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A mass grave, new houses, people’s reefs

/ 12:04 AM February 16, 2015

In a cemetery in the north of Tacloban City is the mass grave of some 2,000 victims of “Yolanda.” We see row upon row of white crosses, a third of the people known to have died that day in November 2013. Small birds circle the crosses, seemingly calling to them, “Come fly with us!” Perhaps they think the white crosses are birds, too.

Other lasting reminders of the tragedy are the twisted remains of large factories, office buildings and bodegas. It seems people have had enough money to replace their homes and shops, but not the very large structures; it is even too costly to simply remove them. They are permanent reminders of how powerful nature can be and how we must remain humble in the face of its might.

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In the south of the city near the airport, new transitional houses are rising. The foundations laid out in rows can remind people of the mass grave. There are flocks of children here rather than birds. In the area called Pretencio, a kind couple gave the children two small puppies. One is gray with black spots, so he is called “Tiger” despite his size; the other, a white fluffy ball with a black patch on his forehead, is “Panda.” The puppies have dozens of children to play with. When the children tire of chasing them, the puppies chase the children.

The transitional homes are built on private land leased from the owners for P100-P150 a month for a two-year period. They cost no more than P30,000, but they are solid, 18 square meters in area, with a kitchen and a small porch where the people sit in the evenings like county squires and ladies talking about the day gone by. There are also toilets.

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The houses are not expensive, but they are very superior to the tents and shanties that the people lived in for a year after Yolanda. They are a temporary or transitional solution that the government can fund until, as the law requires, it provides decent permanent homes with lasting land tenure security and access to jobs. The government can begin this movement to a permanent solution by reexamining its overall relocation policies that currently intend to settle 14,000 or so poor families in the far north of the city where there are no jobs, and no realistic hope of creating enough jobs for at least the next five to 10 years.

Jobs are the heart of the matter. But regular jobs paying a family living wage are now hard to come by. The two great traditional sources of jobs in the Leyte-Samar area, coconut farming and fishing, are in very bad shape. The coconut industry was near knocked out by Yolanda. Fishing, then already declining because of the use of dynamite, poison and destructive nets, was further hurt by the typhoon. Fishermen told us they now make only a third of what they once made.

There are government agencies trying to remedy the situation, but so far they have had limited success. These agencies don’t seem to have the resources at hand, the control of the bureaucracy, and the adequate policing powers to make a dent in the problem. Government officials told us, for example, that they don’t have the ability to control the larger fishing boats of the rich and powerful that use ruinous methods of fishing.

I would like to report on a small project of marginal fisherman that shows in some ways the directions we must take, though it is far from being a total solution.

I have had the privilege to be involved with a group of fishermen who are trying to create their own artificial reefs to replace the natural reefs that malevolent fishermen and nature have destroyed. In the new reefs the mother fish will be able to lay their eggs safely, as they once did in the natural coral reefs, and the supply of fish can be increased. If repeated hundreds of times in different places, the stocks of fish in the Leyte Gulf may be restored.

The project is a modest attempt to use materials at hand to build the artificial reefs. The fishermen have their own knowledge of the Gulf waters, but they will also work with marine geologists and engineers. They will build their own means of transport, design their own reefs, and assemble their own means of protecting the reefs. They want government help in all this, but they fear the negativism of government bureaucrats. Some rules are necessary, of course, but a good government must encourage creativity and not just be a curmudgeon.

I see the willingness of the fishermen to take chances. They know there will be problems with the fishing boats of the rich and even with some government officials, but they are willing to build the reefs all the same. This is true practical courage. They have benefited from a yearlong community organization process; they know what is best for them and they know how to get to that goal. I think they are also caught up in the exciting adventure of building their own future.

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These fishermen teach us some of the inputs needed for regeneration of the fish stocks—namely, the active participation of ordinary fishermen, and a willingness to try new ways of doing things and to respect their creativity. The government should listen to what they have to say.

Other remedies have failed to turn the tide, so why not support the efforts of the fishermen themselves? Cash for work will make it easier for them to carry out their vision. A minimum wage of P260 a day for a two-month period for 25 fishermen would be very, very helpful. Two articles in the Business section of the Inquirer (2/3/15) announce the government’s recognition that it must pump funds into the economy to spur growth. Why not do so through the marginal fishermen in the form of a daily wage for work done?

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates ([email protected]).

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TAGS: nation, news, Poverty, Tacloban, Yolanda
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