The Philippines within Southeast Asia
The Philippines within Southeast Asia
The Republic of the Philippines is an archipelagic country in maritime Southeast Asia consisting of between seven thousand and eight thousand islands (the final number is still under debate) and islets (very small islands). The land area of the Philippines is about 300,000 kilometers squared (115,000 square miles), with a total national population of 109 million people (it is the twelfth most populated country in the world). Most of the islands of the Philippines are small, and the eleven biggest islands account for 90 percent of the country’s land area, with the two biggest islands—Luzon and Mindanao—consisting of half of the Philippine landmass. It is a slightly pyramidal-shaped archipelago bordered by the South China Sea to the west and north, the Celebes (Sulawesi) Sea to the south, and the Philippine Sea to the east. Most of the Philippine islands lie in a north-south direction, with Luzon at the far north and Mindanao at the far south. Two island arcs spread southwest from the lower half of the archipelago, and between them lies the Sulu Sea. The southernmost southwest arc is the Sulu Archipelago, which is still a part of the Philippines. The Sulu arc extends close to the Malaysian section of the large island of Borneo.
The Philippine archipelago stretches 1,850 kilometers (1,150 miles) from north to south and 1,130 kilometers (700 miles) at its widest along the southern portion of the islands. The Philippines’ closest land neighbors are the string of Indonesian islands running west-east to the south of the archipelago (Sulawesi and the Maluku Islands) and, specifically, the large island of Borneo, which is an extension of the Philippines’ southwesterly island arcs. Palawan Island is the main stretch of Philippine land that extends southwest toward Borneo (north of the Sulu Archipelago), specifically toward the northern Malaysian section of Borneo. Approximately 200 kilometers (125 miles) separates the eastern edge of Borneo from the western Palawan mainland. The majority of Borneo—most of the central and southern bulk of the island—is referred to as Kalimantan, and it is part of the Republic of Indonesia. The northern strip running west-east along the top of Borneo is Malaysian. The Malaysian strip of Borneo excludes the Sultanate of Brunei, which is an independent nation in the center of the very north of Borneo that occupies 1 percent of Borneo. The Philippines lies 800 kilometers (500 miles) east of the Vietnam coast (mainland Southeast Asia), and the island of Taiwan is about 400 kilometers (250 miles) north of the Batan Islands (the northernmost area of the Philippines). Hong Kong lies 1,116 kilometers (694 miles) northwest of Manila—the Philippine capital—as part of mainland China. Below, you can find a map of the Philippines.
The capital city of Manila is a coastal town on Manila Bay in the southwest of the Philippines’ biggest island, Luzon, and it is in very close proximity to the adjacent urban node of Quezon City, which is just north of Manila. Both cities are part of the National Capital Region (NCR) or Metro Manila (including the principal Filipino port and its main international airport), which is the most densely populated urban area of the Philippines. The NCR technically includes sixteen cities and one municipal area over a land area of about six hundred square kilometers and is home to about thirteen million people. The most populous area, however, is Calabarzon—the expansive region southeast of Manila of lower Luzon—with over fourteen million people. Together, the areas of the NCR and Calabarzon contain about a third of the Filipino population. Other significant Philippine cities include Cebu (on Cebu Island), Jaro (on Panay Island), Vigan (northwest Luzon), and Naga (southeast Luzon), which were all previously given charters by the Spanish colonial government. Davao, on Mindanao, is also a considerable city. Fifty percent of the Philippines is urbanized. Of the archipelago’s eighty-one provinces (and seventeen broader administrative regions), the Batanes (the Batan Islands) is a minimal cluster of islands that form the northernmost land area. Below the Batanes is another small cluster of islands called the Babuyan Islands that lie just above Luzon. Only about 40 percent of the Philippine islands have names, and only 5 percent have a land area of 2.6 square kilometers (1 square mile) or more.
The eleven largest islands fall into three groupings. The Luzon group to the north and west includes Luzon, Mindoro, and Palawan, as well as Masbate and eighteen other islands and island groupings. (The region of Kapampangan, which is often referred to in historical records, is Central Luzon or the areas stretching out from the NCR.) The Central Visayas grouping consists of Cebu, Panay, Negros, Bohol, Samar, Leyte, and ten other islands and island groupings. The island of Mindanao forms its own group in the south, along with seven other islands and island groupings, including the Sulu Archipelago.
Before the start of 16th-century colonialism, Filipinos lived in small, independent villages called barangays, each ruled by a datu (chief). In the modern day, the administrative divisions of the Philippines, besides the regions and provinces, include 146 cities, 1,488 provinces, and 42,036 barangays.
Map of Southeast Asia
The Philippines is a part of the Pacific Rim of Fire (also known as the Ring of Fire), which is a ring of high seismic and volcanic activity that circumnavigates the Pacific Ocean. The horseshoe-shaped ring of more than 450 volcanoes stretches in an offshore arc from South America, running along North America, Asia, and Australia. The Rim of Fire was responsible for the creation of many Pacific island chains, specifically the easternmost archipelagos of maritime Southeast Asia. The violent geological conditions associated with the Rim of Fire are due to the movement of tectonic plates upon which Earth’s landmasses rest. The tectonic plates generally define the subdivisions of the continents and are a part of Earth’s crust and upper mantle. The tectonic plates create friction at their boundaries, as they have done for millions of years, as they move in the process known as continental drift. The friction along the plate boundaries is a result of tectonic plates pushing into each other, pulling apart from one another, or simply moving past one another.
The movement of the plates results in seismic activity (earthquakes), volcanic eruptions, the formation of oceanic trenches, and, most importantly, the creation of new land. In the case of the Philippines, magma (semi-molten rock lava) erupted from the Earth’s crust below sea level and began building sub-oceanic mountains that eventually peaked above the surface of the sea. The magma was released during subduction, when one plate is pushed below another as they collide in their movement toward one another. This process of subduction generally results in the formation of island arcs, which are common in maritime Southeast Asia. The creation of the Philippine archipelago was specifically caused by the convergence of three tectonic plates: the Indo-Australian, Eurasian, and Philippine Sea Plates. The major Indo-Australian Plate to the south and far west of the Philippines contains the Indian subcontinent and Australia. The major Eurasian Plate to the immediate west of the archipelago contains the Asian and European continents. Finally, the minor Philippine Sea Plate lies directly below the island chain and includes the islands of Indonesia and Taiwan.
The Philippines remains a seismic and volcanic hotspot with prominent geological volcanic features making up its landscape, namely, the Philippines’ highest active volcano, Mount Pinatubo, northwest of Manila on Luzon. One of the largest volcanic eruptions along the Pacific Rim of Fire was on June 9th, 1991, when Mount Pinatubo erupted, killing seven hundred people and destroying hundreds of thousands of homes. This eruption was the second largest of the 20th century. The last significant earthquake was the Luzon event in 1990, which killed an estimated 1,600 people, mostly in Central Luzon and the Cordillera region.
The Philippines is composed of volcanic rock and coral, and numerous mountain ranges run in a north-south direction like the archipelago itself. Similarly, the rivers of the Philippines mostly run northward. The archipelago is well-known for its unusual rock formations of various geological types, spectacular lakes, and narrow coastal plains. The central mountain chain of Luzon, the Cordillera Central, is the most prominent range in the Philippines and consists of two, at times three, parallel ranges running north-south along the northern half of Luzon. The average elevation of the Cordillera Central is about 1,800 meters above sea level (or 5,900 feet). The Sierra Madre is the longest Philippine mountain range. It is also on Luzon but runs along the eastern Pacific side of the island. The Cordillera and Sierra Madre meet in Central Luzon as the Caraballo Mountains.
Between the mountain ranges of the Philippines are fertile plains formed from eroded volcanic soils and ancient ash deposits. The extremely fertile plains of Cordillera on Luzon include rice terraces as part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The soils of the Philippines are ideal for rice and corn (maize) cultivation, as well as coffee, cassava, sugarcane, coconuts, fruit trees, bananas, pineapples, oil palms, abaca (Manila hemp) and other fibrous plants, vegetables, and other crops. Eight major indigenous forest types are found within the Philippines (from beach forests to upper montane), and commercial forests are grown for timber harvesting. Mount Apo, at 2,954 meters (9,692 feet), is the highest peak in the Philippines on the southcentral coast of Mindanao. Of the Philippines’ fifty volcanoes, about ten are active, and tremors and earthquakes are a common part of life on the archipelago. The most active of the Philippine volcanoes is Mount Mayon in southern Luzon. The Philippines is the world’s second-biggest geothermal energy producer after the United States, supplying almost 20 percent of the country’s energy needs.
Numerous important and large rivers drain between the mountain ranges toward the sea, with the largest, the Cagayan, in northern Luzon stretching for over five hundred kilometers (over three hundred miles). The capital of Manila on oceanic Manila Bay is connected via the Pasig River to the Philippines’ largest lake, Laguna de Bay (or Laguna Lake), eighteen kilometers (eleven miles) away. The Pasig River, which flows through the city of Manila, was once a commercially important node for inter-island trade but is now no longer navigable except by small craft. The UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River on the island of Palawan is a national park on the west-central coast of the island. Puerto Princesa is an 8.2-kilometer (5-mile) stretch of river that runs through a karst landscape (underground eroded caves with stalagmites and stalactites) before reaching the sea. This protected area at the mouth of the underground river allows visitors to explore parts of the waterways via boats that travel through the cave systems.
The Philippine undersea trench, Galathea Depth, Galathea Deep, or Emden Deep, is a 10,500-meter (34,500-foot) trench in the Philippine Sea and the third deepest in the world. The trench runs along the eastern side of the archipelago.
The Philippines constitutes a marine area of 2.2 million square kilometers (850,000 square miles) of the Coral Triangle, and some of its marine reefs contain the highest diversity of shore fish species in the world, along with numerous species of corals. The Coral Triangle is a triangular area of the western Pacific Ocean, which includes the waters of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste, and the Solomon Islands. The Coral Triangle is so named for its astounding number of corals (nearly 600 species of reef-building corals, or 75 percent of the total global coral species), 2,000 species of reef fish, and other special marine animals such as turtles, seahorses, and dugongs. The Tubbataha Reef in the Sulu Sea was declared one of the Philippines’ impressive six UNESCO World Heritage Sites (with a further nineteen on the tentative list!) in 1993. Oysters naturally occur around the Philippine reefs, and pearls are the “national gem” of the islands. One species of oyster, the Pinctada maxima, produces a naturally golden pearl. The Sulu Archipelago is especially known for its pearl farms.
The national fish of the Philippines, the milkfish (similar to a herring), is an important food source and is found in abundance around the archipelago. The Coral Triangle is not only important for its beauty and as a tourist and scientific destination but also for its high commercial value as a fishing ground, specifically for tuna fish. In Donsol Bay (southwestern Luzon), tourists are drawn to the high number of whale sharks that accumulate to feed on nutrients released from the mouth of the Donsol River. Unfortunately, even though many internationally and locally driven environmental projects are underway to protect the magnificent marine waters around the Philippines (which is vital for local tourism and eco-tourism), overfishing, environmental destruction and pollution, and climate change continue to have negative effects on the Coral Triangle’s ecosystem.
The Philippine coral reefs are critical as barriers to storms and rough seas (including tsunamis and typhoons), and they reduce flooding by almost half across the archipelago. Overall, the Philippines is home to a significant array of biodiversity (it is considered a country of megadiversity) and indigenous and endemic species of both fauna and flora, such as the Philippine (as well as the saltwater) crocodile, the Philippine eagle (the national bird), endemic bats, abundant ferns, hundreds of rare orchid species, and uniquely giant parasitic plants. There is even evidence that elephants once roamed the islands. Sadly, deforestation is a significant problem in the Philippines, and during the 20th century, forest cover declined from 70 percent of the land area to 18 percent, mostly due to logging, mining, and farming activities. When forests are removed, the groundcover is naturally replaced by low, coarse bushes (scrubland) or tall grasses. Along with environmental degradation and pollution, the Philippines continues to be extremely vulnerable to permanent biological destruction and the extinction of species due to human impact. Most of the Philippine vegetation is indigenous and is very similar to that of Malaysia, with some Himalayan elements at higher altitudes, as well as Australian species. The discovery of new species continues to this day.
The Philippines is tropical and has wet and dry monsoon seasons. The wet conditions are blown in from the southwest from May to October (summer), and the dry winds blow from the northeast from November to February (winter). The Philippines lies between four and twenty-one degrees north of the equator, and the temperatures remain fairly consistent all year round. In general, the temperature of the Philippines is moderate but is cooler at higher elevations, with the range of temperatures overall being between four degrees Celsius (forty degrees Fahrenheit) and thirty-eight degrees Celsius (one hundred degrees Fahrenheit). However, the average conditions are warm and humid, with temperature ranges between twenty-one and thirty-two degrees Celsius (seventy and ninety degrees Fahrenheit). Cyclone season is from June to December and brings typhoons from the southeast, which can exceed twenty per season and be very destructive.
The Philippine people are referred to as Filipinos, and more recently, Filipino has become known colloquially for all things referring to the Philippines. (Originally, the Filipino people were specifically those living on the archipelago with a distinctively Spanish heritage.) Filipinos are now ethnically diverse, with over one hundred culturally and linguistically distinctive groups. Most Filipinos draw their ancestry from the Southeast Asian mainland, Indonesia, and Malay. The two most populous ethnic groups of the Philippines (constituting twenty percent each of the overall population) are the Tagalog of Luzon and the Visayans/Bisaya (including the Cebuano) of central Indonesia. Other larger groups are the Ilocano of northern Luzon and the Hiligaynon (Ilonggo) of the central Philippines (the islands of Panay and Negros), which constitute ten percent each of the nation’s population. Another ten percent of the Filipinos consist of the Waray-Waray, who live on several islands in the Central Visayas, and the Bicol (Bikol) of the Bicol Peninsula, southeast of Luzon.
The “aboriginal” people of the Philippines were Negritos (small in stature and dark-skinned), which included various sub-groupings and who now only constitute a marginal percentage of the population. Influxes over the centuries from China, India, the United States, Europe, Latin America, and Spain contributed to ethnic variations within the last millennium and a current populace of mixed heritage. There are smaller communities of native Chinese, Japanese, Indians, and Arabs who live in the Philippines.
There are an estimated 150 to 186 native languages and dialects in the Philippines. Most of these languages are Austronesian in origin and are closely related, specifically Malayo-Polynesian. Also, many Spanish-based creole varieties are present on the island—referred to as Chavacano—as well as some original Negrito languages. The language proliferation reflects the ethnic areas, with Tagalog being the most spoken language in central and south Luzon (including Manila) and in Mindoro and Marinduque, the islands just to the south of Luzon. The national languages of the Philippines are Filipino (also called Pilipino), which is based on Tagalog, and English. Filipino sign language is also officially recognized. It should be noted that Spanish was the principal language of the Philippines from the colonial era until the beginning of the 1900s, when English came to dominate due to the United States’ occupation.
The Philippines was named after its colonial-era Spanish sovereign, King Philip II, who ruled in the 16th century. Philippine history is the most strongly influenced by the West of all Southeast Asian countries. One-quarter of the population is fluent in English, with most being at least conversive in English, and it is the medium for several school subjects, including mathematics and science (with Filipino being the other major medium).
The Philippines is a secular state that protects the freedom of religion. Along with East Timor (Timor-Leste), the Philippines is one of only two predominantly Roman Catholic countries in Asia, and it is the world’s third-largest Roman Catholic population after Brazil and Mexico, with at least 80 percent of Filipinos adhering to the faith. A further 10 percent of the population adheres to other Christian denominations. Islam was brought to the archipelago from Borneo, specifically Brunei, in the 15th century. Muslim adherents were established and grew around Manila, the Sulu Archipelago, and the southern zone of Mindanao by the time of the Europeans’ arrival in the mid-16th century. Since the European intervention in the last half-millennium, the existing Muslim communities constitute 6 percent (possibly up to 11 percent) of Filipinos, and they are limited to the southern islands and are known as Moros. A very small number of people practice Buddhism, and they are mostly of Chinese descent. Rural communities also practice local indigenous belief systems.
Although the Filipino people are distinctly Asian in culture and ideology, they are also strongly Euro-American in aspiration and outlook, mostly owing to their history and the educational policies instituted in the 20th century. By the late 20th century, the Philippines had emerged as a regional leader in education, with a well-established school and university system. By the early 21st century, the nation’s investment in education led to one of the highest literacy rates in Asia.
The archipelago is run as a unitary state except for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). Bangsamoro, in western-central Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago, runs according to an autonomous legal system instituted in 2018, which will be in transition until 2022. It is the only Muslim-majority autonomous region in the Philippines, but along with the national government’s considerations for governance decentralization, it acts as a testing phase for later conversations on constitutional reform and the potential federalism of the archipelago. The Philippines is run as a democratic and constitutional republic with an elected president (with a single six-year term). The current president, Rodrigo Duterte of the PDP-Laban political party, was elected in 2016. He is the first Philippine president from Mindanao. The PDP stands for the Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (the Philippine Democratic Party-People’s Power).
The Philippines continues to experience extreme income inequality. Wealthier people in the urban areas live in multi-story homes or apartment buildings, but much of the population lives in poverty, often in shacks made from bamboo, wood, sheet metal, and other scrap items. Those in poverty do not have regular access to basic services such as water, electricity, or even sewage.
As mentioned above, the Philippine archipelago has fertile volcanic soils and is rich in biological and mineral resources owing to its complex geological formations and high seismic activity. Metallic minerals (gold, iron ore, lead, zinc, nickel, chromite, palladium, and copper) are found mostly on the islands of Luzon and Mindanao. The archipelago is estimated to have the second-largest global deposits of gold after South Africa, as well as significant quantities of copper and the world’s largest palladium deposits. Non-metallic minerals are primarily found in the Central Visayas (such as limestone, marble, asphalt, salt, gypsum, etc.). The Philippines’ natural resources remain largely untapped due to social and environmental complications. Philippine oil and gas fields are found off the northwest coast of Palawan. Although the country has significant industrial potential, its economy remains largely agricultural, with manufacturing contributing to a quarter of the national GDP (gross domestic product). The national currency is the Philippine peso. Some of the Philippines’ main exports are professional people and laborers who are educated and trained on the islands and then chose to move abroad, mainly to the United States and Canada as well as other Asian and Southeast Asian nations. Major tangible exports include electronic equipment, garments and accessories, coconuts and coconut products, and minerals—specifically copper, gold, and iron ore. The major destinations of these exports are to other Asian countries (Japan, China, Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Thailand), the Netherlands, Germany, and the United States. Tourism contributes approximately 10 percent to the economy and has been growing, with most visitors coming from South Korea, the United States, and Japan, as well as other Asian and Southeast Asian countries. Over eight million international visitors were recorded in 2019.
Filipinos exist as a unique blend of extraordinary heterogeneity in cultural and ethnic sub-groupings but operate homogeneously as a nation. The foundations of this homogeneity are due to hundreds of years of colonial rule and the establishment of broad and enduring faith-based institutions such as Catholicism and Islam. However, the more modern contribution to Filipino unity is the education system that was established by the United States in the first half of the 20th century and has been continued by the Filipino people and government. Elementary education in the archipelago is compulsory (lasting until the children are twelve years of age), but an alternative learning system exists for those who are not part of the traditional system. Vocational schools also offer technical education and skill development. Regardless, all Filipinos get a solid grounding in basic education and are highly encouraged and assisted in completing their full schooling and moving to tertiary pursuits. The Philippines provides many state-run universities and colleges for tertiary learning, particularly in the capital of Manila. (The oldest university in the archipelago, the University of Santo Tomas, was founded in 1611!) The Filipinos’ emphasis on education has provided the basis for cultural unity and socioeconomic progress as the Philippines embarks on an Asian revival by reinstituting the barangay as the smallest unit of local governance, reviving dormant local traditions, and exploring Asian history and literature. It seems that the Filipinos have found a unique balance between the Western and Eastern influences of which they have always been a part.