An image of the country's flag.

The Philippines consists of 7,107 islands covering 300,000 square kilometers (30 million hectares), including 298,170 square kilometers of land and 1,830 square kilometers of water. Land distribution is highly skewed, and much of the land is moderately or severely eroded. Despite various land reforms, the majority of rural people remain landless, and there is a swelling urban population living in informal settlements. While considerable swaths of lands have been redistributed, the most productive and fertile private agricultural lands remain with wealthy private landowners. Lack of access to land and natural resources by the majority of the population is a key cause of poverty, a driver of conflict and an obstacle to national development.

The Philippines is rich in natural resources. The country is one of the world‘s 17 mega-diversity countries, although a large number of species are threatened or endangered. Forests, however, cover no more than a quarter of the land area, less than half of the forest cover in 1917. The current annual deforestation rate is about 2.1%. Widespread logging is responsible for much of the forest loss and degradation. Additional threats come from mining operations, clearing of forests for agriculture and settlements, collection of fuelwood, and poor management by the government and tenured stakeholders. Over exploitation of forest resources and inappropriate land-use practices have disrupted the hydrological condition of watersheds, resulting in accelerated soil erosion, the silting of rivers and valuable reservoirs, increased incidence and severity of flooding, destruction of coastal mangroves, and decreasing water supply.

The Philippines has some of the most extensive water resources in the world, although water quality has been severely degraded. Pollution from human trash, commercial agricultural chemicals, animal wastes and industrial wastes has led to 50 biologically dead and dying river systems. Over-extraction of groundwater has caused water levels to decline, wells and springs to dry up, and saltwater intrusion in coastal areas. Leaching of industrial, agrochemical and animal wastes, and infiltration of subsurface discharges from septic systems and polluted urban runoffs have caused groundwater contamination.

The Philippines is one of the world‘s most highly mineralized countries. Mineral lands are mostly in upland areas which are also rich biodiversity areas. Mining often leads to deforestation and destruction of ecological systems, subsidence, sinking and subsequent displacement of communities. The spilling of mine wastes and tailings causes flooding, damages farm lands, and results in the biological death of rivers.


Unequal access to land and natural resources is a central issue that cuts across both the rural and urban sectors and has fueled ongoing insurgency in the Mindanao region and other areas. By law, natural resources are the property of the State, but in practice, many are under de facto open access utilization conditions. In the rural sector, the issue of land reform persists as the comprehensive agrarian reform program launched in 1988 is yet to be completed, more than 20 years later. In urban areas, lack of access to land and housing has resulted in the swelling of informal settlements or squatter colonies on State and private lands. Mindanao is marked by armed conflict since the 1960s caused by land and territorial disputes with Muslim communities:

  • Support greater access for marginalized people in conflict zones. The 1987 Constitution and recently enacted laws provide the legal framework for increased access and distributive justice through agrarian reform, urban land reform, recognition of indigenous peoples‘ customary ownership to ancestral lands, and creation of an autonomous region in Mindanao. The country‘s Medium Term Development Plan (which ends in 2010) includes key implementing programs on which the government has made some significant strides. These include a program for improved delivery of agrarian support services through an area-based clustering of farms approach; a program for State-sponsored microfinance for informal settlers; and ongoing peace talks with Muslim separatists in Mindanao. However, significant constraints remain, including: vested interests (e.g., large landowners and commercial developers) resisting genuine land reforms; government fiscal constraints; population pressure; and weak governance. A new Medium-Term Development Plan by the new administration will be rolled out in early 2011.
  • Improve water infrastructure. In the water and forestry sectors, overexploitation of resources has led to environmental degradation and resource scarcity, hampering efforts to reduce rural poverty. Pollution of river basins, over-extraction of groundwater, and inappropriate land-use practices result in decreasing water quality. Widespread logging and the conversion of forests to non-forest uses has vastly reduced forest cover from more than 50% in 1917 to about 24% at present; the Philippines has the second-highest rate of deforestation in Southeast Asia. The government has launched integrated approaches to manage water and forest resources, with USAID and other donors providing considerable assistance, but weak governance, a fragmented institutional structure, and budget gaps remain as key constraints.
  • National dialogue on mining. The minerals sector is at the forefront of national debate. On the one hand, the government is aggressively promoting large-scale mining and, on the other hand, a grass-roots movement led by the church and civil society is calling for a moratorium on large-scale mining. The government views mining as the engine for national development and poverty-alleviation, while the anti-mining movement protests the negative social and environmental impact of mining, especially industrial mining operations. A key issue is how to balance the various legitimate concerns.


The Philippines is an archipelago of 7,107 islands covering 300,000 square kilometers (30 million hectares) – 298,170 square kilometers of land and 1,830 square kilometers of water. Under the 1987 Constitution, all public domain lands and natural resources belong to the State. Public domain lands are classified into agricultural, forest or timber, mineral lands, and national parks; only public agricultural lands are alienable or may be subject of private ownership. The Constitution recognizes the rights of indigenous peoples to their customary ownership of ancestral lands and domains, and the right to self-determination of the Muslim minority, through the creation of an autonomous region in Mindanao. The Constitution is supported by a host of laws to secure and protect property rights.

The Philippines has implemented a series of programs to decentralize natural resources. The country has
been a pioneer in efforts to devolve control of rural development to farmers. Its participatory irrigation efforts in the 1970s, its early successes with community-based coastal resource management on Apo and Sumilon islands and its legislation on social and later community forestry provide models for much of Asia. The 1998 law on indigenous peoples‘ rights has given indigenous communities enormous powers to (re)claim territorial control (Gollin and Kho 2002).

Despite this legislation and various land reforms, however, the majority of rural people remain landless, and there is a swelling urban population living in informal settlements. Outdated land administration laws, an inefficient land administration and adjudication infrastructure, and a poor land information system have resulted in problems of fraudulent, overlapping and duplication of land titles and to widespread land-grabbing. They have also contributed to high transaction costs in securing, registering and transferring property rights, and to tenure insecurity. Inconsistent legislation and policy declarations have led to unsustainable land use and conflict over competing land uses. Unequal access to land and natural resources by poor people is a key driver of conflict and an obstacle to national development, fueling social unrest and armed uprisings. Indigenous peoples are marginalized and have been pushed out of their ancestral lands by the government for infrastructure projects, and by private farming interests and natural resource concession holders. Rural-to-urban migration and lack of access to land and housing by the poor has led to the swelling of squatter colonies or informal settlements in public and privately owned lands in urban and peri-urban areas.

The Philippines is rich in natural resources and is recognized as one of the world‘s 17 mega-biodiversity countries. The country also has extensive water resources, including 31,000 hectares of rivers and 200, 000 hectares of lakes. Fishing rights are granted by local governments, and water permits are required for use beyond domestic purposes. Water quality has degraded mainly due to pollution. Forests cover estimates range from 7.2 million hectares to 7.66 million hectares (24% to 26% of land area)1, of which about 1.8 million hectares (based on 26%) are designated for protection and conservation. Resource utilization is subject to State concession or licensing. Considerable land and many natural resources (e.g., waters, fisheries and forests) are under de facto open access regimes. The Philippines is highly mineralized, with an estimated over US $840 billion in untapped mineral wealth. Exploration and mining rights are subject to State license. The government promotes mining as a driver for economic growth.

Published / Updated: July 2017