In July, I had the opportunity travel to the Philippines with the Kapit Bisig Kabataan Network (KBKN), a national Filipino-American youth and student led relief network created in response to the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan back in 2013. Travelling through Central Luzon, Eastern Visayas, and Sultan Kudarat in Mindanao, I, alongside 18 other delegates, integrated with fisherfolk, peasant, and indigenous communities, soon discovering that the struggles each faced did not stem solely from natural disaster, but from ongoing man-made disasters, struggles made larger from government inadequacies, corruption, and military aggression. Below are just a few snippets and highlights from each leg of our trip, which I thought impacted me most. Of course, there is much more to share, but I hope this at least gives you at least a glimpse of life there, the struggles, the perseverance of the people, and imperative that calls us to stand in solidarity with our kababayan back home.
Barangay Lomboy, Sitio Pagatpat
Sitio Pagatpat in the western shore of Central Luzon. Seen above are disfigured seaweed that has washed ashore as a result of illegal dumping of nickel-rich dirt by large invasive mining corporations in Zambales.
For each night during our time in Central Luzon, KBKN immersed with a different community, learning and exposing ourselves to a diversity of vibrant communities, but also a diversity common problems. At first glance, the picture above seems like it’s from a beachside paradise, but look closer and you’ll find soggy seaweed scattered throughout the Pagatpat community, a fisherfolk village whose economy depends mainly on deep sea and spear fishing. Unlike regular seaweed that washes ashore, this one sticks to the sand, is physical manifestation of negative outcomes produced from exploitative, invasive, open mining practices. Essentially, nearby open mining companies have dumped excess, nickel-ridden dirt into the ocean, disrupting the fish supply, discoloring the water and disrupting a way of life these people have lived for decades. Although protests have delayed operations to an extent, the village continues to be subject to subpar fishing conditions, lowering yields, lowering income, and creating a cycle of poverty that worsens their situation. Nearby, other peasant communities have claimed that negative effects of recent typhoons have been exacerbated by mining corporations, killing of freshwater tilapia in the streams and damaging crops.
Despite these ailments, progress is being made. Just one week after our visit to Pagatpat, the newly appointed secretary for the Department of Energy and Natural Resources shutdown 4 mining operations, which involved invasive open mining practices. One of which, the Zambales Diversified Metals Corporation, was visited by KBKN delegates. Still, countless other large-scale mining efforts continue to threaten communities up and down the Philippines and the shutdown of 4 operations, although a good first step, needs to be bolstered with stricter regulation, closer government monitoring, and a larger vision for a mining-free Philippines.
Municipal Marabut, Barangay Caluwayan
The fisherfolk community of Caluwayan with boats being prepared for fishing. To the right, just steps from the village lies the Caluwayan Palm Island resort, which will not be subject to a 40 meter No Build Zone that is being implemented for the Caluwayan community.
In the Eastern Visayas region, we spent the first couple days in Tacloban, one of the hardest hit municipalities in the Philippines affected by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. Although the damage was devastating and rebuilding efforts appeared on first glance to be complete, the tragedy of 2013 was not isolated to Tacloban alone. All along the eastern edge of Samar, farm-based and fisherfolk communities faced devastation as well. One such fisherfolk village was in Barangay Caluwayan in the municipality of Marabut just to the east of Tacloban. Here, evidence of the damage created by Typhoons Haiyan (2013) and Ruby (2014) was still apparent, but fortunately, local and international development and aid agencies had assisted in building new temporary housing for the community.
With the guidance and local expertise of the Leyte Center for Development, we were able integrate with fisherfolk and community members from Caluwayan who have sustained their livelihoods there for so long despite increasing occurrences of natural disasters. But while their livelihoods as fisherfolk seems stable and settled at that moment, they knew they would all eventually have to leave. Their housing was indeed temporary and all knew the day would come when officials would come with bulldozers and eviction notices to kick them out. Although government-sponsored permanent housing settlements were being constructed, their completion dates were being pushed back, leaving fisherfolk communities in limbo. And though this subsidize housing option would provide some sort of semblance government assistance, the fact is that these communities would be displaced. Because of Article 51 of the Philippine Water Code, permanent settlements are not to be built within 40 meters of the seashore where there is dense forestry. But with the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan, the government (through DENR) decided to extend this to high-risk areas, including fisherfolk villages of Caluwayan. Yes, these communities that have resided on these seaside areas for decades would be forced to move out supposedly as a protective measure. Such a ‘well-intentioned’ policy has and will disrupt their longstanding ways of life, a livelihood that depends almost entirely on fishing. By displacing these families and moving them in inland settlements, the government may in fact be doing these people a disservice. And mind you, this policy does not affect commercial or development projects including resorts. Just steps from the fisherfolk community lies the Caluwayan Palm Island Resort, a lavish hotel and tourist hot spot, which is not affected by the 40 meter No Build Zone.
Sultan Kuradat, Barangay Kalamansig, Sitio Tinagdanan
During the flag raising ceremony outside of the recently constructed school which houses 11 Lumad schoolchildren and serves as the main education center for the children of Tinagdanan. Village leaders were being acknowledged during a gift exchange ceremony with the international solidarity mission delegates.
Perhaps the most strenuous and physically demanding leg of the trip, my time in the indigenous community of Tinagdanan, for me, was perhaps the most humbling. 12 hours by truck, 5 hours by dirt bike up a muddy mountain, and a hour hike down, we finally arrived to the Dulangan Manobo tribe, 4 representatives from KBKN and at least 25 more from international and local organizations also seeking an immersive learning experience. Besides Christian missionaries and the occasional health worker, we were the first international delegation with which the community of 100 or so had interacted. Although a school had been built just two months before we arrived to educate local and nearby Lumad children, much of the community had little education. Their only source of freshwater relied on a nearby river. And there existed no infrastructure for electricity nor plumbing, (Yes, no bathrooms!) But despite these conditions, which we might see as inconveniences, this was one of the strongest communities I had integrated with. And yes, for being so isolated from modern lifestyles, some aspects of their culture could be rendered to us as backward from a draconian justice system to everyday conduct that still exhibits patriarchal tendencies. But despite these characteristics that differ from what we traditionally find as customary and despite their struggles, the community exhibited an optimism and spirit that surpassed my expectations. Each member of the tribe was integral to the village’s functionality. Each held a smile and energy that kept the community alive.
However, soon, that spirit may be disrupted by an impending move that would bring one of the Philippines largest mining agencies, DMCI Mining Corporation (led by one of the Philippines’ richest businessmen, Martin Consunji), closer to the village. With open mining practices in the works, this invasive practice would absolutely damage the village’s water supply, forcing the village to relocate. It could mean more visits from paramilitary contracted by DMCI. It could mean displacement. It could mean illness and death for many community members. But with the support of local organizers and solidarity efforts among the various sister Dulangan Manobo tribes throughout the mountain regions of Sultan Kudarat, efforts are now in play to mobilize and stand up to such disruptions to their basic ways of life.
As Filipino Americans living in the states, there is only so much we can do to support our kababayan back home in the Philippines. But despite the struggles, no matter how small or large, there is still plenty of work that can and will be done. Together, we must stand, in solidarity with those who experienced travesty for disasters both natural and man-made. We cannot observe and assist with relief efforts without, too, acknowledging that long-standing, systemic and government ailments also contribute to the struggle of the Filipino. If there’s one thing I learned from identifying the common threads and sources of poverty and struggle among the 75% of Filipinos living peasant and fisherfolk livelihoods, it is that the effects of climate change, the recurring devastations, and the increase of occurrences and intensity of weather phenomenon, they are not the main culprits of the tragedy that ensues. Ailments in government and exploitative business practices worsen the effects of natural disaster. Only when we expose such ailments; push for better accountability, policy, and relief; and stand united can we realize full environmental justice for people of the Philippines. Let’s start now.