Rethinking our approach to development

BAR NONE - Ian Manticajon - The Freeman

The good news this week is from the weather bureau PAGASA, which announced that the country is transitioning to the rainy season, with rains expected to be more frequent in the days to come. There have been intermittent rain showers in some parts of the country, and in Cebu, I observed a few days ago that the ground was wet early in the morning, indicating that it rained at dawn.

I’ve had the chance to drive around southwestern Cebu to attend court hearings this April and May, and it was worrying to see the leaves of even the sturdiest and largest trees browning, as well as the tinder-dry and brown conditions of our vegetation. This has truly been a very dry and long El Niño.

While the dry conditions due to El Niño are concerning, another local environmental issue has been brought to our attention. According to a report by The FREEMAN yesterday, over 700 trees, some of them century-old, are set to be cut to pave the way for a road widening project in Poro town on Camotes Island. The parish pastoral council in Eastern Poblacion, Poro, led by their priest Fr. Joel Bonza, immediately appealed to local officials to save the trees. They said that the people in the barangays affected by the project were not consulted and that not all stakeholders were invited to the public hearing.

In previous years, many people used to frown upon and even mock “tree-huggers” who sought to delay or halt road projects because trees would have to be cut down. But these days, when we badly need those large, full-grown trees and a canopy of vegetation to help cool our surroundings, it is best to listen to those who seek to save every tree from road projects.

Fr. Bonza calls for an alternative plan for the project to save the trees. “They were there before we were born. We have to respect them. They also have life. We are interconnected with one another,” he said. That is true. Every development plan must consider the natural environment where it is implemented. If a cost-benefit analysis shows that there is no other alternative but to fell a few trees, a viable replacement plan --not just one for show or paper compliance-- must be in place and followed up on through the years.

It is time we redefine our concept of development amid the obvious and increasing intensity of the effects of climate change. Activities that destroy the environment are still mislabeled as economic development. We still equate development with concrete-built projects and the production of various goods and services, without regard for their environmental impact. For example, factories that produce fast and cheap plastic toys or garments are regarded as productive and economically viable. We must recognize that true productivity should align with environmental protection and sustainability.

While we credit fossil fuel-based industrial age for making our lives more comfortable and safer now compared to over a century ago, fossil-based industrial practices and development methods have overstayed their welcome. It is true that even with droughts, there is less hunger and disease today compared to eons ago because we have technology on our side. Many generations ago, life expectancy was just over 30 years, and a simple infection could land a person in the grave.

It does not, however, mean there are no critical problems. Today, we are faced with a gigantic problem called climate change, and we must address it by changing our concept of development from the industrial era paradigm to the technology-based and environmental design paradigm. It’s time we embrace the concept of a circular economy and sustainable development.

We can use AI and digital technology, for example, in urban planning and road network design. We already have available tools like satellite imagery and laser mapping (LiDAR) to study our natural environment, allowing for more ecologically-sensitive decision making. These technologies are no longer as prohibitive in cost as they were before or are perceived to be now.

The University of the Philippines Cebu, through its Central Visayas Center for Environmental Informatics (CENVI), uses LiDAR technology to tackle problems like floods, fires, diseases, and water shortages. This technology can be expanded to also provide topographical data that help design road networks precisely aligned with the natural environment, reducing the need to cut trees.

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