Thursday, March 30, 2017

[Second Opinion] From 7,107 to 7,641

by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Social media was recently abuzz with excitement over the revelation that the Philippines actually has 7,641 islands—not 7,107, as we have always thought. Actually, this piece of news is quite dated, but the initial disclosure was made during the heat of last year’s election season, which is probably why it didn’t generate that much publicity at the time, and why today it continues to make waves.

Some reactions were expectedly humorous. “High tide or low tide?” some netizens asked, alluding to Charlene Gonzales’ answer, in the 1994 Miss Universe pageant, to the question of how many islands make up the Philippines. Technically speaking, per the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, an island has to be “a naturally formed area of land, surrounded by water, which is above water at high tide.”

In any case, the new figure shores up our status as one of world’s largest archipelagos. Our country’s archipelagic nature has always been part of our national self-image and repute: We were “Las Islas Filipinas” and then “P.I.” (for Philippine Islands) before we became “RP” and “PH.” We still see this in our travel industry, where many companies include the word “island” in their branding (perhaps the only casualties of 7,641 are brands that make use of 7,107).

The change is a reminder of how knowledge, even scientific knowledge, is a matter of faith. Most of us never really counted the Philippine islands ourselves; we rely on “experts” to do it for us—but their methods are not perfect; results can change through time. It’s good for our critical thinking to be reminded of the contingency of “expert knowledge.”

Actually, geographers have known for quite a while that 7,107 was incorrect. On top of better surveying, Earth’s primordial forces have participated in the revision: In 1952, a volcano called Didicas emerged east of the Babuyan islands, rising to over 200 meters above sea level. That alone should have revised the figure to 7,108.

I wonder, though, how long the current figure of 7,641 will last.

In the first place, if the count included our territory in the West Philippine Sea, then we may have de facto lost some of them: The Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling recognizing the Philippines’ claim does not change the geopolitical reality of a hotly contested Spratlys—and our weak position (as our President himself, alas, loves to say). China is actually adding artificial islands within our territory by converting poor coral reefs into concrete bases. Will it conduct the same environmental and judicial travesty on Panatag Shoal?

In the second place, there’s global warming: If sea levels were to continue rising, a return to 7,107, or even lower, is a distinct possibility, especially if we think in terms of decades or centuries. On this note, I’m glad the President signed the Paris Agreement, and climate leaders like Sen. Loren Legarda worked hard for it.

But even if all our islands’ existence were to continue, there’s a question of their integrity. Just by browsing our country’s satellite images with Google Earth, one can spot some islands that have been destroyed by mining, such as Semirara south of Mindoro and Hinatuan off the coast of Surigao. Surely, we need a Gina Lopez to prevent more of our islands from suffering a similar fate.

Thankfully, many islands remain pristine, some owing to their exclusivity (i.e., Lagen and Pamilican), others due to their sheer remoteness, which have insulated them from our destructive impulses. I think Filipinos should aim to see at least a few of these islands—beyond popular ones like Boracay—if only to discover our maritime heritage, rich culture, and astounding marine biodiversity. And hopefully realize what’s at stake when we speak of national security and environmental conservation.

My personal Shangri-La remains Sibutu island on the southernmost tip of Tawi-Tawi, which I visited back when I was a medical student. There, on an island as peaceful as can be conjured by the imagination, we were awakened by the adhan, lulled to sleep by the amihan, nourished by the bounty of Sulu Sea, and made to feel at home by our Tausug hosts.

Malaysia, they told us, was just a few hours away by pump boat. But who needs to go abroad when you’re already in Paradise?

Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on March 30, 2017:

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