Dispatch From Typhoon Country

Oct 222009

One day this summer, on the island of Masbate, I watched a tricycle chug down the highway carrying 20 people. If I hadn’t seen it for myself, I may not have believed it. Fortunately, my journalist colleague Rowena Paraan saw it, too, and she confirmed my count.

For my American friends: what people here call a tricycle is a small motorcycle with a covered sidecar. In Manila, tricycle drivers taxi people between neighborhoods; in the provinces, between towns and villages. Tricycles are ubiquitous in the Philippines. They offer a cheap and quick way to get from Point A to Point B for just a few pesos.

A typical tricycle’s sidecar, the cab, can seat two adults comfortably, or four adults if they don’t mind folding tight. I’ve ridden in tricycles with as many as five people in the cab, and that felt to me like being packed in a sardine can. So you can understand my amazement when I saw the sunflower-yellow tricycle puttering down the main highway on Masbate.

From a distance the silhouette resembled a small dump truck carrying tree branches. As it got closer, I realized it was a mass of bodies. The tree branches were arms and legs. The passengers all looked to be teenagers. Three sat behind the driver on the motorcycle. Seven squeezed into the sidecar. Four clung to the back of the cab like spiders on a wall. And five stood or kneeled perilously on the sidecar’s roof. Twenty.

The motor on the cycle – a 125 cc – was designed to pull one person, and you could hear the strain in its high-pitched wail. How long could such a small engine carry a load so much beyond capacity? And what if the tricycle got in an accident? I shuddered at the thought of a truck in the oncoming lane crossing the centerline. Almost every week in the news, it seems, there are stories of horrific collisions on Philippine highways.

As the tricycle horde passed me, I thought to myself what I often think when traveling around Manila and the provinces: Too many people. Too many on the tricycle, too many in the streets, too many in the slums and shanty towns. The Philippines to me feels like a tricycle supporting too many passengers. The infrastructure groans, constantly on the verge of breakdown. And when disaster strikes, it strikes big.

Recently two super-typhoons struck Luzon, where I live. I watched the first one from the windows of my 24th-floor apartment in Quezon City. The streets below turned into rivers. Sprawl had covered absorbent soil with impermeable concrete, and the water had nowhere to go. The city’s drainage system, already outdated,  had been clogged further by massive squatter communities. When the waters subsided, 300 people were dead and half a million were homeless. Blunt force had crossed the centerline, and the result was cataclysmic.

I’m in the Philippines as a Knight Fellow to work on a crowd-sourcing project called Suriin Ang Kahirapan or “audit of poverty.” The project, led by the Philippine Center For Investigative Journalism, aims to empower residents of the country’s poorest provinces with journalism skills and a public platform on which to present their stories.Everywhere I’ve traveled in these provinces I’ve met impoverished families with six, eight, ten, twelve children. These are families who often didn’t know where the next meal was coming from or whether they could pay rent that week.

I went there to impart journalism expertise, and yet a part of me secretly wanted to convey a simpler message: stop having children. Abiding by that alone would alleviate more long-term suffering, and bring more potential empowerment, than anything I could impart.

I met a mother with five children. Her youngest was 6-years-old, a pretty, doe-eyed child who spent the day clinging to her mother’s leg. The girl had never learned to speak. The family suspected she was deaf and had other disabilities, but she had never been evaluated or treated. Why? The parents couldn’t afford it. They were struggling just to survive day to day. That quiet little girl will grow up to be a speechless young woman, sentenced to a Hobbesian life: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.

There are millions of people in the Philippines who will never get the attention they need because there are simply too many people that need tending.

An archipelago of 7,000 islands, the Philippines has a landmass equivalent to the state of Arizona. The country’s estimated population is 96 million. Four babies are born every minute. At the current rate, the population is expected to reach 160 million by 2038. Many will receive grossly inadequate education and healthcare – if they receive any at all.

With government resources spread as thin as residue, education funding translates to 21 pesos a day per child for elementary and high school students. Malaysia spends five times that amount per student; Thailand, eight times; Singapore, 11 times. In the Philippines, the current textbook to student ratio is 1:2, with reports of a grim 1:4 in far-f1ung schools. The teacher-student ratio in public schools is as high as 1:80.

In healthcare, studies have estimated that 3.7 million preschool children are underweight (acute or present malnutrition), 3.8 million are stunted (growth failure) and 0.7 million are wasted (enfeebled state); 49% of the total population of infants and 26% of the total population of children with ages ranging from 1-6 years old suffer from iron-deficiency anemia. The list of deficiencies is too long to present here.

Too many people; too many needs. Finite resources.

Yet, astoundingly, the federal government has no meaningful policy on population control or family planning or contraceptive alternatives. A progressive and potentially course-altering bill, the Reproductive Health and Population Development Act of 2008, has been effectively blocked by religious conservatives and the Catholic Church. The bill is going nowhere fast, and it’s expected to stay there.

Too few politicians here have the stones to go against the church. Because of the church, the use of condoms and other forms of birth control are frowned upon, and any talk of family planning or sex education is curtailed – even in modern fast-living Manila.

So for the foreseeable future, Filipinos will continue to have babies, four a minute.  They’ll continue to fill every livable space, mow down every stand of trees, pave over every hectare of soil. They’ll clog the waterways and highways. They’ll crowd sidewalks, river banks and mountain slopes, pack into back alleys and bridge decks and broom closets – all the while listening to political leaders promise new wars against poverty.

They’ll squeeze into tricycles twenty at a time and hear the engine wail – until it breaks down or the next calamity crosses the centerline.  Then we’ll hear a different kind of wailing.