… the “yolandas” before YOLANDA: a journeyman’s account

Today is November 8, 2014.  Millions of Filipinos and the world remember today as the day Yolanda devastated most parts of the Visayas in the Philippines exactly a year ago.  It was billed as one of the strongest storms to hit the planet.  Most of us are still haunted by the gruesome images of thousands of dead and morbid tales of the missing who are still unaccounted until this day.  We never witnessed in our lifetime such loss of lives and properties of unimaginable magnitude.  The immediate days that followed the event of Yolanda had us witnessing thousands of our own reduced to begging for decent meals and other basic needs.

A year later, what do we want to remember?  We could have selective memories.  Yet it is equally true that we can easily forget.  I journeyed for a year with the survivors and affected communities, and I am right now flooded and overwhelmed by what I remember.  But for now, there are only some things I want to remember more, preferably those that could generate positive thoughts that feed a hopeful spirit.

What Yolanda failed to destroy (photo by TM Malones)

What Yolanda failed to destroy (photo by TM Malones)

What stood out were the pronouncements of the islanders of Naborot, San Dionisio a few days after Yolanda destroyed everything in their tiny island except for the Day Care Center that served as their evacuation site.  When askedwhat else Yolanda failed to destroy, they told us that amidst the ruins, they still have their lives and families, their sense of hope, their dreams, their inborn resiliency, their faith in God and in each other, and their sense of community.  We knew then that the work of rebuilding would be not as difficult if we started with what Yolanda failed to destroy rather than what they lost.   And as we moved from Naborot Island to other affected communities, the likes of Delsa, Pekto, Fred, and Ruben from Naborot, we have encountered too, in the lowlands and uplands of Lemery, Estancia and Barotac Viejo.

A year later, what do we see now?  Most of the damaged houses are either repaired or reconstructed with the help of local and international NGOs, private corporations and generous individuals.  But there are young students still holding classes in tents as some public school classrooms are still unrepaired.  Meanwhile, the more affluent quickly recovered as expected.  But the two poorest sectors in the country, the fisherfolks and farmers, who ironically are the ones responsible for bringing food in our tables, are finding it hard to rebuild their lives and livelihood – despite all the help.  We have decided from the start that we partner with these two poorest sectors with the intention to reach out to the most disadvantaged.

A year after, should we not just ask what we remember but ask too what we learned?  Or what we have unlearned as well?  Or what have we understood better?

For a year now, I feel blessed that we in REBUILD Project, have journeyed with the communities we assisted.  With our modest means and logistics, we are one of the very few of hundreds of organizations that initially responded in Northern Iloilo who stayed.  Had we not stayed, we would not have understood better why the poor are still impoverished – despite all the help.

We slept at the island many times.  We walked through the lowlands and uplands.  We ate with them.  We listened to their stories.  Immersed as we are in their midst, we definitely understand better now.And we could help them help themselves better if we understand better.  Why the poor fisherfolks and small farmers are struggling?  Because they have been struggling with the many “yolandas” all their lives long before YOLANDA happened last November 8, 2013.  These are the permanent, daily storms they have to weather not because they create them by choice but imposed upon them by unjust economic structures and corrupted governance.  These are underlying factors why they are poor which are largely unseen to most of us.  They were poor long before Yolanda, they just got poorer after Yolanda.

Delsa, after a hard day's fishing brings home a scant catch just enough for one meal. (photo by TM Malones)

Delsa, after a hard day’s fishing brings home a scant catch just enough for one meal. (photo by TM Malones)

If we left as soon as we felt we’ve done our part, as early as February 15, 2014, exactly 100 days after Yolanda, after we facilitated the rebuilding of fishing boats of Naborot’s fishers, we would have simply thought that they are well on their way to full recovery and felt good about it.  But despite all the fishers going back to the sea, there was hunger in the island at the onset of hot summer by April.  Delsa would come back from a hard day’s fishing with just barely enough catch to cover the fuel costs.  In one of these days I made an unannounced visit to the island and I saw for myself on that day, despite the seas around them, their viand was sweetened coconut.  This I learned that this has been a yearly occurrence during hot spells.  While climate change is still debated whether real or not, the fisherfolks suffer from their effects from April to June every year.  There are weeks too from August to October when winds are too strong that they could not fish.  But throughout the year, their catch has been consistently declining.  They confirmed that resource depletion caused by illegal and destructive fishing has been unregulated for decades now.  Across from the island is Bgy. Odiongan which hosts close to a hundred trawl fishing boats, one of the most destructive fishing methodologies and some of these owned by incumbent politicians.  “Farther”, “longer”, “fewer”…we’ve always heard these from the fisherfolks…that they now have to go “farther” to fish, spend “longer” time to fish, yet with “fewer” catch.  The big, commercial illegal fishers, unregulated by government, have been depleting their fishery resource base more than a decade before Yolanda.

When we went to the lowlands and uplands of San Dionisio, Estancia, Lemery and Barotac Viejo, environmental damages and consequent resource loss have been piling up since the 70s up to the present, escalating during the last decade with the massive conversion of upland areas into corn plantations.  The communities of Barangays Malbog and DaanBanwa in Estancia, Barangays Dalipe, Nasapahan, Cabantohan and Nagsulang in Lemery, and Barangay La Fortuna in Barotac Viejo have spoken.

Barangay Chairman WilfredoApundarconfirming the massive conversion of their upland areas into corn plantation. Light blue areas in the 3D Map used to be forest cover but are now corn plantations.

Barangay Chairman WilfredoApundarconfirming the massive conversion of their upland areas into corn plantation. Light blue areas in the 3D Map used to be forest cover but are now corn plantations.

The 3-Dimensional maps which they themselves constructed showed the rapid loss of their forest cover that now has corn plantations operated by big financiers and some local politicians.  The massive use of herbicides, pesticides and other chemicals loosened up the top soil and landslides and flash floods have been reported already destroying their crops and properties in their lowlands while contaminating their waterways.  Clean rivers and creeks, and even some waterfalls, teeming with inland fishery resource are all gone now, while wild animals are nearing a total extinction.  The elders of each of these communities testified to the accuracy of this trend which appears to be irreversible unfortunately.  Time will come, as in the communities of Makilala, Cotabato, that these big financiers will just leave these sites once they are totally poisoned by all the hazardous chemicals turning over to the host communities a useless land unfit for any crop.  These few sites we have mentioned represent the entire landscape of Northern Iloiloand if not addressed decisively by government and communities, would be another Yolanda in the making.

While government pushed for increased corn production, it failed to regulate its expansion to spare the slopes and uplands.  And just recently, government aggressively pushed for farm mechanization without introducing a parallel program to address those who will be displaced.  The last palay harvests in Northern Iloilo were already done by mechanical harvesters, displacing thousands of small farmers and depriving them of their reserve rice for the next months.  The poor farmers will get poorer definitely.  Do we still wonder why the poor gets poorer and the rich just gets richer?

But these communities are more hopeful than resigned.  We are strengthened by the resolve of their respective barangay local governments to stand by their constituents.  They joined officially the Participatory Vulnerability Mapping, starting with the construction of their 3D maps, and more importantly the community processing using the 3D map as their reference.   Soon, their findings and recommendations will find their way into the formal policy formulation of their local government and they will not anymore stay at the sidelines while their immediate environment is ravaged by greed, and flawed policy environment and regulation.

These are the reasons why we did not hold any activity to highlight the first year anniversary of Yolanda for the simple reason that while Yolanda, with all its might and fury, was at best spectacular and overwhelming.  But Yolanda did not render the poor poorer overnight last November 8, 2013 by its single massive stroke…the small farmers and fisherfolks have been struggling with the cruelties of many “yolandas” imposed upon them by big business who leverage their financial capital and political connections as they act like economic gods in the rural areas and tolerated by unresponsive government, both national and local.  Yolanda lashed them for a day but these communities have been slowly dying long before November 2013.

With the smallness of what we could offer our partner communities…it is still our presence and journeying in faith that we could best work with them.  We still believe that it is only in rebuilding their sense of community that they could smash the many ”yolandas” hounding them everyday and finally break free from the clutches of poverty.  We have witnessed some glimpses of what they can positively do as a community and we are here to stay to see more spring times to happen in the coastal, lowland and upland sites of Northern Iloilo. They now have small plans as a community and we are committed to walk with them.Small steps will lead to big leaps in God’s time.