Eye on the islands: Abundant biodiversity, natural resources and a young population draw growing interest from investors

 

An archipelago of 7107 islands, the Republic of the Philippines lies south of Taiwan and east of Vietnam, and is bounded in the west by the South China Sea and in the south by the Sulu and Celebes Seas. With a complex history marked by successive waves of migration and periods of colonisation and occupation, the Philippines is home to a host of ethnicities and languages across its roughly 1000 inhabited islands.

In the decades since the Philippines gained independence in 1946, its history has been marred by periods of political instability and long-standing problems with inequality and corruption. Addressing the latter two issues has been a focus for the administration of the current president, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, which has taken significant strides towards improving transparency and accountability.

The country’s abundant biodiversity, natural resources and young population are assets that have been slowly getting recognition from investors, who have also taken note of its solid economic performance in recent years and recent credit ratings upgrades. Translating these improving indicators into sustainable growth and inclusiveness, however, remains a key priority for the nation moving forward.

GEOGRAPHY & CLIMATE: Positioned in the western Pacific Ocean, the Philippine archipelago is divided into three distinct administrative and geographic regions, represented by the three stars on the country’s flag. The northern region of Luzon, home to the capital city of Manila, which generates 33% of GDP, is the country’s economic, financial and administrative hub and its industrial base. Visayas comprises the Philippines’ central islands, while Mindanao, which makes up the southernmost region, is a largely rural economy where vast natural and mineral resources have remained relatively untapped due to an ongoing peace process with local rebel groups.

The nation benefits from a strategic position as a gateway between the Pacific and the rest of Asia, and in particular from its proximity to the region’s two largest economies, China and Japan, which provides it with access to key seaborne trade routes.

Most of the archipelago’s mountainous islands are volcanic in origin and covered by tropical rainforests. The country’s highest mountain is Mount Apo in Mindanao, at 2954 metres above sea level.

Weather all throughout the archipelago is hot and humid, marked by heavy rains from June through November. During that period, the southwest monsoon also gives rise to at least 15 typhoons a year. The other two distinct seasons run from November to February, when the weather is cool and dry, and from March to May, when it is hot and dry.

The Philippines’ location along the Pacific Ring of Fire and proximity to the equator makes the nation subject to numerous active typhoons and earthquakes. The most recent major natural disaster was Typhoon Haiyan, which traversed the Eastern Visayas region in November 2013, killing an estimated 5268 people; it has since been labelled as the deadliest typhoon to have ever hit the Philippines. The country also experiences an average of 20 earthquakes a day.

POPULATION: The Philippines is the 12th-most-populous country in the world with the population estimated at 97.48m in 2013, a figure expected to rise to 99.43m by 2014, IMF data show. According to estimates for end-2013, 70% of the population is under the age of 35 and the median age is 22.2. Population growth both in Metro Manila and nationwide stands at 1.89%. Additionally, around 12m Filipinos live and work overseas, forming one of the world’s largest diasporas and generating substantial remittances that account for a significant part of the economy.

HISTORY: Until the 10th century CE, successive groups of Austronesian people occupied the islands that make up the Philippines, bringing with them influences from Malay, Hindu and Islamic societies. Additionally, trade with China introduced the latter’s culture, which has maintained a presence to the present day. In the 10th century, the Tondo dynasty formed one of the first unified political states on the islands, which lasted until Spanish colonisation in the 16th century. The arrival of Ferdinand Magellan in 1507 marked the beginning of over three centuries of colonial rule under the Spanish, who christened the area Las Islas Filipinas after King Philip II.

Although Magellan was killed in battle by forces loyal to island tribal leader Lapu-Lapu, his travels inspired further expeditions. The arrival of Miguel López de Legazpi brought with it the construction of permanent Spanish settlements on the islands, and the transformation of the Philippines into their bastion in the region. Subsequently, the Acapulco-Manila route, connecting Spanish possessions in Mexico with Asia, became the first intercontinental trade route in the New World. The Spanish colony largely thrived over the next three centuries, unifying nearly the entire archipelago and establishing a Catholic culture that remains to this day. Repeated attempts to overthrow Spanish rule were suppressed for years, and even the Philippine revolution in 1896 was largely unsuccessful until it received support from the US.

The First Philippine Republic was formally established in 1899, but its time was short lived as the Spanish-American War ended in the US purchase of Guam, Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Philippines from Spain for $20m under the terms of the Treaty of Paris. The subsequent Philippine-American War that ensued ended in 1901, with the Philippine Republic effectively dissolved, beginning the period of American occupation. The Philippines would not receive commonwealth status from the US until 1935. The Japanese occupied the country throughout most of the Second World War, and in 1946 the Philippines became an independent nation under the Treaty of Manila.

Following independence, the Philippines took on a growing role in the regional economy, resulting in a period of prosperity that largely continued under President Ferdinand Marcos. However, widespread corruption, his declaration of martial law in 1972 and the 1983 assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino led to his ouster through the peaceful People Power Revolution of 1986. The movement brought Corazón Aquino, widow of Benigno Aquino and mother of the current president, to power.

Periods of boom and bust have characterised most of the quarter of a century since the People Power Revolution, and the Philippines has faced continuing political and economic volatility. The May 2010 elections saw the late president’s son, Benigno Aquino III, come to power. His efforts to stamp out corruption and attract more foreign investment have been praised by the local and international business community.

RELIGION & CULTURE: Boasting the fifth-largest Catholic population in the world, the Philippines stands in sharp contrast to the rest of South-east Asia. A strong reminder of the influence of centuries of Spanish rule, the Philippines’ Roman Catholicism makes it one of only two Asian countries with a majority Christian population (the other being East Timor). Over 90% of Filipinos identify themselves as Christian: 81% say they are Roman Catholic, 5% are Protestant, while the remainder follow other Christian denominations. Muslims comprise about 4% of the population, primarily in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao.

Although the US occupation of the Philippines lasted for only 48 years, the American influence on the archipelago’s culture will strike many newly arriving visitors, from the presence of fast food restaurants and shopping malls to Filipinos’ affinity for rock, basketball and boxing. However, the vestiges of Spanish rule still remain too, and food, language and religion are all heavily influenced by the colonial period.

LANGUAGE: Although over 180 local languages and dialects are spoken throughout the Philippines, only two are official: Filipino, which is largely based on Tagalog, and English. Tagalog belongs to the Malayo-Polynesian group of languages, but Spanish heavily influences its modern-day form. A combination of Tagalog and English, known as Taglish, is very popular amongst young Filipinos and can be heard on radio and television programmes.

EDUCATION: While the Philippines was previously one of only three countries to have a 10-year basic school system, in May 2013 the K+12 Programme was signed into law by President Aquino, adding a mandatory kindergarten year and two additional senior high school years to the traditional 10-year model, which included six years of primary school followed by four years of secondary education. By constitutional decree, education receives the largest share of spending under the budget. Tertiary education normally consists of a four-year programme, modelled after the US system. Over 2m Filipinos were enrolled in the country’s 2000-plus higher education institutions in 2012.

NATURAL RESOURCES: The Philippines has plentiful natural resources. An estimated 30% of its total land area is believed to contain metallic mineral deposits, including nickel, cobalt, silver, gold, salt and copper, largely as a result of its volcanic history. These volcanoes also contribute significant geothermal resources, making the Philippines the second-largest geothermal energy producer behind the US.

Despite abundant resources, mining has remained underdeveloped with only 1.5% of the country’s land area covered by mining permits. Similarly, while many neighbours have seen significant development of oil and gas deposits, the Philippines has remained largely dependent on energy imports. The Galoc oil field and Malampaya gas-to-power project are the most significant energy assets developed thus far. There is thought to be potential in a number of areas in the South China Sea, although these are contentious due to ongoing territorial disputes with its neighbours.

AGRICULTURE: Only 19% of the total land mass is arable. The most important crops include rice, corn, sugarcane, coconut, abaca and tobacco, while rice and corn are the leading staples. Although the country still imports rice for buffer stock, import volumes have fallen significantly, from 2.4m tonnes in 2010 to 688,559 tonnes in 2012, in line with the administration’s goal of achieving rice self-sufficiency by the end of 2013.

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Cover of The Report: The Philippines 2014

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This article is from the Country Profile chapter of The Report: Philippines 2014. Explore other chapters from this report.