By Juan L. Mercado

“HERE WE go again,” Edgar  Labella said on hearing reports that  826 were missing after  “Princess of the Stars” ferry turned belly up from pummeling by Typhoon “Frank.”

This groan stems from this Cebu City councilor’s trauma: he survived 38 hours in stormy seas when “MV Princess of the Orient” floundered in an October 1998 typhoon. “I saw to it that my wife got on a life raft,” Labella recalls today. But before scrambling on, “I was thrown away by a big wave.”

Labella’s personal advocacy now is to distill lessons from past tragedies. In 21 years, four Sulpicio ships sank:  MV Doña Paz (4,000 deaths); MV Doña Marlyn (250 deaths); MV Princess of the Orient (150 deaths) and now Princess of the Stars. The death toll is not final.

“Bodies, bodies floating everywhere” Inquirer titled its report four days after the sinking. A Coast Guard and US Navy P-3 Orion plane spotted corpses – some in life vests – bobbing in waters off Quezon, Masbate and Camarines Sur, Sibuyan and Burias.

“Force majure?” asked an Inquirer editorial “Looks like force of habit to us…The real tragedy is: Each one was avoidable”.

Thus, Labella campaigns for reforms – from guidelines for sailing to better weather forecasting equipment.  “Haven’t we learned from past tragedies?” he plaintively asks…

Apparently not. “That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all lessons that history has to teach”, Aldous Huxley once wrote.

You doubt Huxley’s point?  Look beyond tragedies, in shipping, to festering issues throughout society: from government reforms, media  and  to ecosystems under increasing stress.. .

“The Senate probed at least seven sea tragedies in the last 20 years,” notes ABS-CBN Newsbreak.  All it produced was an appeal to speed up victim compensation. This was archived.”  Now, another congressional hearing is proposed. The mountain will again labor. Again, it will produce a mouse.

“We experienced powerlessness,” ABS-CBN’s Maria Ressa said on the “Media In Focus” program.  Award-winning Che-che Lazaro probed the question:  What did the press learn from the Sulu kidnapping for ransom of  broardcast journalist Ces  Drilon and her team.

A “protocol” is forthcoming that should guide journalists who cover stories in lawless areas. That would take into account the kidnapping and murder of Oblate and Claretian priests as well as foreigners like Gracia Burnham. Hopefully, lessons learned will prevent a re-run of this snatch.

But “there does not seem to be a common perception as to what lessons were learned” from degradation of the past decades, notes the just published book: Forest Faces – Hopes and Regrets in Philippine Forestry.  “Memories that do not feed vision are but a lost future.”

Indeed, some recall that forests once covered 94 percent of this country. We’ve ravaged that down to less than 18 percent. And that continues to shrink since illegal logging persists, as in Surigao or the Cordilleras.

Greed is one reason. With connivance of corrupt officials, loggers turned much of the country into sterile cogon land.  But are we also a people of truncated memories?

Who recalls now the over 10,000 victims of floods from Ormoc’ denuded hills? Or the killer floods of Aurora and Quezon in December 2004? And rampaging rivers in Iloilo this month?

“There was no time to run,” a Quezon evacuee explained. “Drop a coin. And as you pick it up, water swirls around you. Dead people, bloated animals, huge logs everywhere.” And there were mass graves – which  we see  today..

“A songwriter, Danny kissed the body of his four year old daughter Casai, before burying her in a mass grave,” Inquirer’s “Viewpoint”   noted.. “He might try to capture this tragedy in song. He said he’d try.”

There are no regrets in life, only lessons, we’re told.  So, were wrong lessons taught?  Filipinos invented, in the 1960s, the squirting of cyanide into reefs to stun fish, UN Environment Programme notes.  Marine poisoning spread to Asean countries, then leapfrogged to the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea.

Today, only four percent of our reefs – “rainforests of the sea” – remain in pristine condition, “Inventory of Coral Resources” reveals.  Degraded reefs in Panay Gulf and   Bohol Sea yield only four to five metric tons of marine products per square kilometer yearly – compared to its original potential: 15 metric tons.

Our biologically dying rivers and thinning wild life reflect the axiom that “great evils brutally enforce ignored lessons.”  Today, 56 of the country’s 530 bird species are threatened with extinction. In  a shrinking North Negros forest reserve, a fifth of trees would not regenerate if  seed-scattering birds continue to be hunted down, a University of  British Columbia study estimates.

This is equally true of the most basic commodity for survival: water. Cebu City, for example, “borrows against tomorrow”. It pumps out twice what its narrow small aquifers can recharge. This “ecological overdraft” is aggravated by “policy black holes”: denial that a problem even exists.

So, are we are a country that “acts as if life is a dress rehearsal?  We shashay to noon time tv soap operas and indulge in partisan exercises. These sedate us from a history of repeated tragedies while we skid into the poorhouse.

“We spend more on a ‘fiesta culture’ (that makes it difficult) to grow beyond memories,” Peter Walpole of Environmental Science for Social Change at Ateneo writes. “Yet, we must generate new realities that can provoke responsibility.” (E-mail: juan_mercado@prime.net.ph )