again would not mean progress either. Should the officials instead have hedged their bets, as along Malalag Bay, supporting the coastal management while trying to attract new industries and outside investors? In the long term, if the Bolinao decision scared off foreign firms, a drop in investment in the country would not mean success either. A declining economy, or a stagnant one, could further hasten environmental decline.

“We didn’t say no because we didn’t want the industry,” Tony said, reflecting on the decision recently, “but because the costs would have been too high. Some people say that sustainable development is always a matter of compromise. But it also requires saying no sometimes. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be sustainable development if all of your decisions [about potential investments] were no. That would be the decision that development was not important.”

(p.129) A single decision, the Bolinao case could not address every question or complication. Its lasting importance was that it helped define and improve the process by which complex decisions over development were made. In a country where the government can be weak and outside investment does not necessarily benefit a community, the case set a new precedent, broadening the meaning of social acceptability to include the community’s concerns.

In its attempt to invest in the country, Pangasinan Cement Corporation had cooperated and talked with the community leaders, trying to address the question of social acceptability. A high-level Taiwanese manager expressed his anger at the requirements and delays, the very local involvement that Tony and others had worked hard to achieve. He did not fully understand what social acceptability meant, and it rankled him to meet with local officials, to waste his time, to have to engage with the community. I shouldn’t have to deal with those people, he said to me in an interview. “It’s the governments job. The government should evaluate, decide if it’s good or not—and the government should explain to the local people.” While rumors persisted for several years that the corporation would reapply for a license, they remained only rumors. After such decisions, Tony said, “the company and politicians often come back and pressure us to change our minds. With Bolinao, the company said that we had been fair and that they would accept the decision.”

Late in 1996, the DENR strengthened the system through which firms applied for certificates of environmental clearance, making public participation and social acceptability necessary prerequisites. Over the next few years, the DENR approved about 50 other cement and quarrying operations, including five in Pangasinan. One of them was a plant in nearby Agno on the South China Sea, but local opposition stalled the construction.

Deeper change within the agency, however, did not come quickly. The 1998 election of Joseph Estrada to the presidency brought a resurgence in corruption in the government as well as economic decline. The next secretary appointed to the DENR did not believe that communities could manage their own resources. Tony La Viña moved his family to Washington, D.C., and joined a progressive environmental think tank. Other committed officials left their government positions, and some stayed, waiting for a new administration. Estrada resigned in 2001, and under the presidency of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, environmental work again moved forward. Although the Philippines resisted becoming the region’s sink for dirty industry, the requirement of social acceptability came to receive less emphasis.

According to one of the MSI scientists in Bolinao, livelihood continues to be a struggle, and the town has stayed much as it was, which was what the original (p.130) dilemma was partly about. While Tony met with the town’s leaders during our visit, I went with several of the DENR committee’s members to visit an inland barangay where limestone quarries would be dug. One member, Emilyn Espiritu, was an environmental scientist from Ateneo de Manila University who had recently completed her doctoral studies in Europe. She was outspoken about the decision that loomed. “I’ve had many sleepless nights,” she said. “If the plant is built, the landscape will change, the people will change, everything will change. There will be a complete change from a rural fishing village to a technological place. There’s a resource waiting to be tapped. Are you going to exploit it, or are you just going to let it sit there? And if you do exploit it,” she asked, “is it going to be beneficial to the entire country?”

Barefoot children ran around as we stood in the heat in our pressed blouses and leather shoes. Emilyn questioned several women about their lives and their thoughts about the cement plant. Comfortable with her, people spoke openly. In other towns, they said, factories had brought only temporary jobs or jobs too skilled for the locals, or they even restricted access to jobs. Some factories had rules that a single member of a family could work there; others hired townspeople as “casual” labor with no job security; still others would hire people for only a few months at a time. I had heard the same story along Malalag Bay and near industrial parks outside Manila. Just as the government did not necessarily benefit the people, neither did the private sector.

“Wouldn’t you rather have some of the benefits from the plant?” Emilyn asked. “I wouldn’t benefit,” said one woman. “I wouldn’t even qualify as a worker in the plant.” She glanced at our clothes and carrying bags. “We’re not like you city dwellers. We have simple needs. If you allow the plant to be set up, you’re imposing on us your idea of what’s important in life and how we should live.”


(1.) Details of the Bolinao case were drawn from interviews in Manila and Bolinao; interviews by the author with Antonio La Vina in 1996, 2000, and 2004; and documents from the Pangasinan Cement Corporation.

(2.) Sally Ness, Where Asia Smiles: An Ethnography of Philippine Tourism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), pp. 108–114.

(3.) Republic of the Philippines, Medium Term Development Plan: 1993–1998 (Manila: National Economic and Development Authority, March 1995), pp. 1–9.

(4.) BusinessWorld, July 27, 1996, pp. 5–9.

(5.) Robert McCaffrey, “Storm Clouds Ahead—Or Not?” Asian Cement and Construction Materials Magazine, February 1999; DENR, “List of Approved Mineral Production Sharing Agreements,” updated as of June 30, 2000.

(6.) A Proposed Cement Plant Complex in Bolinao, Pangasinan: Potential Conflicts in the Coastal Zone,” position paper endorsed by the University of the Philippines Diliman Executive (Committee and the University (Council on January 21,1995; Elmer Ferrer and Emmanuel M. Luna, “Nurturing the Seeds for Action: The Bolinao Cement Plant Controversy as a Case for the Academe’s Involvement in Social Issues,” Philippine Democracy Agenda (n.p., n.d.), pp. 205–220.

(7.) Victor O. Ramos, Letter from the Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources to Raymundo T. Gonzales, Director of Pangasinan Cement Corporation, October 30,1995.

(8.) Catherine Coumans, “Canadian Transnational Corporation Dumps Waste, Responsibility in Marinduque” (Manila: Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, March 24–26, 1999). Available at www.pcij.org/stories/1999/marcopper.html (accessed June 15, 2005).

(9.) Emma Helen Blair and James Alexander Robertson, The Philippine Islands, 1493–1898, Volume X, 1597–1599 (Cleveland, Ohio: Arthur Clark, 1904).

(10.) Paul Hutchcroft, Booty Capitalism: The Politics of Banking in the Philippines (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998), pp. 13–30.

(11.) Candido Cabrido, interviews with the author, 1996 and 1997.

(12.) Lingayen Gulf Coastal Area Management Commission, “A Brief on the Commission and the Gulf,” n.d. In Lingayen Gulf: Gods Gift, Our Heritage, Our Responsibility.

(13.) “A Proposed Cement Plant Complex in Bolinao, Pangasinan: Potential Conflicts in the Coastal Zone,” position paper endorsed by the University of the Philippines Diliman Executive Committee and the University Council on January 21, 1995; Fidel V. Ramos, “Proclaiming Lingayen Gulf as an Environmentally Critical Area,” Presidential Proclamation No. 156, March 25, 1993.

(14.) Victor O. Ramos, letter to Andrew E. J. Wang, General Manager, Pangasinan Cement Corporation, Quezon City, DENR, August 6, 1996.