The Philippines

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The Philippines

  • Area: 115,800 sq mi (300,000 sq km) / World Rank: 72
  • Location: An archipelago in the Northern and Eastern Hemispheres, between the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean
  • Coordinates: 13°00′N, 122°00′E
  • Borders: No international boundaries
  • Coastline: 22,499 mi (36,289 km)
  • Territorial Seas: Determined by treaty and irregular in shape, extending up to 100 NM from shore in some locations
  • Highest Point: Mount Apo, 9,692 ft (2,954 m)
  • Lowest Point: Sea level
  • Longest Distances: 1,150 mi (1,851 km) SSE-NNW / 660 mi (1,062 km) ENE-WSW
  • Longest River: Agusan River, 240 mi (386 km)
  • Largest Lake: Laguna de Bay, 356 sq mi (922 sq km)
  • Natural Hazards: Earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides, typhoons, tsunamis, drought, floods
  • Population: 82,841,518 (2001 est.) / World Rank: 13
  • Capital City: Manila, on southeastern Luzon
  • Largest City: Manila, 1,673,000 (2000 est.)


The Philippine Archipelago contains about 7,100 islands (some no more than rocks), and extends over 1,000 mi (1,609 km) from north to south. Only 154 of these islands exceed 5 sq mi (13 sq km) in area. The two largest islands, Luzon in the north and Mindanao in the south, comprise about 65 percent of the total land area of the archipelago. Possession of the Spratly Islands, to the southwest of the archipelago, is contested by the Philippines, China, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

The very complex and volcanic origin of most of the islands is visible in their varied and rugged terrain. Mountain ranges divide the island surfaces into narrow coastal strips and shallow interior plains or valleys. The sea and mountain barriers have been constant factors shaping the historical, cultural, and demographic development of the nation.



All of the Philippine Islands are volcanic in origin, and as a result the country is very mountainous. The northern part of Luzon Island is extremely rugged. Luzon's highest peak, Mount Pulog, rises to 9,626 ft (2,934 m). The island has three mountain ranges that run roughly parallel in a north-south direction. A range in the east, the Sierra Madre, runs so close to the island's eastern shore that there is hardly any coastal lowland. The valley of the Cagayan River separates this eastern range from a large mountain complex to the west, the Cordillera Central. On the west, the Zambales Mountains extend southward and terminate at Manila Bay. Southeastern Luzon consists of a large convoluted peninsula which is a mountainous and volcanic area, containing the active 7,941 ft (2,420 m) Mount Mayon volcano.

The large island of Mindanao has five major mountain systems, some formed by volcanic action. The eastern edge of Mindanao is highly mountainous, including the Diuata Mountains, with several elevations above 6,000 ft (1,828 m), and the southeastern ranges, which reach a high point of 9,200 ft (2,804 m). In central Mindanao there is a broad mass of rugged mountain ranges, one of which bisects the island from north to south. This range contains 9,692 ft (2,954 m) Mount Apo, the highest peak in the country, overlooking Davao Gulf. The broad Cotabato Lowland separates these highlands and a southwestern coastal range.


The Philippine Islands are situated in a region of considerable geological instability. Most of the islands are located on the Eurasian Tectonic Plate, but a major fault line extends along the eastern part of the archipelago, the boundary with the Philippine Plate. The Philippines are part of the volcanic western Pacific "Ring of Fire," with 37 volcanoes, of which 18 are active. In 1991-92 Mount Pinatubo erupted, with 900 people killed. Its lahar mudslides were particularly destructive. Mount Mayon erupted in February 2000.


The central mountain complex of Mindanao extends into the northwest corner of the island, terminating in the Bukidnon-Lanao Plateau. At approximately 2,000 ft (609 m) in elevation, the plateau is interspersed with extinct volcanic peaks. On southeast Negros, the volcanic rock Tablas plateau rises 500 to 1,000 ft (152 to 305 m.)


Many of the Philippines's rivers have dug canyons through the mountains. Particularly deep canyons fissure the Bukidnon-Lanao Plateau of Mindanao. Pagsanjan Gorge National Park, 39 mi (63 km) southeast of Manila on Luzon, is a river gorge with 300 ft (91 m) high sides.

Hills and Badlands

The low Ragay Hills overlook Ragay Gulf on the Bicol Peninsula of southeastern Luzon. To the south on Samar the terrain is broken up by rocky hills, 500 to 1,000 ft (152 to 305) high. In central Bohol there is a 20 sq mi area known as the Chocolate Hills, with 1,268 mounds, each 164 to 656 ft (50 to 200 m) high, covered in grass which turns brown in the dry season. Their origin has not been determined but they are thought to be eroded coral limestone. There are also hill areas on Panay and nearby Guimaras, and on Masbate, Tablas, and Romblon.



On Luzon, southeast of Manila Bay and joined to it by the short Pasig River, is the largest lake in the Philippines, the freshwater Laguna de Bay, which at one time was probably an extension of Manila Bay. It has a water surface of 356 sq mi (922 sq km.) Surrounded by an urbanized region, the lake's water is contaminated by sewage and toxic waste. A few miles to the southwest of Laguna de Bay lies Lake Taal, which has an active volcano in its center that erupted in 1965. Other crater lakes are Lake Danao and Lake Balinsasayan in southeast Negros.

On Mindanao, atop the Bukidnon-Lanao Plateau, is Lake Sultan Alonto (formerly Lake Lanao), 134 sq mi (347 sq km) in area, the second largest lake in the country. The shallow Lake Buluan is in Mindanao south of the Plateau. The lowland of Mindoro contains Lake Naujan, one of the country's larger lakes, which has many fish and bird species.


For the most part the country's mountainous terrain causes drainage systems characterized by short, turbulent streams. The larger rivers are not navigable except for short distances. Most main streams and their tributaries are subject to extensive and damaging floods during the heavy rainfall of the monsoon seasons and typhoons. Urban sewage, livestock waste, mining runoff, and industrial chemicals pollute many rivers.

The Cagayan River drains the fertile Cagayan Valley of northern Luzon. It flows northward and empties into the sea at Aparri. This wild river is threatened with contamination as mining operations take over land from agriculture in the valley. The low-lying Central Luzon Plain is interlaced by a network of rivers and streams. Two of the plain's more important rivers are the Agno, which flows northward into Lingayen Gulf, and the Pampanga, which empties into Manila Bay. The short Pasig River flows through the city of Manila.

Two large rivers are found on Mindanao. The Agusan River, the longest in the country, flows northward through the Agusan Valley into the Bohol Sea. The Mindanao River and its tributaries drain the Cotabato Lowland, emptying into Moro Gulf.


The Central Luzon Plain is not much above sea level, and has extensive swamps along the north of Manila Bay and the Candaba Swamp. Mindanao's Davao-Agusan Trough, a lowland in the east, contains seasonally flooded areas. Other Mindanao wetlands include the Libungan and Libuasan marshes, in the central-southern part of the island where tributaries of the Rio Grande come together.

There are four "Wetlands of International Importance" in the Philippines, as designated under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. These are: Agusan Marsh Wildlife Sanctuary which includes rare swamp forest and peat forest; Olango Island Wildlife Sanctuary, a shorebird habitat; Naujan Lake National Park; and Tubbataha Reefs National Marine Park.


Oceans and Seas

Branches of the Pacific Ocean surround the Philippines, and its islands enclose between them many more. The east coast of the Philippines faces the open Pacific Ocean, where the Philippine Trough (Emden Deep) plunges to 34,219 ft (10,430 m). The northwest faces the South China Sea. The southwest surrounds the Sulu Sea on three sides. The Celebes (Sulawesi) Sea is in the south, between the island of Mindanao and the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. The Bohol Sea is to the north of Mindanao. The Visayan Sea is encircled by Panay, Masbate, Cebu, Negros, and other islands. The Sibuyan Sea meets southern Luzon and eastern Mindoro. The Camotes Sea lies between Cebu, Leyte, and Bohol. The Samar Sea is between Samar and Masbate. Leyte Gulf separates Leyte and Samar. The Philippines's biodiverse coral reefs are endangered by fishing (using dynamite and poisons), and sedimentation from deforestation.

There are countless narrows between the Philippine islands. Principal among them are the San Bernadino Strait and Verde Island Passage, which permit ocean travel across the northern part of the archipelago. The Surigao Strait allows travel between the Pacific and the Bohol Sea in the south. The Mindoro Strait lies between Mindoro and the Calamian Group of islands. A number of channels north of the country make up the Luzon Strait, separating that island from Taiwan.

Major Islands

The northernmost part of the Philippines, the Luzon region consists of Luzon Island, many much smaller adjacent islands, and the small island groups of Batan and Babuyan to the north. The largest of the Philippine islands, Luzon has an area of 40,420 sq mi (104,687 sq km), which is more than one third of the country's total area. In shape it resembles an upright rectangle with an irregular southeastern peninsula. The main part of the island is roughly 250 mi (402 km) in length and has a width generally between 75 and 100 mi (120 and 160 km).

Just south of Luzon lies Mindoro, with an area of 3,758 sq mi (9,733 sq km.) The island is largely mountainous and has high peaks rising above 8,000 ft (2,438 m). A coastal lowland lies to the east and northeast of the mountain zone.

Southwest of Mindoro is the Calamian Group of islands, with the long, narrow island of Palawan beyond them. It has a length of over 275 mi (442 km), a width varying from 5 to 30 mi (8 to 48 km), and an area of 4,500 sq mi (11,655 sq km). Narrow coastal strips border a ridge of rugged mountains that run its entire length. Over 1,100 smaller islands and islets surround Palawan.

The Visayan Islands are grouped in a roughly circular pattern around the Visayan Sea. They include seven large, populated islands that range in size from Masbate, which is 1,262 sq mi (3,268 sq km) in area, to Samar, 5,050 sq mi (13,079 sq km). The others are Bohol (1,492 sq mi, 3,865 sq km), Cebu (1,707 sq mi, 4,421 sq km), Leyte (2,785 sq mi, 7,213 sq km), Panay (4,446 sq mi, 11,515 sq km), and Negros (4,905 sq mi, 12,703 sq km). Including numerous islets, the Visayan group includes over half of the islands that make up the country. Samar and Leyte, the easternmost islands, act as a buffer for the other islands against the full force of typhoons originating from the Pacific Ocean. Samar's interior has rugged mountains, but elevations are generally below 1,000 ft (305 m). Leyte is separated from Samar by a narrow strait. A central mountain range divides Leyte. The long narrow island of Cebu is the site of the country's largest copper mine and also produces low-grade coal and limestone for cement. West of Cebu, Negros, and Panay are roughly similar in area, with lowland plains that permit intensive agriculture.

The Mindanao region consists of the island of Mindanao and numerous small offshore islands, including a mineral-rich group off the northeastern coast. Mindanao, the second largest of the Philippine Islands, has an area of 36,537 sq mi (94,630 sq km). In the east of the island, two mountain ranges are separated by the Agusan River. To the southwest of those ridges several rivers meet in the Cotabato Basin, and mountain peaks lead to the Bukidnon-Lanao Plateau. West of the Plateau, the island narrows to an isthmus ten miles wide, from which the long Zamboanga Peninsula protrudes to the southwest for some 170 mi (273 km.) The peninsula is covered largely with mountains and possesses limited coastal lowlands.

Southwest of the Zamboanga Peninsula of Mindanao is the Sulu Archipelago, a string of smaller islands of volcanic and coral origin protruding from a submarine ridge that joins Mindanao to the Malaysian state of Sabah, on the island of Borneo. A chain 200 mi (322 km) long, the Sulu Archipelago has over 800 islands. Its total area is about 1,600 sq mi (4,144 sq km.) Its three principal islands are Basilan, directly offshore from Zamboanga; Jolo; and Tawi-Tawi, near Sabah.

The Coast and Beaches

Among the Visayan Islands there are two large gulfs: Leyte in the southeast and Panay in the west. Luzon's western coast is indented by Lingayen Gulf; south of it the Bataan Peninsula extends around Manila Bay. The capital city of Manila is located on the bay's eastern shore. Tayabas Bay indents Luzon's southern coastline, with the Bondoc Peninsula between it and the Ragay Gulf. The southeastern extension of Luzon ends in the Sorsogon Peninsula. North of the peninsula on the east coast is Lamon Bay, then, moving further north, Dingalan Bay, and Escarpada Point. The mountains of the east, an extension of the Sierra Madre, drop off sharply to the Pacific Ocean and leave little accessible level terrain and no protective harbors against the heavy Pacific surf.

Mindanao's very irregular shape is characterized by a number of sizable gulfs and bays and several large peninsulas that give it an extremely long coastline. Mindanao's northernmost point is the Surigao Peninsula, with Butuan Bay to its west. Further southwest along the jagged coast, Iligan Bay makes a deep indentation, making a narrow isthmus, which connects the large Zamboanga Peninsula to the rest of Mindanao. Sibuguey and Baganian Peninsulas protrude from the south coast of the Zamboanga Peninsula on Moro Gulf, with Pagadian Bay on the south of the isthmus and Illana Bay continuing the southwest coast. Sarangani Bay indents the coast just above its southernmost part, Tinaca Point. North of that point is Davao Gulf, defined by Cape San Agustin. The jagged east coast continues north, with several river outlets.



The Philippines has a tropical maritime climate, with two seasons: November-April, when the northeast monsoon brings rain, and May-October, when the southwest monsoon brings cool, dry weather. The average temperature is 80°F (27°C) with a range between 73°-90°F (23° and 32°C). Humidity averages 77 percent.


The annual average rainfall varies from 38 to 106 in (96 to 406 cm). The northern islands are often heavily affected by seasonal typhoons. which cause destructive winds and flooding rains.


Wild imperata and saccharum grasslands are common throughout the islands. These areas of tall, thick grass may have originated in repeated burning of forests to clear land for agriculture and pastures, as well as from volcanic burning. A 1997 survey found 17 percent of the Philippines covered with grasslands. Efforts are being made to convert grasslands to plantations, or to reforest them. Savannahs, mixing grasslands and scrub woods, are found in Luzon's Cagayan Valley, and amid the hills of Mindoro, Negros, and Masbate, as well as on Panay, and on Mindanao's Bukidnon-Lanao Plateau.

Population Centers – Philippines
NamePopulation   NamePopulation
Quezon City2,173,831   Davao City1,147,116
Manila (capital) 1,581,082   Cebu City718,821
Caloocan City1,177,604   Zamboanga City601,794
SOURCE : "Total Population, Number of Households, Average Household Size, Population Growth Rate and Population Density by Region, Province, and Highly Urbanized City: as of May 1, 2000." Census 2000 Final Counts. National Statistics Office, Philippines.
Provinces – Philippines
NamePopulationArea (sq mi)Area (sq km)
Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao2,412,159----
Cagayan Valley2,813,15914,05536,403
Central Luzon8,030,9457,03918,231
Central Mindanao2,598,2108,99423,293
Central Visayas5,701,0645,77314,951
Cordillera Administrative Region1,365,220----
Eastern Visayas3,610,3558,27521,432
National Capital Region9,932,560246636
Northern Mindanao2,747,58510,93728,328
Southern Mindanao5,189,33512,23731,693
Southern Tagalog11,793,65518,11746,924
Western Mindanao3,091,2087,21418,685
Western Visayas6,208,7337,80820,223
SOURCE : "Total Population, Number of Households, Average Household Size, Population Growth Rate and Population Density by Region, Province, and Highly Urbanized City: as of May 1, 2000." Census 2000 Final Counts. National Statistics Office, Philippines.

Forests and Jungles

The forests of The Philippines have been reduced to just 3 percent cover, with approximately 2,702 sq mi (7,000 sq km) remaining. Most of that is secondary growth, and hardly any is pristine. Primary forest persists only in the mountains of Palawan, Mindoro, and Mindanao, and in the Sierra Madres of northeast Luzon. These last Philippine rainforests have an extraordinary level of biodiversity. Forests throughout the islands have been destroyed by illegal and legal logging, as well as by agricultural clearing.


The Philippines has high population density, with 660 people per sq mi (255 per sq km) and a high growth rate of 2.36 percent (2001). Migration to cities from rural areas has been an ongoing trend, with 59 percent of the population living in urban areas (2001 estimate), where overcrowding and stresses on infrastructure are constant problems.


The Philippines's greatest resources are agriculture in its rich volcanic soils and fish from the surrounding waters. It also has significant deposits of many minerals, including nickel, manganese, chromite, cobalt, silver, salt, gold, copper, limestone, and coal. Petroleum is present, with offshore deposits a source of maritime boundary disputes. Geothermal energy and hydropower are readily available due to the Philippines's geological activity and many fast-flowing streams.


Broad, Robin, and John Cavanagh. Plundering Paradise: the Struggle for the Environment in the Philippines. Berkeley CA: University of California Press, 1994.

Franca, Luis H. Eye of the Fish. New York: Kaya Press, 2001.

VolcanoWorld. Tectonics and Volcanoes of the Philippines. (Accessed April 27, 2002).

Wenzel, Eberhard. Philippines. (accessed April 27, 2002).

Wernstedt, Frederick. The Philippine Island World. Berkeley CA: University of California Press, 1967.


The mountain rice terraces of northern Luzon's Cordillera are a UNESCO World Heritage site. Built by the indigenous Ifugao people over the last two millennia, the terraces follow mountain contours over 3,281 ft (1,000 m) high, creating an agricultural landscape that is both productive and harmonious with nature.

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The Philippines

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