Rocky Road to Recovery

By Adeline M. Tumenggung

AURORA AND QUEZON PROVINCES, Philippines – Even before a devastating calamity hit northeastern Philippines in late 2004, these provinces would still have looked strangely familiar to someone from the Indonesian province of Aceh. After all, the heat was the same, as was their rustic feel. And while the women here do not wear headscarves, the locals could easily pass for Acehnese.

But the commonalities would increase all the more in just a matter of weeks in 2004.

From late November to December, four typhoons, one after the other, struck the provinces of Aurora, Quezon, and Nueva Ecija. The typhoons led to landslides in the Sierra Madre, the country’s longest mountain range that runs the eastern length of Luzon island, sending log-laden muddy waters to roar through many towns in the three provinces. On December 26, an underwater earthquake thousands of miles away triggered tsunamis in several Asian countries, including Indonesia.

The landslides and flashfloods buried towns in Quezon, Aurora, and Nueva Ecija in mud, logs, and uprooted saplings. Aceh’s capital, meanwhile, was almost wiped away by the tsunami.

The December 26, 2004 tsunami tragedy claimed some 220,000 lives, with more than half of those from Aceh. The Philippine typhoons led to far less fatalities – a total of about 2,500, according to Social Welfare and Development Secretary Corazon Soliman, although most reports say 1,700 – but lower numbers do not lessen the pain for the families who lost their loved ones. Apparently, too, a lower death toll did little to improve the ability of national and local officials alike to draw up and carry out a rehabilitation plan for the survivors and the towns themselves.

Some 880,000 people were displaced, 38,000 homes destroyed and 130,000 more damaged by the landslides which were partly blamed on excessive logging.

“You cannot say it is illegal logging per se,” said Environment Secretary Michael Defensor, pointing out that water for an entire year came down in just a matter of days. “But I wouldn’t deny the fact that logging also created or added problems.”

Nongovernment organizations (NGOs) moved quickly to help almost as soon as the typhoons died down, as did some national government agencies. But while domestic and foreign donations poured in, coordination between national and local governments seemed to bog down even as local folk said shady activities began taking place. Thus, when this journalist visited Aurora and Quezon six months after the typhoons struck, she found the affected towns still in disarray, just like Aceh. Local residents also echoed the Acehnese lament that had it not been for the NGOs and some private corporations, they would probably be in a far sorrier state.

Rebuilding lost homes and businesses

In General Nakar, Quezon, for instance, it was the Philippine telecommunications giant Smart Communications that sponsored a livelihood program that trained local folk to carve driftwood into art pieces. In Infanta, also in Quezon, a local church organization teamed up with the municipal government to provide temporary shelters for those who had lost their houses.

Infanta resort owner Alejandro Gucilatar was among those fortunate enough to still have their homes. Months after the disaster, however, Gucilatar also still had big logs strewn through the white-sand beach that was among the come-ons of his resort. He used to have 12 rooms and cottages for rent, but that number was now down to eight after the calamity. Which was just as well, because he wasn’t doing much business anyway. “After the floods six months ago,” the 64-year-old told the journalist, “I had no more than 10 guests including you.”

Just 10 minutes away from Gucilatar’s resort, some villagers had apparently tired of living in evacuation centers and makeshift camps. They had armed themselves with chainsaws with which they were going to cut up the logs scattered all over the area and use these to rebuild their houses. To avoid quarrels over the logs, they had written their names on their picks. “Fellow villagers will respect that,” said one man.

Billy de la Cruz, 42, was among those who had a rented chainsaw in their hands. De la Cruz used to grow corn, but the flood had washed away his crop, along with his home. For the last few months, he and his family – his wife, two children, and his grandmother – had been living in a tent donated by the Red Cross. But now he wanted to stake claim once more on the land where his house once stood; he planned to build his new house at the exact same spot. “I know the government wants us to move to a relocation site,” he said, “but this is my ancestors’ home.”

It was no stroke of luck that de la Cruz had found it easy to rent a chainsaw. Logging and lumber were major industries in Quezon, as well as in Aurora. In fact, overlogging had largely been blamed for the landslide, and local folk had also said that had the muddy waters not been filled with logs that slammed against their houses, the destruction might have been less.

The Department of Environment and National Resources (DENR) had said no one was to move the logs (which it suspected were cut mostly by illegal loggers, although many observers and industry insiders said otherwise) from the calamity areas until it had finished its investigation. It promised that afterward, the logs could be used to rebuild homes in the devastated towns.

Missing logs and money

At least there were still logs around for de la Cruz to cut when he finally decided to ditch his Red Cross tent. In many other towns and villages, log upon log had somehow been spirited away, frustrating the local folk who had counted on these to use in their new homes.

In Dingalan, Aurora, where the mud had halved many houses or buried them all the way up to the roof, the mayor himself was even accused of having a hand in the supposed disappearance of a significant number of logs that the floods had brought into the town. Not a few of Dingalan townfolk noted that while many of them were still living in their evacuation centers, Mayor Jaime Ylarde had decided to refurbish the cockfighting arena. Asked Municipal Councilor Sheila Taay: “Why give a new roof to the (arena) while people still have no roofs over their heads?”

But that was not the only axe Taay had to grind against Ylarde. She alleged that the mayor had misused a 2-million-peso (about 37,000 U.S. dollars) calamity fund given by the national government for the town’s rehabilitation efforts, along with “donations and our own calamity fund.” She also said that three weeks after local editor and publisher Philip Agustin published the results of an investigation she, a lawyer, and other councilors had done on the matter, the journalist was murdered.

“I feel sad and lonely after Ape Agustin was killed,” said Taay. “But I also feel strong because we were fighting for the right cause.”

Agustin died just when he was about to release a special edition of his paper reiterating the mayor’s alleged involvement in the “missing” money and logs, as well as relief goods that had seemed to have been lost, too.

According to Taay, the mayor said that he spent the calamity fund from the national government “on the people” and for clearing the roads of mud. He has been subpoenaed in connection with the Agustin murder case.

Confronted with the allegations linking him to the journalist’s murder, as well as those regarding misuse of the calamity funds, Mayor Ylarde said, “Maybe that’s only politically motivated. I told local police to conduct investigation so they can arrest the responsible people.” Four men who looked like his security men were hanging out in the front yard of his house, where he was interviewed. One of them was busy cleaning a handgun. Said Ylarde, by way of explanation: “Politicians, like police and soldiers, are always in danger, so we take precautions.”

Resettlement worries

The mayor did admit, though, that he was having problems looking for resettlement sites for some villages marked as vulnerable and disaster-prone by the DENR.

“We plan to relocate those from Barangay (village) Paltig to higher ground,” he said. “But we are now facing a problem for there are no government lands to give them. These lands are privately owned and the (municipality) has no sufficient funds to buy those lands. Dingalan is one of the poorest towns in the province, and Aurora is one of the poorest provinces in the Philippines.”

Ylarde, however, was obviously not among the poorest folk in Dingalan. Of two big, distinguished houses that were among the new structures in the town, one belonged to him, according to the locals. The other, they said, belonged to another municipal official.

In the meantime, several Paltig families had already moved to Barangay Tanawan, just a few kilometers away from their former beachfront community. More were poised to follow suit, which worried the Tanawan barangay captain. He said that disputes were already breaking out over land rights after the transferees arrived. Now water was about to become another major concern as well. “We used to have no more than 100 families,” he said. “Now that there are 700 more coming, water from the spring is not enough.”

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