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FRONTLINE/World Rough Cut

Rough Cut: Philippines: The Black Stain of Oil
Background Facts and Related Links
Learn more about Philippine history and ties to the U.S. and follow news reports and other links about the oil spill.

Philippine Country Profile

Situated in the western Pacific between Malaysia and Taiwan, the Philippines is a vast archipelago of more than 7,100 islands. The modern history of the island nation under the rule of Spain and the United States has given it a diverse cultural heritage with Latin, European and American influences.

Explorer Ferdinand Magellan was the first European to arrive in the archipelago in 1521, in what became the last expedition of his illustrious career. Sailing under the Spanish Crown, the Portuguese explorer was killed in battle by Filipino natives soon after he set foot on the islands. King Philip II of Spain sent another expedition to colonize the islands, and the Spanish monarch gave the Philippines its name. Spain ruled the islands for the next 350 years and European missionaries converted most of the population to Roman Catholicism. The Philippines today is the only predominantly Christian country in Asia.


The Philippines gained independence from the United States on July 4 1946.

By the 1870s, Filipinos were pushing for greater autonomy from Spain, but it wasn't until the Spanish-American War at the end of the century that the Philippines set a true course to independence. The United States took the islands from Spain during the war in 1898 and went on to fight Filipino revolutionaries demanding full independence for the next two decades. Quelling the Philippine insurrection cost the U.S. far more in lives and money than fighting the Spanish-American War.

During World War II, the islands were invaded by the Japanese and gained full independence from the U.S. on July 4 1946, when Manuel A. Roxas y Acuna was elected the country's first president.

The Marcos Years
Philippine post-independence was largely defined by the reign of Ferdinand Marcos, who was elected to the presidential palace in 1965. Regarded at first as the great modernizer, he instigated large public works projects and encouraged economic and judicial reforms. He also developed stronger international ties and brought a level of peace and prosperity to the country. During the Vietnam War in the 1960s, Marcos was a key U.S. ally, and the Philippines became a strategic base for the U.S. military.

By the time Marcos was ousted by a peoples' uprising in 1986, his presidency had become overshadowed by corruption, human rights abuses, embezzlement on a spectacular scale and nearly a decade of martial law, tightly controlled by Marcos to maintain his power.

The turning point in his 20-year rule came in 1983, after popular opposition leader Benigno Aquino was assassinated at Manila airport after returning from a long spell in exile. Public dissaffection with the corrupt regime grew, and by 1986 snap elections were called in which Marcos claimed 21 million of the 23 million votes cast. International observers, including delegates from the United States, denounced the elections as fraudulent and the U.S. government began to pressure Marcos to step down. A peaceful transition was soon brokered and Marcos and his wife Imelda were offered exile in Hawaii. (Until that time, the U.S. had thrown its support behind Marcos as a buffer against the spread of communism in the region). The former president died in Hawaii of kidney failure in 1989, with Mrs. Marcos at his side.

Philippines Map

The Philippines and neighboring countries.

Since his death, the Marcos family has tried to put a positive spin on the dictator's tarnished image by publishing a number of books recasting his authoritarian rule.

Among a litany of abuses, Marcos and his flamboyant wife were accused of siphoning an estimated $10 billion into overseas bank accounts. In her role as First Lady, Mrs. Marcos became a media spectacle with her extravagant shopping sprees and opulent lifestyle. Her final legacy may well be her infamous love of shoes. Today, at 78, she is still revered among some in the Philippines and since the death of her husband has unsuccessfully run for president twice.

Corazon Aquino, widow of the assassinated opposition leader, took over the presidency in February 1986 and promised to restore national confidence and reinvigorate the economy. But she inherited a weak and divisive government and the poisoned political atmosphere made it almost impossible to bring about fundamental reforms.

In September 1992, the U.S. Navy pulled out of the base in Subic Bay marking the end of a long military presence in the Philippines.

More Trouble at the Top
A peoples' revolt brought down a second presidency in 2001, when Joseph Estrada fell amid claims that he had plundered the economy for personal gain. The former movie actor and political novice had risen to power on a platform of improving the lives of the poor and cracking down on crime, but Filipinos soon grew tired of his corruption, mistresses, drinking and gambling kickbacks. Two years into office, Estrada was facing impeachment in the Philippine Senate.


The crowded capital of Manila is home to more than 10 percent of the country's population.

Current president Gloria Arroyo, now serving her second term, has also experienced a rocky tenure, surviving several coup attempts and two calls for impeachment since taking office in early 2001. She has drawn international criticism for human rights abuses and political killings under her watch and scandal has dogged her office.

For much of the post-independence era, the Philippines has been wrestling with violent unrest among Muslims groups in Mindanao fighting to establish a separate Islamic state in the south. The Philippine military, with U.S. support, has also been battling Islamic extremism rooted in the country and identified as part of a larger terror network with links to al Qaeda. One of the groups, Abu Sayyaf, has claimed responsibility for multiple attacks on foreigners in the south and rendered parts of the region dangerous to visitors.

Growth and Prosperity
Shortly after the Second World War, the Philippines boasted one of the strongest economies in Asia, but those halcyon days of prosperity have never been matched. In recent years, though, under Arroyo, the Philippine economy has experienced its healthiest growth since the 1970s. In the first quarter of 2007, it increased by nearly 7 percent; yet, overall the country remains extremely poor. Nearly half of its 87 million people still live on US$2 a day, and 10 percent of the population has found work abroad, sending home close to $13 billion in remittances in 2006.

Environmental Impact


Marine scientists working in the Philippines have described the region as the marine equivalent of the Amazon.

According to the environmental group Rainforest Concern, the Philippines has lost one-third of its forest cover since 1990 due to poorly regulated logging practices. It's an environmental concern that echoes across Southeast Asia, where rainforests are rapidly disappearing.

The Philippines is also part of an important marine biosphere known as the "Coral Triangle" and includes Malaysia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Marine scientists working in the area have referred to this ocean corridor as the marine equivalent of the Amazon. In November 2006, after the oil spill at Guimaras Island, Arroyo signed an executive order to create new conservation policies to protect marine areas increasingly under threat from over fishing and unlawful fishing practices, including trawling and the use of cyanide to harvest coral reefs. Conservationists regard the Philippines as one of the richest biological regions in the world and one of the most threatened.

Sources: U.S. State Department, Asian Development Bank, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune, Guardian Unlimited, BBC, Columbia Encyclopedia Sixth Edition, Conservation International.

Related Links

The Association of Southeast Asian Countries (ASEAN)
In January 2007, the Philippines hosted the 12th annual ASEAN summit in Ceru. ASEAN was established in Bangkok in 1967 to help promote trade and political stability between countries in Southeast Asia. The Web site publishes news and development information from across the region on a wide range of issues, including agriculture, security, tourism, technology, and poverty eradication. The combined population of ASEAN member countries is 558 million, and in 2005 the combined total domestic product was close to US$ 1 trillion.

'New Leak' Deepens Philippine Oil-Spill Crisis
This report from New Scientist details the impact of the initial oil spill in the central Philippine island of Guimaras and actions taken by Petron Corporation to curtail even greater leakage from the tanker, which sank in waters 600 meters deep.

Global Nation
The Philippine news portal reports on compensation claims as a result of the oil spill. Damages are still being negotiated between claimants and the board of the International Oil Pollution Compensation Funds (IOPC), the international body that indemnifies companies against oil spills around the world.

UPV Oil Spill Program
This comprehensive blog offers a full timeline of events and actions following the largest oil spill in Philippine history.

USAID Philippines
There is a long history of trade and cultural ties between the United States and the Philippines. Many of those ties are fostered through USAID Philippines. The program's Web site outlines five main strategic goals of the alliance through 2009 and provides links to government agencies and general information about the country.

From Our Files

Philippines: The Coconut Cure
During his reporting trip to the Philippines, FRONTLINE/World and PRI The World reporter Jason Margolis also wrote about the country's use of the humble coconut to make biofuel. Listen to his corresponding radio report.

The Philippines: "Stop the Killings"
This February 2007 dispatch from International Herald Tribune reporter Carlos H. Conte looks at the increasing number of political killings and intimidation of leftist labor groups. Conte writes, "Philippine human-rights groups say the series of killings under President Arroyo is the worst since the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos."

Philippines: Island Under Siege
FRONTLINE/World correspondent and Filipino reporter Orlando de Guzman traveled to Mindanao in 2003 to report on Muslim rebels fighting a guerrilla war against the Philippine government. The same year, the United States sent 3,000 soldiers to Mindanao, the southernmost region of the Philippines.

Spain: The Lawless Sea
When an aging oil tanker sank off the coast of Spain in November 2002, it caused one of Europe's worst environmental disasters. FRONTLINE/World reporter Mark Schapiro investigates what went wrong with the Prestige and uncovers a largely unregulated maritime system that offers few safeguards against environmental disasters.

--Jackie Bennion