Farmers, fishermen still struggling 9 months after Yolanda

Having visited Bantayan Island on the first week of December 2013 along with other Oxfam ambassadors and spending Christmas in Tacloban City last year, I saw that while there remains a sense of determination among the survivors to move on, a lot is needed to help them get back on their own feet.

It is not difficult to agree to the ringing importance of rehabilitation, but for those living in the coastal areas, what good should they look forward to? There has been a swelling insecurity in terms of where they will live next since the typhoon swept their homes. So much more now, as their areas have been branded by the government as “no build zones."

As for farmer-tenants who don’t even own the land they work on, they continue to be uncertain about what the future holds for them, anxious how they will be able to fully recover their livelihoods fast enough before the next typhoon hits.

Recovering livelihoods and a clear relocation plan   

Coconut farmers worry about the remaining trees because of pest infestation. There are no lumber-transport machines to move fallen coconut trees and hasten the replanting of coconuts and other crops.

Boats have been destroyed. Fisherfolk who have been given boats by the government and international non-government organizations (NGOs) say that fish catch is low; there is not enough to consume, much less to sell.

Even the seas need to recover, as reefs and seagrass beds have been destroyed or covered by debris brought back by the storm surge. Even before Yolanda happened, this part of Leyte Gulf, had already been declared as overfished.  

Coconut is the country’s second most profitable natural resource. Fish is a major source of protein for most Filipinos. The government should consult coconut farmers and fishers on what the government can do to lift them up. For example, many of them continue to live in tents and refuse to be relocated to areas where they will have no livelihood opportunities.

Local municipal governments should empower people to make informed choices about relocation. Many of them do not even know of their Right to Relocation.

The national government, for its part, should release national guidelines on safe, unsafe and no-dwelling zones. There is a need for an integrated system of relocation planning that includes livelihood options, as well as rebuilding safe evacuation centers. Policy direction is crucial for rebuilding the lives of the poor.

For example, it would be interesting to look into permaculture, or the development of self-sufficient and sustainable agricultural ecosystems.

Coastal areas will always be more prone to disasters, so we need to make homes  in those areas safer and more resilient. Most of these environmentally sustainable homes are a whole lot more cost-efficient, some are easy to dismantle that in a matter of two hours you can move to a safer place. The funds earmarked by the government for rehabilitation and reconstruction are enough to cover for this.

Trauma after the storm

Though it may be getting better in some areas, the work is far from over. The psychological well-being of those struck by disaster should be kept in mind.

Last year, a group of Waldorf trauma specialists held workshops in Manila and affected areas to help the youth of Tacloban, Cebu and Samar make sense of it what had happened. According to their studies, the first 3-6 weeks after a devastating experience can “freeze” the trauma permanently and therefore, must be treated as soon as possible through psycho-social post-trauma exercises for both hemispheres of the brain.

I learned from the workshops that with proper treatment and mental care, survivors of disasters cope and adjust better. They are more prepared to face the next disaster. They’ll know what to do before a potentially destructive extreme weather event, and know what to do after.

A call for resilience

The experience of survivors of Yolanda resonates with me. When Ondoy struck my home in 2009, I was also left helpless in many ways. Fortunately, I live in the city and I have the means to bounce back from a disaster.

I cannot help but feel that poor farmers and fishermen who have nothing would struggle far harder than me, and would probably remain vulnerable all their lives.

It took me years to get over the trauma of Ondoy. After Ondoy, it took most of us – my neighbours and my family – over a year to thoroughly clean the house, to pick up the pieces. It wasn’t an overnight process. Imagine how long it will take for people who have much less, to recover.

Some say that people create their own destiny but those who were born in extreme poverty have few opportunities to change the course of their lives. This is the part where we might need to speak up on their behalf. We should do our part to help communities build back better and to help open up opportunities for them.

The maps of the fault lines in and around Manila that are going around online are worrisome. But unlike a typhoon, an earthquake cannot be predicted. Hence, there is more compelling reason to prepare, and for disaster coordination to be strengthened on a national level.  

A lot of positive examples, models, new knowledge and new ways of doing things have already been generated by our scientists, architects, engineers, artists and even by our local communities – farmers, fishers, indigenous peoples alike – to prepare for and adapt to disaster.

We are a resilient people, able to adapt to any circumstance. We should be able to use these innovations and knowledge now to face the challenges together, collectively as a country, before it is too late. – Rappler.com

Armi Millare is the lead singer and songwriter of the band Up Dharma Down. She is a celebrity ambassador of Oxfam in the Philippines, an international humanitarian aid group working to strengthen poor Filipino farmers’ and fishers’ resilience to disasters and climate change.