A people’s strategy for rebuilding E. Visayas
By Bobby M. Tuazon
December 18, 2013
(Philippine Daily Inquirer, p. A15)
Posted by, Jan. 6, 2014

The government’s top-to-bottom master plan to rebuild Eastern Visayas is bound to fail if not crystallized by consultations with the communities devastated by Supertyphoon “Yolanda.” The National Economic and Development Authority’s “Yolanda Recovery and Reconstruction Plan” relies heavily on foreign assistance and private investments. It aims to ensure livelihood and jobs in the region, among others, but says nothing about engaging the millions of displaced families, particularly poor coastal communities, in planning and implementation—an absence that spells more catastrophe as lessons in postcalamity rebuilding programs in many countries show.
The scale of the devastation is indeed large, due not only to governance failure as seen in the ill-preparedness of both national and local governments but also to predisaster economic marginalization.

Eastern Visayas, the Philippines’ third poorest region, registered negative growth in recent years. Nearly half of its 4.2 million population is made up of low-income copra workers and fisherfolk. There has been no sustainable development as the local economy was driven by extractive industries like mining and logging which removed the fragile ecosystem of its natural barriers against calamities.

As a result, chronic poverty turned from bad to worse: In eastern Samar, for instance, poverty rose from 47 percent in 2009 to 60 percent in 2012. The region had the widest income gap nationwide, with the top 30 percent earning eight times more than the bottom 30 percent.

A deep social divide is the offshoot of the concentration of wealth in a few families, mostly political dynasties that have ruled the region for generations. As elsewhere in the country, social inequality in Eastern Visayas has bred political inequality: the tiny elite at the helm of the government, the poor excluded from development planning contrary to the Local Government Code, and even the limited social services available.

Poverty has deprived millions of poor families of their capacity to protect themselves from natural calamities, and of the means to recoup their losses after disaster.
But the biggest hazard is when those tasked with disaster response are ill-prepared. Widely known is the Philippines’ increasing vulnerability to climate change, which involves rising sea levels and storm surges. Indeed, it is ranked third most vulnerable in the world. The Visayas has been forecast as at high risk to storm surges. Last year, the Asian Development Bank warned that 13.6 million people in coastal areas are in danger of being uprooted by rising sea levels in 40 years. Yet, as shown in Yolanda, the government’s institutional machinery is not in the disaster-preparedness mode.

Still, reports do not reflect the dismal record of foreign-funded, graft-ridden “rehabilitation programs” by various administrations in many communities battered by constant natural and manmade calamities, thus aggravating poverty, social inequity, food insecurity, and ecosystem degradation. The post-Yolanda flight of displaced families from Samar and Leyte to the capital region and nearby provinces evokes widespread fears of economic uncertainty as well as the predictable failure of government response. The same fate is dramatized by other tragedies, including the desert-like state of farms in Marinduque as a result of the 1996 Marcopper oil spill; the transformation of Central Luzon into the second biggest source of overseas Filipino workers after the 1991 Pinatubo eruption; and the widespread food insecurity in the Cordillera and other upland regions where indigenous food production systems disappeared due to state-encouraged forest denudation and mining operations.
That is why mining companies’ latest “offer” to help rebuild Eastern Visayas by exploiting its coal, chromite, and nickel deposits is like rubbing salt on an injury. In the first place, a rehabilitation plan should begin with a stop to all mining and logging operations.

Reconstruction is not only about rebuilding lives and the economy, or restoring a society back to predisaster levels. It is about recreating a society devoid of the social inequity and oppressive economic system that have made communities highly vulnerable to natural and manmade disasters.

For real rebuilding to rise in the region, the government’s top-to-bottom strategy designed by so-called economic experts and disaster capitalists should be replaced by a bottom-up scheme inspired by strong people’s initiatives. It cannot be designed along the foreign aid- and profit-driven development model which has been repudiated in many countries owing to the reverse impact it generates. The people of Eastern Visayas know better how best to rebuild their lives. The destruction wrought by Yolanda may be huge, but it cannot compare with the economic deprivation and loss of opportunity that they and past generations are grappling with amid the intrinsic social and economic asymmetries that have long dominated their lives.

Reconstruction is not simply about building shelters or bridges. It is an issue of governance, democratization and human rights. It is about mass mobilizations. The reconstruction program should thus be claimed by the people themselves; they should be at its core, where they can protect their rights as survivors and displaced communities in the planning and implementation systems.

Reconstruction should be built into the people’s lives with new strategies and new institutional mechanisms to ensure their role in decision-making at all phases, whether in the construction of climate-resilient houses, in long-term livelihood programs or in rebuilding mangroves. The people through their mass organizations and nongovernment institutions should spearhead a strategy toward reducing their long-term vulnerability to disaster. This needs emancipation mechanisms like genuine land redistribution and protection of fishing rights.

Such a task will take years or even generations. But it is the only way that will yield a long-term impact. The short route will not withstand another Yolanda.


Bobby M. Tuazon is the director for policy studies of CenPEG, a policy think tank that co-organized Mission Tabang-SLB with relief missions in Samar and Leyte.

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