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Roofs like Dust

December 4, 2013

Wendy Flick, interim manager for UUSC’s Rights in Humanitarian Crises Program, is currently on the ground in the Philippines assessing needs and beginning work with partners to deliver aid to people being overlooked by traditional relief efforts in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan (called Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines). Below, she shares the story of a survivor she met and initial details of UUSC’s work in the area. Listen above to a three-minute audio update from Flick, delivered to the UUSC Volunteer Network from on the ground in the Philippines.

Ricardo Ansit’s lip trembles as he recalls the night the Typhoon Yolanda came to his village, Canhabagat, near the northern tip of Cebu Island. He and the other members of his farming cooperative sought shelter in the church near his home, thinking they’d be safe within its sturdy cement walls. But when they winds reached full force, they realized even the sturdiest building in the village wasn’t safe. He told me that the “tin roof sheets flew off like dust.” They crouched and covered their heads, but he says that at that point they had already given up on their lives. He regained consciousness the next morning, soaked to the skin in the only remaining clothes he possessed, stumbled to the ruins of his flattened home to find everything gone.

Ansit is the president of the Canhabagat United Farmers Association, which has 67 members. They are agrarian reform beneficiaries (ARBs), through a system in which farmers are given the opportunity to purchase land over time for growing crops. Profit margins are thin, but it’s a chance. However, the typhoon not only destroyed virtually every home in the village, it also destroyed the sugar-cane crop that they had hoped to be harvesting in December to pay the mortgage on the land.

In the weeks since the storm, the co-op members have assisted each other in a Filipino tradition called bayanihan, or mutual help. As in an Amish barn raising, they went to each member’s pile of debris and assembled the salvageable remains of each home into makeshift shelters that at least keep the worst of the rains off. When asked what they need, Ansit replies “everything.” Toothbrushes, electricity, clothes, food, pots to cook in, hammers and saws to rebuild. 

Because of their remote location, the co-op is virtually invisible to relief efforts, and food aid has reached them only once with a few kilos of rice. That’s when Pagtambayayong Foundation (PF), a new UUSC partner, stepped in to provide food deliveries. Still, it is not enough. Ansit says he can’t sleep at night for fear that his makeshift shelter can be blown down if even a little wind comes. That’s just one reason we’re working with PF to make sure that co-op members basic needs are met in this harrowing time.

The visit with Ansit happened on my first day in the Philippines. Now two days later, themes are beginning to emerge, as they do after every disaster. In this case, before the typhoon, organic agriculture in the Philippines was beginning to gain traction among groups like Ansit’s. An organic farm bill passed a few years ago to encourage farmers to grow organic crops; but in reality, farmers such as Inday, whom we met with on the second day of my trip in Ormoc (one of the most heavily affected areas), say that they are feeling marginalized by the extremely high fees it takes to pay the government to certify the crops as organic.

UUSC will be working with new and longtime partners in the Philippines to make sure that people like farmers like Ansit and Inday have access to the aid they need to truly recover from the devastation wrought by Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan). We are already working with the Trauma Resource Institute to plan a training in trauma resiliency in January and with others on ways to introduce container gardening methods that our partners in Haiti have proven successful as they recover from the 2010 earthquake. We will be working with new partners on identification of typhoon-resistant crops and typhoon-resistant housing, and we are developing a proposal with PF on model organic farms. I am also working to identify partners and programs that we can work with on the issues of child protection and gender-based violence. 

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