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Philippines Did Not Enforce Alerts of Deadly Landslides

By Carlos H. Conde


According to official records, the government of the Philippines knew as early as last May that this village in the eastern part of the country, where more than 1,000 people may have died in a landslide Friday, was in grave danger.

Policies were even in place to avert a pending disaster: Area villages were evacuated late last year and a logging ban, to address the deforestation at the root of the problem, had been adopted more than a decade ago.

But reality was another matter. According to government officials and environmental groups, problems ranging from government corruption and ineffective laws to a lack of money and the political will to enforce the laws contributed to the collapse of the mountainside here in the first place, and allowed it to become a large-scale human tragedy in the second.

“This is a failure of the implementation of laws and a failure of policy,” said Von Hernandez, the campaign director for Southeast Asia of the environmental group Greenpeace, which had warned the government last month that its current policies were bound for trouble.

On Tuesday, rescue workers continued to dig through the muck in an increasingly hopeless search for survivors. Hopes had been raised Monday afternoon when electronic sensors detected tapping sounds believed to be signs of life. But diggers found nothing but bodies and by midnight, the tapping had vanished.

By Tuesday morning, the official body count had increased to 84, with close to 1,000 victims still believed to be beneath the mud.

Even as the rescue work continued, political leaders were already issuing recriminations and demanding reform, noting that hundreds of thousands of Filipinos still living in more than 1,000 government-identified danger zones remained at risk.

The government had determined last May that St. Bernard, the township to which this village belongs, was such a danger zone, prone to natural disaster, and placed it on a geological hazard map. Fracturing volcanic rocks and weathering made the area “unstable and susceptible to mass movement,” the environment department said in a statement over the weekend.

Hundreds of residents were ordered to evacuate. But almost immediately, they began to trickle back. The problem, said Michael Defensor, a key adviser to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and, until a few weeks ago, the environment secretary, was that the displaced people had no access to their farms or businesses. “The residents would go back to their villages,” he said.

Critics said the government should not have allowed residents to return. “If residents refuse to evacuate, that’s where political will on the part of the government comes in,” said Hernandez of Greenpeace.

But the government declined to act, said Crispin Beltran, a leftist member of Congress. “Why was there a severe lack of massive reforestation program and disaster response system?” he said. “Why was it that only a measly 0.1 percent of the national budget was allotted to calamity funds despite all the signs of impending tragedies?”