Ignored Crisis

by Juan L. Mercado

“Even the gods cannot help those who do not seize opportunities.” This Asian proverb resonates in post-“Yolanda” efforts. They range from rehabilitation czar Panfilo Lacson skidding into his old cop role to buttressing coastal forests like mangroves beyond Leyte Gulf, throughout the country.

Storm-battered uplands are the overlooked crisis, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization cautions. As many as one out of five Filipinos cluster in often denuded uplands, distant from major highways and isolated by patchy communication links. They’re invisible to organizations now pouring aid into the lowlands and media focused on the capitals. Windows of opportunity for uplands were being shuttered after Yolanda stormed out.

In Chinese, the word “crisis” is composed of two characters, US President John F. Kennedy noted. The first represents “danger,” and the second “opportunity.”

Opportunities are masked in “impossible situations.” But these windows slam shut—fast. Carpe diem, the sages urge. Seize the day. Act firmly and set aside partisan squabbles, as seen in Interior Secretary Mar Roxas and Tacloban Mayor Alfred Romualdez’s brawl. Attempt to achieve what, in the calcified past, seemed unsolvable.

“Often, we stare at a door that’s closing only to see, too late, the open one.” Those who dawdle over opportunity lose. “Luck happens when preparation meets opportunity,” the philosopher Seneca wrote.

Until Yolanda, most local governments razed mangroves or paved them with concrete. But villages from Eastern Samar to Negros Oriental were “buffered by sturdy mangrove stands,” notes Dr. Jurgene Primavera. Time magazine earlier named her among the world’s top 100 environmental scientists.

Greenbelts are mandated by Presidential Decree No. 705 and the 1998 Fisheries Code. But noncompliance resulted in a graveyard of “dead laws.” Replace inutile greenbelt stipulations stashed in forgettable sections of unenforced regulations, Primavera urges. Enact a National Greenbelt Law. And local government units must don post-Yolanda mindsets.

The Philippines has “world-class expertise on mangrove and beach forest management,” the FAO’s Patrick Durst points out. How to bring science-based knowledge to bear on specific sites and harness people’s involvement make up the challenge.

This is critical because few realize the damage Yolanda inflicted on brittle upland communities. Poverty-strapped, the residents are the first victims when calamities like Yolanda hit.

Illegal logging encroaches on remaining 7.16 million hectares of forest. Yet, these forests house the richest varied flora and fauna on earth. Their watersheds irrigate more than 1.5 million hectares of lowland farms.

Given patchy communication links, reports of upland typhoon damage trickle to central agencies and international organizations. The little that came through is appalling.

Some 11,954 households, in 108 people’s organizations in Region 8, were ripped by the supertyphoon. In Regions 6, 7 and 8, over 6,740 hectares of banana plantations were damaged beyond recovery. Mango losses exceed P84 million.

Credit Environment Secretary Ramon Paje for swiftly proposing the rehabilitation of mangroves and beach forests. But this initiative petered out in dealing with battered uplands. At interagency meetings with international organizations or the National Economic and Development Authority, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources mumbled vague estimates, failing to make a badly-needed case for upland communities. The excuse of lack of staff and funds looks more threadbare as days pass.

Yet, there is no shortage of thought-out recovery and resiliency programs for the battered uplands. The FAO’s paper, for one, outlines a blueprint.

The immediate calls range from field clearing with simple two-person saws, on a cash-for-work basis, to charcoal-making using low-cost kilns developed by the Department of Science and Technology. Strengthen community nurseries to speed agroforestry recovery.

In the intermediate term, uplanders need help to develop agroforestry systems that focus on high-value crops like cashew. Sloping agricultural land technologies developed in Davao and other conservation measures should be incorporated into agroforestry systems. Landslides stemming from the October earthquake in Bohol and Cebu underscore the urgency to reforest.

The long pull requires far better partnership between and among the government, LGUs and private sector and lessons learned from decades of experience. They emphasize that watershed management requires broad multi-stakeholder participation. Adjust to local governance processes, aware that “tenure and social conflicts should be managed through negotiation.”

Yolanda damaged more than 33 million coconut trees as it tore through Quezon, Guimaras, Iloilo, Negros Occidental, Cebu, Eastern Samar and Leyte. Some 15 million trees were totally destroyed  Now, the DENR, Philippine Coconut Authority and other agencies are crafting guidelines on how to use mounds of downed coconuts and fruit and timber trees. These provide vast volumes of woody biomass potentially available for reconstruction.

The DENR has provided two portable sawmills (one from Manila and one from Nasipit) to the Department of Public Works and Highways in Region 8, for use in sawing coconut stems into coco lumber to be used for building temporary shelters for displaced residents. How this useful initiative plays out remains to be seen.

Is the upland crisis a total blank for Panfilo Lacson? The windows are closing. As they say in Zamboanga’s Chavacano: Quien ta durmi, ta pierde. He who does not seize opportunities shall lose.

E-mail: juan_mercado77@yahoo.com

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