By Steve Cran
The largest typhoon ever to reach land struck the Philippines on the 7th of November last year.
Thousands of people died and tens of thousands lost their homes and livelihoods. The true cost of this mega-disaster will never be known because it was too big for the authorities to handle.
As a professional Permaculture Aid Specialist I get asked to go to some pretty bleak places including the biggest tsunami in human history in 2004. Typhoon Yolanda happened whilst I was doing some training in Hong Kong and a group of people there asked me to lead a reconnaissance to the disaster zone and create some kind of project to help the victims. There are over 30,000 Filipino workers in Hong Kong, mostly domestic helpers, so the people of Hong Kong wanted to help their neighbors.
Firstly I had to establish the size and magnitude of the disaster. The reports coming from many sources didn’t paint a good picture. Covering many islands, the destruction crushed the life out of a large chunk of the Philippines. Looting, lawlessness and total chaos summed up where I was heading. Preparing to enter a destruction zone requires the right equipment and the right team. My small team spent a week gathering clothing, camping equipment, tools and food supplements. We took a filmmaker to gather data for future reference and I hired a local Filipino security specialist and a mountaineering guide that spoke several local languages.
Three weeks after the typhoon struck, our team hit the ground. My aim was not to go to the center of the worst hit areas. My strategy was to skirt the edge of the disaster zone and look for a suitable site to set up a base camp that would eventually develop into a training center. The worst place to go is where the International NGO’s and the U.N. were going to set up. That would create a vortex of aid dependency. I’d done this before and those organizations create more problems than they solve over the long term. There were plenty of places that would receive no aid and we had to pick the right place.
With our local guide and a rented van we traveled through damaged communities seeing first hand what a super typhoon does to bamboo housing and tin roofs. It was rough for the locals left alive. The thing that struck me immediately, there were no aid vehicles to be seen on the roads. No NGO trucks with supplies, no military and no UN. This was one of those events that was too big for even the international organizations to handle.
We camped in tents and cooked our meals on a small gas stove. Sometimes we were offered shelter in a building or a school. We met nothing but friendly people. I also began to see that most of these people’s problems were from chronic poverty not just this disaster.
Intuition and gut feelings play a big role in a recon. Meeting the right people and following the right leads brought us to a small village in Antique, Panay. The people there were poor but under the leadership of their village chief, the people of Mablad had rebuilt most of their houses using local resources and village labour. These guys sorted out their broken homes, downed power lines and debris filled streets without any outside assistance. I knew in my gut these were the right people to work with.
I met the Capitan (chief) and explained what I was there to do and he led me to a small farm on the outskirts of the village. A few days later we had done a deal with the land-owner, the Capitan and the local Mayor. The Green Warrior Field School was born.
People see a disaster on TV and for a week or two feel sorry for the victims, but soon other disasters fill the screen and they forget the previous ones. Disasters of this magnitude are not fixed in a week or even a year. Unlike a Hollywood movie most of these people were not going to live happy ever after. Their whole world was broken and many of them were grieving for lost children, parents and kinfolk.
After a 1 month recon we had the data and a plan to get more funding and support. Our team returned to Hong Kong to debrief and set up for the next stage of the project.
I returned to the base camp and began designing a field school to train people in permaculture. Permaculture Aid focuses on food security, rebuilding the ecosystem and rebuilding the local economy in a way that supports the ecosystem, not destroys it. It’s a two-for-one aid. Fix the people and the planet simultaneously!
The first few months were hard-core camping in small tents in a hot, dry farm. The typhoon had stripped the trees of leaves and shade was minimal. The dry season was one of the hottest on record in our area. Our base camp consisted of a few small tents and our field kitchen set up under a mango tree. I installed a tap with running water and connect is to the local water supply and we were in business!
The dry season is the best time to harvest bamboo and this area had a massive supply of bamboo. The small amount of money I had was spent on acquiring a few hundred thick bamboo poles. Our first building was going to be a kitchen and meeting space. The land-owner, Lucy Juanitas, helped us find the right local craftsmen and soon our kitchen began to take shape. I designed the building to be as typhoon resistant as I could with a curved boat shaped roof. All materials were locally sourced as I needed to demonstrate a better way to build that local people could copy from. The frame was a series of triangulated struts. We added a half-loft and after several months of sleeping on hard ground in a tent I finally had my own space to sleep in. It felt like super luxury!
My friend and business associate, Sacha Van Damme, in Hong Kong managed to raise $1000 per month for us to continuously employ six local people to build and help develop our basic infrastructure at the field school. We built pit toilets and a shower system. We also worked outside the farm at 2 local primary schools introducing permaculture gardening and organic practices. One school even won a regional award for best school vegetable garden through our efforts. Slowly we were becoming known to the community through the children. Funding was scarce but creativity and ingenuity was high!
Several high quality volunteers arrived at just the right time and 2 not so good volunteers left at the right time. Conducting this kind of aid work is difficult when living hard in tents and eating poorly. Reality sorted out some of the volunteer’s dreams of being an aid-hero very quickly. Most of our supporters came to learn to conduct Permaculture Aid and really helped out. Not all people are cut out for this type of activity though as we found out. Meanwhile the local people around us didn’t have it much better. Food quality and quantity was greatly affected by Yolanda.
Our first Permaculture Design Certificate course was held in May and we had close to 30 participants, many from overseas. The course was a revelation for many of the local people. They had little understanding of the effect of chemicals and the negative side of commercial farming. Organic farming was something their grandparents did before they were civilized. As the days passed, the excitement grew. I really enjoyed the mixture of international and local
people solving problems. Half our course was spent in the field doing hands-on projects. In a place like Mablad. Permaculture is an action.
One of our volunteers, Ruby Wells financed the construction of our first accommodation hut. For walls we used a locally woven bamboo-skin panel called “lip-lip”. Once fixed onto the frame, we rendered it with a mixture of mud, rice husks, sand, cement and lime. The results were a wall that looked like it was masonry but was only 10mm thick. It looked great and was super strong. Again we shaped the whole building like a boat to resist high wind and strengthen the structure.
Ruby project managed the construction and managed to get excellent results. I gave her another project after that, the compost toilet. We had several small donations, which gave us enough cash to build a much-needed permanent toilet. A month later our beautiful toilet was open for business. Lots of local people came to try it out and were impressed it was clean and there was no smell. Compost toilets were something foreign and new here. This one looked like a temple after Ruby added her own features to my basic design.
Next came the shower block. Our resident permaculture aid intern Sacha Healy designed and managed this project with the remainder of our donor funds. A beautiful bamboo double shower unit was the result. Our field school was beginning to look like an eco-resort. The toilet and showers were ready in time for our PAC, Permaculture Aid Certificate course.
The PAC is a course for people wanting to learn how to conduct Permaculture Aid Projects. I run them in 2 parts. The 1st part is 2 weeks on the farm learning all the best practices of using permaculture to solve problems in disaster zones, conflict zones and poverty zones.
The second week is all live hands-on projects around the local community. It gives trainees real experience putting together a project in a real community.
We build 2 LORENA stoves, a pizza/bread oven and a re-burner incinerator. We built a seedling nursery and learned how to make useful things out of mud and rice husks. The LORENA stoves are highly efficient and use 10% of the firewood currently used in kitchen cookers. This will save a lot of forests eventually.
The field school is up and running smoothly. We have just harvested a bumper crop of organic rice, which really blew the local people away. They are now signing up for organic training next year. I will continue to develop this field school along with a new one near Manila. The Philippines is disaster central. They have earthquakes, super-typhoons, conflict zones, floods, landslides and general poverty. This is the place to train people in Permaculture Aid. If you’d like to learn Permaculture Aid we will offer 2-week courses to a 10-week internships early next year. We also have a volunteer system. You wont be disappointed. Our facilities are comfortable and secure now.
The Philippines has many wonderful friendly people that are worthy of our assistance. If you don’t want to come to the field, you can still help with donations. We will spend the money wisely!
Aid for the Earth and aid for the people!
Check out our website at greenwarriorpermacultureaid.com
You can contact me, Steve Cran directly at firstname.lastname@example.org