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The Philippines consists of approximately 7,100 islands, although this number varies depending on whether  it is high or low tide. Two thousand are inhabited. The largest are Luzon, about 104,000 square kilometres, which contains the capital, Manila; Mindanao, of about 94,500 Km2, which includes the second city, Davao. Cebu is part   of a group of smaller islands known collectively as the Visayas.

The Philippines have been inhabited for thousands of years. Stone age settlements have been found in several places on the islands. It is generally thought that, during the last ice age, the lower sea levels resulted in a land bridge from mainland Asia. After that vanished about 7,000 years ago, there were various seaborne migrations of relatively small scale between the various islands and the mainland. The next cataclysmic event came with the arrival of Ferdinand Magellan (who, though Portugues by birth was working for Spain) in March 1521. He was promptly murdered by Lapu-Lapu, after whom a city is named, in a battle for the Philippine territory. In the end, `modern' technology won the day. The islands became a colony of Spain, who named it Filipinas after King Philip II of Spain. Despite a brief British occupation in the mid Eighteenth century, it remained Spanish until the late nineteenth century. Indeed there are still regions of the Philippines where (mostly older) people still speak Spanish.

Agitation for Philippine independence grew in the nineteenth century. Jose Rizal was born in 1861, and studied medicine, philosophy and literary science in Spain, France and Germany before returning to his homeland. While abroad he had published two inflammatory works, effectively calling for Philippine freedom from Spanish oppression. He founded a reform movement, upon which he was promptly arrested and exiled. But his ideas had taken root and eventually led to an uprising in 1896. He was executed by firing squad in December of that year. He is now revered as the Philippines' national hero.

In 1898 a war broke out between the USA and Spain. The Philippines, spotting an opportunity, sided with the US and helped them beat the Spanish at the Battle of Manila Bay. The Philippines thus attained independence, but relied heavily on the USA for protection.

The Japanese invaded the Philippines in January 1942. Their harsh rule lasted only two years, until they were ejected by General Mac Arthur on his promised `return'. Since then, the Philippines has been a stable democracy, though with some fairly colourful characters among the top politicians.

The climate is tropical, with temperatures broadly between 20 and 30 degrees all year round, though in the Northern highlands (Baguio) it can get as `cold' as 15 degrees. The climate is affected by the Pacific from the East and the Asian mainland from the West, leading to some substantial variation across the group of islands. The monsoon season is generally in December to May.

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Although most of the Philippines was covered by rich tropical forests, a large proportion of these have now been felled. They have been replaced by plantations of rice, pineapples, bananas and corn, along with many other types of tropical fruit. Only the more rugged and inaccessible places still retain much primary forest of genuine ecological value.
The sea is a similar sad story. Dynamite fishing and pollution have destroyed much of the coral, and its attendant rich diversity of fish. Even the tourist industry is destroying the very assets which might attract visitors, as the anchors of tourist boats tear up the coral, and nets to protect beaches scour the ocean floor. It is not too late for all to be lost, but these distressing trends need urgent reversal for this to become a reality.

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The Philippines is generally thought of as a poor, third world country. This is largely the fault of three factors: corruption, which places excessive power in the hands of very wealthy criminals and gangs; terrorism by separatists and other opportunist kidnapping gangs; and incompetence by politicians who seem to lack the will to grasp the problems firmly. If those three problems could be resolved, resolution of all the other problems of the Philippines would inevitably follow. Inward investment would provide jobs and increasing prosperity for millions of people; tourists would visit the islands, encouraging conservation efforts to attract them; and the strong rule of law would prevent the natural and human assets of these marvellous islands from being misused on more destruction.

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