Hi, I’m Britt and I’m a climate change specialist and child welfare professional. However, in my mind I like to think of myself as a big kid who enjoys getting her hands dirty, making real changes in the world that matter. I am part of the Green Warrior Recon Team with my fiancé Mark (aka Wombat) having arrived in the Philippines just over a week ago. After the devastation of Typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan, communities throughout the country were flattened and much of the damage was simply unquantifiable. Not only had the brave Pinoy people lost their homes and possessions but the long term outlook for their livelihoods, often based on agriculture and fishing, was looking pretty grim. We decided to jump on board with Steve as we could both see how Permaculture Aid could make a tangible impact in their recovery and create a more resilient community for the future.
Arriving in Barbaza, the physical signs of the aftermath was quite shocking. The road up to the mountains was lined with remnants of bamboo houses and school buildings. It looked like the gods had played monopoly with the town as some houses were completed wiped out whilst other remained reasonably in tact, even if they were just a few houses apart. The van played limbo underneath the fallen power-lines which were propped up by a few thin pieces of bamboo. We passed many trees with serious battle scars including a coconut stump that looked like a twizzle stick. I imagined a spinning explosion of coconuts hurling from the tree during the storm like canon balls. I was shocked at the amount of people smiling and waving at us with bright faces and I remembered that these communities had received barely any aid besides food drops from local groups. There was no sign of any international assistance which explains why they might have been so happy to see us. Despite this, I felt a powerful admiration for the Pinoy spirit, especially within the children we passed along who were all smiling as they shoveled materials off the road.
We arrived in Cadiao after dark and I could see little peering eyes in the darkness watching us while we ate dinner by candle light. The barangay (village) captain’s wife cooked up some rice for us and I whipped out some Veggie Stock to add some extra flavour. A great thing to always have on hand as a traveling vegan aid worker. The local children were very curious about the strange westerners coming to visit and watched intently like a reality tv show. Big Brother goes native! They are very shy and only spoke broken English so my greetings only received with bashful smiles in return. I look forward to getting to know them better over the coming days.
I awaken the next morning to the giggles and pit-patter of children running around the building. Wombat and I camped out in the empty room next to the main class in the elementary school. We can hear the sounds of little climbing feet scaling the massive tree that smashed through the roof during the typhoon to get a closer look at the sweaty visitors. I head to the shower/toilet which is behind a 1950’s looking curtain in the right hand corner of the main classroom. I am greeted by a green bucket with a plastic scooper next to the toilet in a small room perfectly sized for a 6 year old. I feel bad for Wombat who is 6 foot 3 and have a little laugh to myself picturing him squatting over the bucket to wash himself. Suddenly the compact bathrooms in Hong Kong don’t look so bad.
Whilst everyone was eating breakfast, I followed the children up the hill to the local village of Cadiao. At the top of the stairs, I was greeted by the beautiful Nava who welcomed me to their community. She spoke very good English and spoke with such a bubbly energy in her voice as she showed me around. She explained that the community had rebuilt some of the damaged houses after the typhoon but there were still many problems such as severe damage to food crops and fruit trees. I was lucky to catch her because she usually stays in another town where she goes to college during the week. A privilege of a very lucky few since college fees are almost 2500 pesos per month plus 50 pesos a day on average. Many of these families in Barbaza live on less than 5000 pesos a month which is easily swallowed up in school fees especially considering the average family has 5 children. I got the impression that these communities had severe financial problems before the typhoon with all their funds being directed to education or food production. Like most third world countries, agricultural chemicals were very expensive too and kept the farmers just above debt. A backyard garden approximately 4x3m I was shown in the village cost roughly 500 pesos per month just for the pesticides. Not including the cost of hybrids seeds, fertilizers and other inputs. I saw a great opportunity for permaculture to propose a few easy fixes here which could potentially raise the livelihoods of the whole community.
The kids guided us to the site where the eco lodge used to stand along the dirt track. Along the way, trees were uprooted a fell across the path creating new climbing apparatus for the children. Fallen power lines lay across the trees and the kids are even using one as a flying fox before Roli tells them off. I chuckle thinking about the overprotective parents I know back in Australia having a heart attack. Laughter could be heard from river below as my wild playmates dove fully clothed into the creek. After a refreshing dip, they scaled the mountain to the eco lodge which looked like the end of a game of pick-up-sticks. Steve began to explain to potential for permaculture to rebuild the site which would start with a big clean up of all the plastic and unwanted materials. We grabbed a bag and started the plastic patrol with the children to show them how quick it can be done with the power of kid energy. The kids also took me out the back to an area where I could see the tree house perched like a bird’s nest amongst the chaos. The only thing that seemed to survive the storm was the old toilet with panoramic view of the fallen forest. I know what I’ll be hanging on to next typhoon.
After another dip, the young ones kidnap Wombat and me, taking us on ‘kid only’ track via rice paddies and rock faces to the next barangay. ‘Lets go!’, is one of the few English phrases known to the children so the whole line of them skip along yelling it to us. We stop at a small clearing with a few houses and Wombat smiles at me as he notices a little boy picking up plastic rubbish around the area like we showed him at the ecolodge. Suddenly the other children began filling a bag of discarded potato chips with rubbish which encouraged an older women to join in. It filled me with such joy to see such an instant change in their attitude towards plastic waste. This is why I love working with children!
At the end of the trail, I spot a monstrous old Banyan tree that looked like the Home Tree from Avatar. Beck and I called over the troops and headed down the rocky path. As the rest of the children marched down the road with enthusiasm, one young boy was walking the other direction carrying a huge bag of aid rice on his shoulder up to the mountain community. No play time for him, another downside of aid dependence. We climbed its strong limbs and the kids began to laugh with me as their shyness wore off. I could feel myself falling in love with this place and these kids who were already starting to connect with me. I felt excited about giving these kids a better future with abundant food, security and resilience within a thriving ecology. Better still, the whole world would look up to them as the next green leaders who saved the planet with their own hands.
Till our next adventure,