The bus journey from Aleminos to Vigan took a lot longer than I anticipated: the distance was 270 kilometres and it took 11 hours.
These two cities are on the west coast of Luzon, the largest and most populated of the islands comprising The Philippines (and home to the capital city Manila). There is one main road running along this west coast because much of the interior of Luzon is mountainous. Unbeknownst to me and I should have realised this, most of the people in Luzon live along the coasts and especially, the west coast.
Some of the buses in The Philippines are ultra-modern but mine wasn´t one of them. It had bench seats and ventilation was provided by sliding windows. For much of the way, the bus crawled along a traffic choked road, a chaos of cars, small trucks, SUV’s – and hundreds of the three wheel motor bike rickshaws. There were long periods when the bus was stationary. Moving so slowly along that over congested coast road, accompanied by a constant haze of pollution, I got a sobering look at life for the Filipinos, especially those living at the lower end of the social economic ladder.
In the town centres there were dilapidated buildings bristling with brightly coloured signs advertising everything from junk food to TV’s, money transfers to cars, shoes to feed for pigs (pork is the national dish of the Filipinos). Christian motifs cropped up regularly: ‘Holy Angels General Store’, ‘Jesus Food Palace’, ‘Maria Grace Pharmacy’, ‘Immaculate Conception Laboratories’. The sidewalks were crammed with parked cars and motor bikes and tricycle rickshaws. There were no footpaths and so people spilled out on to the road. There were no bus stations; masses of people stood around in the hot sun vying for a place on the buses that emerged out of the traffic crawl and the haze like phantoms.
When our bus stopped to let some passengers off – and many more on (the aisle was crammed with people standing) – hawkers appeared selling chips (and various odd looking derivatives), biscuits, crackers, peanuts, cigarettes, dried fish etc – and yelling out inducements to buy their wares. It was remarkable how people crowded in the central aisle somehow made way for the hawkers; it was a code of tolerance deeply imbued in the Filipino people which to be honest, was lost on me. You only had to focus on the life of the hawkers to see yet another layer of poverty in a society whose descending ladder of privilege seemed endless. In Manila, you could see these street hawkers moving back and forth through the interminably crawling traffic and approaching cars to sell their wares; a desperate and dangerous way to earn a few pesos.
Outside the town centres, a familiar sight were shanty towns, honeycombs of small ramshackle dwellings with sheets of galvanised iron or a layer of plastic for a roof. One level up were shanty town suburbs of small houses constructed from breeze block. Hovering above all of these dwellings was a profusion of plastic coated electric wires suspended from posts. Often the roads and streets were unsealed. There were no street lamps. Sometimes, between the shanty town dwellings, there was the odd sight of a big and ostentatious home, a freshly painted two story place with balconies, high surrounding walls and an iron gate. These houses were funded by money earned overseas; millions of Filipinos were working all over the world and sending their money back home.
Sometimes between the towns, there were stretches of verdant tree clothed hills and rice paddies and rivers enclosed by giant trees. Quite a contrast: the beauty of Nature and the Beast created by humans.
At one point we passed a large billboard with an image of Christ and the words ‘God Will Make A Way’. It seemed like a forlorn hope but maybe it was important for the poor to believe in something.
Then again, that was also a large part of the problem.
Sitting in the bus as it stopped and started and crawled its way through run down, polluted cities fringed by shanty towns, it occurred to me that in a developing country like The Philippines, the basic underlying problems were beyond the capacity of any government to deal with. The underclass was growing fast; a combination of poverty, religion and high birth rates meant that no amount of economic growth could ever change this situation.
In The Philippines there is a middle class but like in so many developing nations, it is social layer greatly outnumbered by the underclass. In modern developed societies, middle class culture – and conspicuous consumption – is the dominant creed. And by and large, irrespective of people’s incomes, there is a broad distribution of wealth and opportunity which allows most people to cherish aspirations for a better life. There is a far greater degree of upward social economic mobility and a so-called poverty net, provided by a welfare state and a universal health care system (with the notable exception of the U.S. of course).
In the case of developing nations, the theory is that in time, as education levels rise and technological progress advances, they will make the transition to something akin to a western nation. It’s a dubious idea and especially when one considers birth rates. In the Catholic Philippines, the population growth especially among the poorest classes, is far higher than in a western nation. Yet birth rates in The Philippines are certainly on the low side measured against other developing nations: for example, there are 20 nations, all of them in Africa, where birth rates are much higher.
It was during that tedious journey along the west coast of Luzon, that the term ´climate change´ suddenly appeared in my mind.
From the very first time I saw Al Gore’s film ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, I was convinced that global climate change was the most serious problem confronting humanity. Everything I had read since then only reinforced that conviction. In over 90% of all the academic articles written by climatologists, the connection between human activity and climate change was supported.
In the western nations, the discussion around global climate change focuses on emissions and energy policy; on phasing out polluting factories and coal fired power stations and switching to solar and wind energy for example.
But what environmentalists/Green parties ignore – it was their ‘inconvenient truth’ – was that in the developing world, where most of the world’s people live – and most of them are poor, living on 5 Euros a day or less – the politicians have no interest in climate change, even though it impacts on their nations far more than the wealthy nations (which are in temperate climatic zones). Their attitude is unanimous: ‘we have to supply our people with energy. Economic growth comes first. The poor have a right to the privileges which western nations take for granted.’
But just how far does the developing world want to take this ‘logic’?
Well, quite far.
Take the example of India.
On a list of the 500 most polluted cities in the world (overwhelmingly in the developing world), India takes out the top 10 places. Its capital city, New Delhi, is the most polluted city on the planet. To breathe the air in those cities is the equivalent of smoking 2 packets of cigarettes a day (Chinese cities begin at a ranking of about 20 – and then dominate the list down to 370).
Indian cities are the most unhealthy cities in the world – and the competition in this respect is fierce indeed (chose just about any major city in the developing world and you are talking about catastrophic levels of air pollution).
Incredibly, no one in India cares about the air. There is no pressure on the national government or the politicians to do something about it. Rampant xenophobia, encouraged by the media and the politicians, has nullified any kind of opposition.
If you are a middle class Indian, the first thing you try to do is to emigrate.
Whilst the Indian government proudly sends rockets into space, back on earth, its people are being poisoned. Hundreds of millions of them.
The Indian attitude is commonplace throughout the developing world: ‘global climate change is a western plot to keep the poor of the world in their place.’
It was dark when I arrived in Vigan. I washed, went out and ate something, came back to my small, windowless, hotel room – more like a prison cell – and fell in a long deep sleep.
The next morning, I got up in tourist mode. Mr. Sightseer. No thoughts about climate change. The day before seemed like it was months ago. That’s the thing about travelling, your sense of time becomes distorted.
Two days later, after leaving Vigan, I arrived at a small place on the coast. In the very last place I would have expected it, I ran into a Filipino who was also very concerned about climate change. A long discussion/debate ensued.
Suddenly I was transported back to that long and exasperating bus trip. Time mysteriously moved backwards.
The journey I had embarked upon in Aleminos was a long way from over.