Timeless economics

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The timeless lighthouse

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(This is a guest blog post from a former student.)

Economics and the Philippines’  Century Old Lighthouses

By Ross Harper Alonso

Over 50 brick lighthouses were built in the Philippines by the Spaniards in the 1800s. This was the time when trade served as the fundamental income generating business for Spanish colonists living in Manila and the Manila Acapulco Galleon Trade being the most lucrative. The lighthouses were needed to light the Spanish trading ship’s way. The Manila Galleon sailed the Pacific for nearly 3 centuries, bringing to Spain then cargoes of luxury goods, economic benefits and cultural exchange but there are no maritime records that say if the Filipinos cashed in on all this by imposing tolls, receiving rent or leasing the land where the lighthouses were built till the Galleon Trade ended in 1821 when the Spanish Crown took direct control of the Philippines. It is possible that this was the reason behind one of the many revolts, since all revolts were triggered by the repressive policies of the Spanish Colonial Government against the native Filipinos. This is all water under the bridge now since they left all their lighthouses behind for us to use when we gained our independence from them in 1898 anyway. Question is, “what did the Philippines do with them all these years?”  

                                                 When a Government Agency Fails

This paper aims to explore the kind of future our Century Old Lighthouses could have had if the Philippines considered some of the policies of the British Lighthouse System.

The Philippine Coast Guard is the oldest and the only humanitarian armed service of the country with functions earlier related principally to the protection of the customs service in safeguarding revenue collections and patrolling the coastline. Since 1901 they were in charge of the Lighthouse Service and their keepers. A Philippine lighthouse is an indispensable public service provided by government that Paul A. Samuelson talked about. Perhaps 115 years ago, lighthouses in the Philippines would not have survived if they were not solely government run but this arrangement should’ve changed 50 years ago.

Unlike the Philippines , the British Lighthouse System had authorities which build and maintain lighthouses. Trinity House, the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses and the Commissioners of Irish Lights. The expenses of these authorities are met out of the General Lighthouse Fund. The income of this Fund is derived from light dues, which are paid by ship-owners. The actual collection is made by the customs authorities at the ports. (Could have been our very own Coast Guard doing the collection here) The money obtained from the light dues is paid into the General Lighthouse Fund, which is under the control of the Department of Trade. The lighthouse authorities draw on the General Lighthouse Fund to meet their expenditures. The Fund is used to pay for the maintenance of colonial lighthouses and the support of retired lighthouse keepers, their widows and children.

An annual Lighthouse Conference was also held in London to discuss budgets and policies. Given the big role our lighthouses played in our history, one wonders why they were never included in the programs of National Historical Commission.

It is very unfortunate that not a single Philippine government official or economist took the time to study the history of the British Lighthouse system and pick out what we could have used to take care of our Century old lighthouses. This country not only lacks vision and the effort to study alternative institutional arrangements for operating our lighthouse services but also reverence for our past.

                                                        Johnny Come Late    

Lately the Philippine Coast Guard admitted they can no longer maintain our lighthouses. Most of the century old Spanish lighthouses are in ruins. Some partially restored. Three years ago the PCG launched the Adopt a Lighthouse Program, a partnership between the private sector and non-government organization to undertake restoration activities geared toward arresting the deterioration of lighthouses nationwide and preserve their historical significance. Like everything else in this country, the guidelines are vague. No one really knows who makes the final arrangements or the MOA. The PCG or the National Historical Institute?

Times have changed. Ships no longer need the lighthouses to help them navigate. Ships and most water vessels are equipped with high tech GPS now therefore lighthouses no longer serve their purpose but this doesn’t mean they’re totally useless. In fact a private organization can now make a fortune managing an old lighthouse. Bed and Breakfast? Small Inn? Renting it out to historians or honeymooners?

The Americans have been making good use of their old lighthouses. Tourists pay to join their heritage tours and bring home a souvenir. People pay Lighthouse foundations to live as lighthouse keepers for weeks and the money earned is used to maintain and restore their lighthouses. It’s really quite a simple operation. The Americans and other countries with historical sites figured out early that they’re cultural heritage is worth something.

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Written by Orlando Roncesvalles

March 21, 2009 at 9:30 PM