Eroding foundations

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on April 8, 2009

Into whose embrace will the Philippines fall?

Our family started the annual Holy Week observance following mass Sunday in our little weekend getaway in Alfonso, Cavite. Two years ago, we began “reforesting” the two-acre plus site primarily with mahogany. As I have written here on occasion the property also features a number of fruit trees – mangoes, jackfruit, chico, santol and rambutan, for instance – that predated our arrival.

Mahogany is fast-growing, and nearly two years after our seedlings were transplanted in May and June of 2006, the place is beginning to look like a legitimate forest. As the trees have grown, so has the wildlife population. Days and evenings are a symphony of sound, and watching the colorful kingfishers dart between the trees and stake out their territories provides a natural rush.

Our weekend visits are tragically short due to the demands of making a living, but when we are here – I’m writing on the veranda above the creek near the back of our property – I make it a point to walk the farm with our staff that care for the trees and tend a small but productive vegetable and herb garden. During this morning’s walk – it’s Monday a few hours before deadline as I write – I observed a cacao tree that in one sense seemed to be flourishing, but in another was clearly endangered.

What caught my attention at first was the number of cacao pods that were ready for harvesting. This small tree sported at least a dozen red pods, creating the impression of a thriving and clearly productive tree. However, and despite its impressive production, that impression was substantially inaccurate. In fact, the tree would probably be dead except for the fact that when it began to fall over sometime last year, it was caught unknowingly by another cacao tree standing beside it.

The two trees now appear as if they are in an embrace, with the near fallen tree being held up by its stronger neighbor. It’s not a willing embrace, of course. The tree that has fallen into a tight embrace with its upright benefactor has virtually no foundation left to support it. That foundation was eaten away by a voracious colony of fat termites, and to my consternation I saw this morning that they had reappeared despite our attempts to exterminate them.

One of our staff quickly went to work on the termites again, treating the tree and the ground where its foundation of roots once held it straight. As the termites shriveled coming into contact with the liquid poison or attempted to scamper to safety, it occurred to me that the cacao tree and its seemingly losing struggle with the termites provide a suitable analogy for the effects of something I’ve written on somewhat frequently recently in the context of country brand: corruption.

The cacao tree it seemed to me is a lot like the Philippines. It is determined to do well and flourish, and in many respects does so despite its struggle with the insidious effects of corruption. Like the determined cacao tree fighting for life on our little farm despite the fact that termites have destroyed much of its foundation, Filipinos fight daily for prosperity and a better life despite seemingly insurmountable setbacks resulting from corruption. Those setbacks rob Filipinos of opportunity and worse, compound the challenges of merely surviving.

As we know from numerous surveys of Filipinos, investors, and third-party observers alike, the Philippines is perceived to be the most corrupt country in Southeast Asia. The effects of endemic corruption are clear: the Philippines has been left behind in the development race by its neighbors except for Indonesia, which despite its own problems has caught up with and surpassed the Philippines in per capita GNP in the past two decades.

On the surface, the Philippines in many respects appears to be flourishing: its economy is still growing, BPO is booming and tourism is rising, and remittances are flowing, albeit at reduced rates of growth. But like that poor cacao tree, the Philippines’ foundation – strong democratic institutions, world-class educational infrastructure, and a relentless service culture – is unable to lift the Philippines to its potential because it is being eroded internally by corruption.

Like the termites relentlessly destroying that cacao tree on a small farm in Alfonso, corruption is hard to root out. While all countries have some degree of corruption, almost all of them do a better job keeping it under control, and sending corrupt officials and executives to jail. That clearly hasn’t happened here. And so the eating away of the Philippines’ foundation and its prospects for the future continues unabated.

And you have to wonder, when the foundation goes, into whose embrace will the Philippines and its potential fall?

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