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"All the children are lost"
What caused the Philippines catastrophe?

By Elizabeth Schulte | February 24, 2006 | Page 16

THE VILLAGE of Guinsaugon in the Southern Leyte province of the Philippines disappeared under mud and boulders February 17 when a nearby mountain collapsed after weeks of heavy rain.

"It sounded like the mountain exploded, and the whole thing crumbled," Dario Libatan told the British Telegraph. "I couldn't see any house standing any more."

The mudslide, which was thought to be triggered by a minor earthquake, covered a four-square-mile area. "I felt the earth shake and a strong gust of wind, then I felt mud at my feet," Didita Kamarenta told the Telegraph. "All the children, including my two children, are lost."

The media coverage of the catastrophe emphasized natural factors, but there is more to the story--including decades of deforestation that set the stage for this and other recent disasters.

Rescue workers scrambled to find more survivors, but their hopes that some 250 children and teachers in a school covered in mud might be found alive were dashed on Monday. Three days after the disaster, 72 bodies had been found--50 of them unidentifiable. They were buried in a mass grave to prevent disease from spreading. As many as 1,800 people are missing.

The rescue work was slow and dangerous in the thick, quicksand-like mud. "It's mind-boggling, it's horrendous," said U.S Navy Cmdr. Manuel Biadog, a Filipino-American chaplain stationed Okinawa, Japan.

This isn't the first time that Leyte Island has been hit by disaster. In 1991, floods and landslides struck the city of Ormoc, killing 6,000 people. Three years ago, mudslides took 200 lives in Guinsaugon.

Typhoons hit the Philippines about 20 times a year. But what made this rain so devastating was the environmental damage caused by years of logging and deforestation. "The scale and frequency of similar tragedies in the past should have long before provoked the government into action to address the seemingly perennial problems of floods and landslides at the source," Greenpeace Southeast Asia campaign director Von Hernandez said in a statement.

Though decades of illegal logging ended in the mid-1990s, the area is still being stripped of trees. In many cases, natural forests have been replaced by coconut trees, which have shallow roots and can't stabilize the soil.

"[W]ith mountain tops despoiled of forests harboring sturdy and deep-rooted trees assigned to absorb the rain, compounded by the tons of soil loosened when the majestic trees were unceremoniously plucked out from the earth this was, yet again, a Department of Environment and Natural Resources-certified catastrophe waiting to happen," Random Jottings wrote in the Manila Times. "And if the natural resources of the nation--together with the equally treasured asset of innocent people who happen to be in the way--have to be sacrificed on the altar of political greed then so be it."

As an editorial in the Manila Standard put it, "[I]sn't it about time that disaster management be elevated to a super-body given the growing number of deaths and the inevitable loss to the economy?"

What's more, thousands of U.S. Marines were not far away--fighting the so-called war on terror.

U.S. forces are taking part in joint exercises with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP)--since the Philippines constitution prohibits the deployment of foreign combat troops--which is fighting a counter-insurgency war against the Islamist separatist group Abu Sayyaf, allegedly tied to al-Qaeda. Several days after the disaster, one team of Marines did join the rescue effort.

The U.S. government has promised $10,000 in immediate aid to the Filipino Red Cross--through U.S. Agency for International Development grants. But this is a fraction of the money Washington is spending to help the Arroyo government in war against what the West considers "the second front in the war on terrorism."

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