Politics of Poverty

Dispatch from the Philippines: A livelihoods crisis looms in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan

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Rainero and Vilma Silvano outside their home in Tanauan, Leyte. The coconut industry suffered widespread damage during Typhoon Haiyan, putting the livelihoods of over one million farming households at risk. The trees take 6-8 years to mature, so there was an urgent need for farmers to replant and find an alternative source of income. “We had almost one hectare of coconut trees and a rice field. All was destroyed,” says Silvano, a member of the Kabuyan Farmers Association. Small-scale farmers participated in municipal consultations on recovery to voice the challenges they faced and make recommendations that were later included in the government’s rehabilitation plan. Photo: Eleanor Farmer / Oxfam

Restoring rural families’ livelihoods may be the biggest challenge that remains following Typhoon Haiyan.

I’ve just returned from the Philippines. Despite the progress and recovery I saw, it was clear to me that restoring rural families’ livelihoods may be the biggest challenge lying before the government and the aid agencies that remain following Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda. Community leaders, government officials, and aid workers can all see the looming livelihoods crisis. But realistic solutions to address immediate needs are hard to come by.

The sugar, fisheries, and coconut sectors have not fared well. Major sugar mills in Leyte were totally destroyed by the storm. The storm decimated the sugar crop ahead of its peak harvest, leaving tens of thousands of seasonal sugar workers without any income. Sugar mills will be rebuilt, crops replanted, and workers will get back to work in a year. In the meantime, the workers will seek part-time work rebuilding homes or planting and harvesting rice.

Thousands of fishermen and women across the region lost boats and gear—more than 30,000 boats were destroyed. Most of the boats are made of wood. Wood for boat building is now scarce, so people have been scrambling to find alternative solutions. The national government and aid agencies are now providing fishing communities with molds and materials to make fiberglass boats. It’s a new experience, and communities are slowly learning how to produce the boats. Getting fishermen and women back on the water as soon as possible is the priority.

The coconut sector is the hardest hit of all the agricultural sectors. Some 33 million trees either downed or decapitated across a vast landscape of coastal plains and mountains. Coconut trees are valued for their coconut milk, copra, leaves and wood and they are a deep part of the cultural heritage. It takes ten years for a coconut tree to return to full production. Fast growing alternative varieties would not survive typhoons of a lesser velocity than Yolanda. Hundreds of thousands of tenant farmers live from the harvesting and processing of coconut trees. Their livelihoods are now in jeopardy.

Oxfam has given coconut workers and farming cooperatives chainsaws and portable table saws to start milling downed trees to produce lumber for housing construction. There is great demand for the lumber, but the work is time bound. Downed coconut trees will attract an infestation of rhinoceros beetles that feed on downed trees and attack healthy ones. There is no way that all the downed trees can be milled within four months. In the meantime, Oxfam and other organizations will provide cash for work and milling equipment for teams to process as much as they possibly can.

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