“The Aquino government should have asked what the survivors feel, what is their way of life, what they really need.”
By MARYA SALAMAT
MANILA – Lourdes Galano, 53, used to be a coconut farmer before typhoon Yolanda (international name Haiyan) struck. Now, her old coconut farm is a treacherous hill of eroded soil and rocks that slid down from the mountain. Most of her trees had been uprooted. The few that remained standing bear no more fruits. She now lives in Albuera, Leyte.
Considering the tragic news of nearly 10,000 killed around her, people may think she is lucky for having her family intact. Is she? A hundred days after the disaster, her family’s livelihood continue to be eroded, threatening their survival at times.
“We now have to rent a farm land; we plant it with corn, sweet potato and cassava,” she told Bulatlat.com, adding that they got the seeds not from the government but from NGOs in Caraga.
Root crops such as sweet potato and cassava are alternative food sources in Eastern Visayas, the third poorest region in the country. After Yolanda, with their major crops such as coconut, abaca and banana devastated almost completely, the people are going hungry because even their alternative sources of foodstuff such as rootcrops were totally damaged.
Struggling to find food and get by until harvest time, Galano said, she joined People Surge to demand for “real rehabilitation” from the government. One that would rehabilitate agriculture, for example.
“Farmers whose crops were totally damaged need financial support until they start harvesting,” said Filomeno Tabon-tabon, 40. His coconut trees in Samar were spared by the strong winds brought by Yolanda, but all the banana trees he planted in between his coconut trees were wiped out.
Tabon-tabon joined volunteers in clearing the roads of Tacloban the day after Yolanda lashed the area. Armed with chainsaws and mallets, they cut through fallen trees and concrete to clear the road. On his very first day, he and his fellow workers saw, amid fallen trees, logs, concrete and other debris, the body of a woman still protectively clutching in her arms the bodies of her two children.
“We stopped for a while. We could not touch or move them,” Tabon-tabon said. Somebody else finally found the courage to do that later. Tabon-tabon went back to Samar and joined the volunteers in clearing their roads. He said he did not come back to Tacloban City until two months later.
He said the plight today of many farmers in Eastern Visayas have worsened as they continue to slide down into becoming tenant-farmers or desperate farmworkers. With their houses destroyed, their farm animals and crops dead, they find it most difficult to restart their livelihood and revive the region’s damaged agriculture. Worse, they said, the government’s response seems to have delayed if not actually denied them the relief goods that poured from the more sympathetic international community.
Further causing misery
“The people need more than relief operations that, of course, will not last forever,” said the Benedictine nun Edita Eslopor, chairperson of People Surge, an alliance of survivors of Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan). This, even as they reported that little to no relief goods have reached the majority of Typhoon Yolanda’s victims who are living in rural areas. Eslopor said donor agencies, the media and the government are mostly concentrating their efforts in the cities.
What is terribly wrong in Aquino’s reconstruction program is “that the people are not at the center of this program,” Sr. Eslopor said.
In a press conference in Quezon City on Saturday, in preparation for a rally to demand justice for Yolanda victims on Feb 17, Eslopor said the Aquino government is engaged in a “profit-driven” rehabilitation framework labelled as ‘Build Back Better’ or the Reconstruction Assistance on Yolanda (RAY).
The Aquino government should have consulted the people at the outset of the rehabilitation, said Eslopor. She is also a social worker based in Ormoc. She asked the public to support their impending action during a media conference in Quezon City held this Saturday.
“The Aquino government should have asked what the survivors feel, what is their way of life, what do they really need,” said Eslopor. Instead, Aquino appointed “a blood-stained military man to take charge of its cold-hearted efforts of reconstruction that focuses on graft-ridden infrastructure for its business allies,” she said.
Since the People Surge was formed in the last week of January this year, it has presented an 18-point demand which, taken as a whole, comprise what they deem as a genuine, long-term rehabilitation. It consists of social support to farmers and urban poor who, they said, do not have the means to get back on their feet immediately because their lives and livelihood were completely devastated.
Their proposal for a real rehabilitation program contrasts starkly with the content so far revealed by Aquino’s “RAY.”
At the rate in which Aquino is implementing policies like the “No Build Zone, Aquino’s rehab plan is going somewhere else, certainly not toward the genuine recovery of typhoon victims,” Eslopor told Bulatlat.com.
In a separate statement, Dr. Elfleda Bautista, spokeswoman of People Surge, said many areas from where the urban poor are to be displaced in Aquino’s plans have long been eyed for ‘development’ by big businesses. She described the ‘no-build zone’ as essentially landgrabbing for the Aquino government’s business cronies.
As if adding insult to injury, the Aquino government has turned rehabilitation into a racket with substandard and overpriced infrastructures like bunk houses and tents, Eslopor said.
Absence of social support, justice
Spokesmen and cabinet secretaries of the Aquino government have been claiming that they did their best to satisfy the public’s demand for action after Yolanda hit Eastern Visayas. Some, like Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman, had even reportedly claimed credit for the efforts of international humanitarian groups such as the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
But the most glaring fact post-Yolanda is that 100 days after it struck, and drew billions of aid from around the world to this country, the Aquino government still “has no clear plan for recovery and reconstruction, which is estimated to cost P360.9 billion ($8.02 billion) according to the National Economic Development Authority,” Eslopor said in a statement.
What is clear is that Aquino’s rehabilitation plan design is geared toward public-private partnerships, “meaning the total needs for reconstruction will be shouldered by the private sector,” People Surge said in a statement. It warned that the said private sector is not into supposed reconstruction out of sympathy for the survivors, but for profits.
So far, no aid or even the beginning of an agricultural reconstruction and rehabilitation has trickled down to the farmers of Eastern Visayas. In a study, People Surge found that more than two million farmers and fisher folk in the region alone were affected by the disaster. The total damage of more than P64 billion ($1.426 b) in agriculture consists of coconut production losses of P42 billion ($936 m), P6.43 billion ($143, m) damage to the fishing industry, P5.7 billion ($127 m) damage of banana plantations, P3.5 billion ($78 m) damage of palay (unhusked rice), and P6.5 billion ($145 m) damage of livestock and root crops, abaca, corn and vegetables.
Up to 90 percent of Eastern Visayan population depend on agriculture, estimated Sr. Eslopor. Yet, the group’s statement said, Aquino intends to infuse capital on rehabilitation mainly for infrastructure and not agriculture. Sr Eslopor noted there is no rehabilitation effort happening in the rural areas.
The delay in real rehabilitation “is proving deadly to the urban and rural poor,” said the survivors of Yolanda.
“The peasants are living at the subsistence level already, with no foreseeable income, and have become prey to usury,” Eslopor said. She decried the situation of families in interior villages of the region with the rapidly diminishing rice supply and alternative food such as rootcrops destroyed by Yolanda.
“Worse, they are now forced to sell their rice because their cash crops have been damaged,” Eslopor added.
Instead of allowing this, People Surge is calling on the Aquino government to ensure the food security of the peasants, promote quick-growing cash crops so they could recover lost income, and provide, at the same time, the necessary agricultural assistance to sustain them in the long term.