Four Depressing Years After Typhoon Haiyan

Marabut is supposed to be part of a vast natural park on Samar, the Filipino island that was first hit by the super typhoon Haiyan almost four years ago, during which a massive storm surge nearly wiped out Tacloban City in neighboring Leyte province and killed more than 6,000 people. Marabut’s poverty-stricken mountain villages are defaced with black patches from charcoal pits, slash-and-burn farming and illegal logging. They may not be uncommon – here and elsewhere in the Philippines – but it brings to the fore the destructive nature of this country and its people.

Up in Marabut, it is the tribal people that dominate the forest, one that was ravaged by big-time logging companies in the past. An NGO came here about two years ago to seek to help the Mamanwa tribe, who used to be the watchmen recruited by loggers from northern Mindanao who decimated the forest.

In the wake of Haiyan, the objective was to teach them a livelihood on a modest standard of sustainability. The villagers, who could not understand about climate change, were taught how to build their huts without cutting down precious trees, how to use water without polluting it, how to stop the old methods of burning the forest.

Life was moving on and a school was built for the children. But then another tribal group sowed envy, killing the chief of the Mamanwas, whose clan of 25 households eventually abandoned the mountain without seeking justice of the law. That took Marabut back to the old ways of farming, of chopping down hardwood that could fetch money to ease hunger. The lumber is brought down to the city in contraptions customized like outriggers from motorcycles. It is often dangerous especially in the rainy season, but the mountain people have made their world separate from what goes on in the towns and cities below. Samar and Leyte, whose capital city Tacloban is the main hub of the region, are linked by a spectacular steel bridge over which the mountain can be reached in less than an hour.

Accordingly, well before Haiyan hit, some of the forest people had come down to the coastal shanties of Tacloban, only to join the thousands who perished in the most powerful typhoon ever recorded in the Philippines on Nov. 3, 2013. Many of the coastal dwellers were migrants from Samar province, fishermen and other workers who eked out their living in Leyte’s capital city. The weather patterns, the typhoons and other disasters were mere consequences affecting the forest people’s fate. Their story is a sad microcosm of the larger forces, both human and natural, that have left the Philippines to a distressing destiny.

About 14,000 families who lost their homes were supposed to move to a new township north of Tacloban after the storm passed, but only half have been able to do so, according to figures from the city hall’s housing division. The deadline to have completed a big housing resettlement project by late 2015 was not met, and critics have been saying that problems would make it much longer to see this through. For the most part, the houses are of substandard quality, as is the road infrastructure, and basic services are largely absent.

It was tunnel vision that prompted the local government to push the coastal inhabitants to move further inland, said aid workers familiar with Tacloban’s story. There was little financial support and the area was still grappling with a so-called comprehensive land use plan even before the typhoon wrecked a vision of what Tacloban, which has shown rapid population growth over the recent years, was supposed to be.

Other housing subdivisions for the typhoon victims were put in place by private donors and by NGOs with the help of international aid agencies.

The city center, however, has made a turnaround in business: trendy cafes, shops and restaurants, boutique hotels have mushroomed. A mall is about to stand, taken as a barometer for progress. But the city has also seen nature demolished for building construction – a lake disappearing for a cargo company, a hill bulldozed for a warehouse.

Much of what goes on in the city as well as in the mountains has revealed the provinces’ confusion and mixed priorities in terms of recovery from Haiyan. The current debate is the choice between building a sea wall and planting a mangrove barrier, nature’s millennia-old answer to keeping back typhoons and tidal waves that can be devastating when the full force of the storms crossing entire oceans comes ashore. One side of the bay has the city putting up a tidal embankment about four meters high to protect from the water, a short and limited construction for the moment. The other side has the prospect of raising mangroves as a shield

Over the start of the monsoon season, when there was more sun than rain, a small group of French students doing their internship on urban planning gathered communities to help them start planting mangroves over two hectares along the shore. The department of environment and natural resources is said to oversee this project. The idea of having mangroves protecting the city from another typhoon seems to have come as an afterthought, following the footsteps of a few coastal towns in the Visayas region that were caught in the swath of Haiyan’s wrath.

Sometimes one gets the feeling that the super typhoon had never happened, seeing the city and the mountain hamlets back to the normal pace of life. The undercurrents of the trauma come to the surface on long drives to the city outskirts where the temporary houses are still there, and the future remains unknown.

Criselda Yabes is a prize-winning journalist and a long-time contributor to Asia Sentinel