The night after the super typhoon Yolanda flattened a large chunk of the Philippines I get two emails from my colleagues asking what we can do to help the victims. My reply is “standby, the universe will have a plan”. Sure enough a few days later the plan emerges and a donor I’ve never met has sponsored our team on a recon to the Philippines disaster zone.
The best way to help the Philippines with our skills is to set up a permaculture aid support base that trains people from all sectors in permaculture skills. Water, sanitation, home gardens, school nurseries, community gardens and small scale intensive farms are on our list to stabilise damaged communities and assist in rebuilding them with a new resilient edge. The recon needs to establish the base camp and area of operations so we can focus funding and make a 2 year plan.
My team forms around me, four of us begin the journey from our base in Hong Kong to to a vortex of chaos in the Philippines. Rebecca, the intrepid documentary maker and one-person media organisation, is coming to record the chain of events as we proceed on our mission. Wombat, loaded with skills in construction, marine conservation and healing, has jumped onto the team with his partner Brittany. Britt is a climate change specialist, a permaculture practitioner and a therapist for traumatised children. Typhoon Yolanda, we find out, is the biggest storm ever to strike land. In my mind’s eye I see the destruction, trauma and chaos the poor people left alive are experiencing. I’ve chosen the right team to help me find the best way for us to set up assistance via a permaculture aid project.
In the two weeks leading up to our departure we purchase enough equipment to be fully self-sufficient in the field. Camping equipment, heavy duty mountaineering packs, clothing, boots, water purifying gear, dried food, seeds and much more is purchased, packed and repacked until we are satisfied. We are prepared for almost any situation.
Daily updates from the zone paint a grim picture of what’s happening on the ground. People in Hong Kong feel for the Philippines as their city has thousands of Filipino contract workers woven into the city culture.
Groasis Sustainability, a social enterprise I work with in Hong Kong, agree to sponsor me personally so I can take whatever time needed to set this project up. They will miss me, but know that my efforts will make a lot of difference on the ground in the zone. A going away/fundraising party is held for us at our permaculture site. A few days later we step off the plane in Manila on our way south to our first stop, Palawan.
A group of permaculture people have set up a staging camp at Palawan. Here we hook up with a very important member of our team, Hubert. A security specialist and dedicated green warrior, Hubert is our local guide and counterpart. As soon as he arrives at our accommodation we get down to planning our route into the zone. There are major security issues and we plan to sidestep any dangerous areas. Our base camp will need to be on the edge of the disaster area, not in the centre where it’s currently a nightmare for all concerned. The permaculture people are keen to support us, but until we get the base camp sited there is little they can do but wait.
A day later our plane touches down on Panay island. By the look of the airport and vehicles this island is very prosperous compared to Palawan. One of our bags has to be flown as cargo, so I run through the rain to the cargo hangar to get it. A small security guy in a white uniform leans on a desk piled with papers. An automatic chrome pistol hangs down to his knees. I nickname him “QuickDraw”. I hand QuickDraw the lading bill which happens to have Rebecca’s name instead of mine on it. “Are you Rebecca?” he asks. I bite my sarcasm back and answer that Rebecca is waiting out in the terminal and I came because it’s raining. He shakes his head and says only Rebecca can pick up the bag. I plead with him but QuickDraw is not swayed until I say I’m doing him a favour, because if I go back empty handed Rebecca will come and she will be VERY ANGRY! I make him believe the Rebecca is bigger than me and very scary. Quickdraw’s boss is listening in and they have a quick exchange. The bag is dropped at my feet and I race back to our team victorious.
Our Panay guide, Roli, shows up in a van and we head into the city of Iloilo. No sign of the disaster on the other side of the island as we squeeze through traffic. Roli takes us to a coffee shop so we can chat.
After listening to our plan, Roli tells us he has a house for us to camp in. I don’t want to spend funds on hotels if possible. A while later we rock up to a huge old mansion. I think Elvis used to live there in the 70s by the look of it and maybe his ghost is still living there. Its best years have long passed by, but it’s dry and we even get beds with mattresses! Before we settle in we must met our next key player, Uncle Victor. In a modern office next door we are led in to meet Uncle Victor who turns out to be the founder of the first mountaineering club of the Philippines. His dear friend lives somewhere in the disaster zone and needs help. Great, we have a contact, and Uncle Victor unlocks the next door for us! We are going to seek out Babes who’s rudimentary ecolodge has been destroyed, while Babes was away recovering from illness. Uncle Victor shakes our hands and tells us to stay here on our return. I sense Victor is a well loved elder in his community.
The van is loaded with our gear and we are on the road. Several hours later we begin to see signs of damage. Stripped trees, broken limbs and bamboo snapped and twisted. Once inside the district of Antique the damage increases. Coconut trees are down and large trees are bare of leaves. Some roofs are missing tin and power poles are at all angles. It gets worse.
We see no sign of aid assistance. No trucks with foodstuffs or building materials on the road. No international NGOs vehicles or even a sign assistance is being delivered to the zone. Even local NGO presence is invisible. Weird…
We meet the Gerry, Mayor of Barbaza, a town on our route. One of Victor’s contacts has phoned ahead for us. I spy homemade aid packages in sacks stacked up at the entrance. No UN or international aid packages. We chat briefly with Gerry who tells us only one UN guy showed up and left a short while later. Jerry hands me the full damage report and thanks our team for caring. I feel his stress and am bit humbled. Where is the international relief effort we would expect on a disaster this size? I explain our role and that we are only a recon team. Gerry shakes our hands again as we leave. Outside the local government building is a twisted steel structure that was once a community hall. It looks like Godzilla chewed it up for breakfast.
We finally hit the dirt track up to the mountains. We are told the road has just been opened. I see some trees have been twisted and split like a tornado has done them in. Not regular type typhoon damage, something different.
Up near the sacred mountain we pull into a small hamlet, it’s almost dark. Yum Yum, our contact, is a large guy with sad eyes. He explains we must walk from here. Packs on our back and equipment hanging on our necks we follow each other up the mountain track single file. In the dark we cross a rickety bridge that sways and creaks. I hear the river below but can’t estimate how high we are. Our heavy packs cause us to weave and lean as we cross a landslide in the dark not knowing how we’ll far we’ll fall if we tumble over the edge. Our sweat isn’t just from the heat!
Our digs for the night is a 2 room elementary school with a huge tree crashed through one room. Brittany and Wombat take that room to set up their tent. Rebecca and I put our tents up on an outdoor platform and Hubert and Roli crash in the undamaged classroom. It rains heavily that night. Exhaustion wins, we sleep.
Predawn I hear a rooster. I see a universe of stars as I crawl out of my tent. Wow, the air is crystal clear. After Hong Kong light pollution I can finally see stars again… Nice.
Sharp steep rigged mountains are lit by the rising sun in the near distance. I hear a waterfall in the canyon below. As the light grows is see the remnants of the forest. It looks like the old WW2 photos of jungles hit by artillery. Trees stripped of foliage are hanging limp with broken limbs and split trunks. Coconut trees are broken and headless. A real calamity has destroyed a beautiful place.
The villagers are super friendly and there are lots of curious children staring and giggling at us as we make breakfast. Roli explains the villagers have rarely or never seen white people. Each of us explores a different part of the 3 villages making up the community. The bridge we came across the night before in the dark looks about to slide off into the river in the daylight. It’s going to go soon by to looks of the poor construction coupled with damage from logs striking the supports during the typhoon.
People have repaired the best they can their bamboo and tin buildings. Some are bent on a weird angle like a Dr Seuss book. A band of kids follow me and lead me around the winding community paths. I am strange to them, having the only blue eyes they have ever seen.
Where the typhoon funnelled through a gap in the hills it blew houses apart or squashed them flat. Some houses although frail, survived by being in the right place while their neighbours house blew away. Food crops, tree crops, and gardens all sustained heavy damage. The villagers have been busy cleaning up, but the big damage is beyond their efforts, I see.
Yum Yum takes us up to the ecolodge, or rather where it used to be. Perched on the side of a steep hill it stood no chance when Yolanda blasted massive winds into the bamboo huts. It looked like a bomb blast had erased the site. Climbing over twisted trunks and smashed beams it is hard to see what this place used to look like. Yum Yum is morose as he explains they once had 7 huts, a canteen and a reception hut where Filipino mountaineers and nature lovers would come to trek to the sacred mountains further inland. The importance of this site begins to dawn on me. In a country stripped of its forests from logging and agriculture, this site was a mecca for the green hearted people and the nature adventurers of the Philippines.
That evening we meet the heads of the community and the leaders of the 3 villages. After a long explanation of our type of aid I make a verbal proposal to the people through our interpreter. Can we work together to rebuild the ecolodge and build new sustainable livelihoods in the villages around it that create a truly green economy? Can we restore the forests and protect them while allowing visitors to enjoy them? Can we train the children to be rangers, organic farmers, healthy food chefs? Can we integrate all community activities to be a shining example to the rest of the Philippines? Can we bring other communities here to train them? A loud resounding YES is shouted after each question is translated. Tomorrow they agree to come to help clean the wreckage away from the ecolodge so we can design a new one and create a plan.
The villagers head up the tracks to their homes as we discuss our impressions of the meeting. Tomorrow will tell us if these people have the volition the build a new green future from the wreckage of the old.