Last September 2013, we booked a trip for mid-December to visit Coron, Palawan. We anticipated an adventure-packed trip of wreck-diving, wild-camping, kayaking, eating a lot, and relaxing with friends…little did we know that this trip was going to mean so much more than just a holiday.

On 8th November 2013 – Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) struck. The wind travelled at 235km per hour, with gusts of 275kph (Source: PAGASA); Haiyan took with her people’s homes, sources of livelihood, natural building materials, and made it difficult to obtain food. The initial reaction of my travel companions was that we should cancel the trip due to fears of personal health and safety. I pushed for the trip to carry on, because tourism was one of the main sources of income for people of Coron and its neighbours. As the weeks passed, we reassessed the situation based on the rapid recovery the town was making. We reviewed our purpose of traveling, and dedicated a couple of days of the week to reach out to affected communities.

While waiting for our departure from the UK, I worked on partnerships with established charities and successfully came to an agreement with Land is Life and International Disaster Volunteers (IDV). Within a day of the typhoon striking, I had set up a Facebook page to help gather resources and get people talking to each other to help out. I did not start it to raise funds, but as it gathered momentum, it made sense to try to raise a little so that we could do something to help while we were out there. Again, Facebook had proved to be a wonderful resource for everyone. Not only were people coming together to help out, but it was a light of hope for those who thought no help was coming. Yet – I hold my reservations – because I also saw how this resource was abused…but let’s not go there.

Visiting Coron

Seeing the airport roofs in disrepair only 6 months after my solo visit to Coron was a minor shock, what really shocked me more was the drive through the beautiful hills between the town and the airport. The trees were stripped of most of their leaves; the wind had churned its way through the valley. Large trunks had been cleared from the roads. As we made our way to the drop-off point, I could see a lot more of the sea, where dwellings and shops had previously stood. To my relief, it seemed business was going as usual. The market was buzzing, albeit some damage to the docks. Buildings around town were still slowly being repaired but people had focused on their livelihood before repairing their homes. We spent a couple of days diving and kayaking, while our other friends toured the area. In between our trips, I arranged meetings to find out more about how we could help. I met with my good friend Lia Ramos, who told us of her own mini-relief efforts and their experience during the typhoon.

“We had all our staff here (in her ancestral home) with us…the wind was so strong, we could not even hear each other. It went on for over an hour…then stopped. Then came back in the opposite direction even stronger than the first time. We thought the roof would come off…”

We also met with Al Lingsangan, who, with his wife Mae, runs Coron Ecotours, and helps indigenous communities through their Foundation. After the typhoon, he was kind enough to allow me to use some of his photographs of the aftermath for the campaign here in the UK. His main concern was that the communities in the ‘highlands’ were looked after, as they would have been cut-off from supplies due to fallen trees and debris. All the while, I was taking in and learning what seemed more important to the people, and assessing where we could help out. Andy Chaggar of IDV made a trip to Coron personally to see it for himself, and to see how IDV would be able to work with the Rebuild Coron Initiative. I introduced him to yet another amazing indvidual, Nicole Tayag, who – with her mother, also reached out to several communities, distributing relief goods using funds sent from friends and family abroad. She took the IDV team to villages further out of Coron, to assess whether damage and repairs needed international intervention.

Our Mini-Typhoon Relief Mission

On our final day, Tim and I took a motorbike half an hour out of Coron town, to see smaller villages for ourselves. We reached Balisongan, Bayo-Bayo 1, Barangay Tagumpay, Cabu Beach, and Barangay 6. We brought with us some packs of dried fish and over PHP26,000 in cash from donations sent directly to us. Our mission was simply to meet the locals, talk to them about what they experienced, and hand them some monetary help to make their Christmas more enjoyable.

(Tap on the photos to scroll through gallery)

 

It was tough walking and talking to people, only because there were so many that needed help yet we could not help them all. We observed that the local government had helped a few families who were ‘registered voters’ – and had helped those with photographs of the damage of their homes. Approximately 3 waves of relief were distributed 30 minutes away from the town centre, but no further. Indigenous Tagbanua families had received some food, but no monetary support. Some families received PHP5,000 as a one-off fund to help rebuild homes or boats, but this was obvioulsy not enough; especially when obtaining these funds seemed like hard work. Moreover, when we drove past the town Coliseum, we saw stacks of rice, behind locked gates. Where was all this rice going to go? The families in Bgy. Tagumpay had only received half a sack of rice in the month since the typhoon struck. The town centre was rich with goods. Bottles of water were stacked high, yet only 20 minutes away from the town, a lady who ran her own tuck shop (sari-sari) could not sell us water.

Sawa na kami sa mga de-lata. Sana sakong bigas nalang o kaya materiyales para sa aming bahay. (We are tired of canned goods, why not just give us rice or materials to rebuid our homes and businesses?)

There was something slightly off about how prosperous the town seemed to be in a short period of time, yet the people in the outskirts were still struggling. In every village we visited, I asked how much they bought their tinned roofing for. In one village, it was PHP420, the next PHP490…and the further it was, the price hiked up to over PHP500. Despite the Coron Mayor implementing a price freeze, those that could afford the materials just bought what they could. There was a struggle to get the woven fiber walls ‘sawali’, as the natural material had been damaged or lost. A lot of coconut trees had lost their leaves, and people were traveling further out, scavenging for building materials.

In the fishing village of Bayo-Bayo 1, we met an elderly retired couple who had been lucky to receive building materials from an American naval ship. Stacked behind their home were a few sheets of good quality tin roofing and some timber; but their dilemma was that they were too old and not strong enough to rebuild their home on their own, and that they could not afford to buy nails or bolts. The lady had to go back to work as a laundry lady in town just to get some money to buy materials. Another man, who was a fisherman, sat idly in his cousin’s home (or what was left of it); he told me his boat got washed away, otherwise he’d be out there fishing.

 

The Communities We Visited

Don’t get me wrong. These people were not miserable about their situations. They were just grateful someone was listening and someone was willing to help, even just a little bit. I had to try to see beyond their stories and read their eyes – read their body language, and see whether they were being genuine; yet in front of my eyes was the evidence. I had known this place just 6 months before, and I knew they were telling the truth. I asked a couple of the men what they would do if some money was handed over to them. They were determined to get back to their livelihoods so that they could repair their homes and start providing for their families again. These people had the right attitudes. They were not going to depend on relief. These were the people I really wanted to help.

These people were not ‘impoverished’ as the media and even the local government put it. Their lifestyles were generally healthy, and they lived off the land and sea. They were far from starving. The typhoon brought them difficulty because all they worked for over the course of their lives was blown down or washed away, in a matter of hours – but it was great to see their attitude and spirits were not.

 

What Now?

Upon returning to Manila, I was fortunate to meet Robi Sandoval, who with Lia Ramos, Sarita Jovellanos, and the rest of their family will be donating 10 hectares of their land to an informal-settler community in Sitio Tagum (near the area of Barangay Tagumpay). I also met with Nerissa Piamonte, a lady from a noble indigenous Mindanao family, full of enthusiasm and positive energy. She started her own initiative, called Tulong Balik Eskwela (Help to Return to School) for schools in the Calamines Islands – of which Coron is a part of; and we are working on a partnership with some primary schools here in Bristol, and possibly in the US through the help of Joseph Heady.

My main focus is the Resettlement Project, working with the land donors. There still is approximately GBP570 left of donations, this money will be a good head start to the project once it is on site. We will be able to use this and other funds from sponsors, to help the community buy building materials and become part of it. I am currently gathering a fantastic team of collaborators, mainly based here in Bristol.

We will be proposing a master plan and building typology for an Eco-Village, aiming for this to become an exemplar development – with a clear focus on sustainable provincial living: going ‘back to basics’.

I am extremely grateful to all friends, colleagues, and family who have helped out, and who have generously given (you all know who you are!). I am grateful to all those who continue to show their support, and who have encouraged me to continue. I am especially touched by the help extented to this cause by the Bay Tree Class of Victoria Park Primary School, whose children have such a passion and understanding for what is important to this world.

Our trip to Coron was indeed successful, and although we only gave a couple of days to the mini-relief and assessment of communities, we came back much more informed and with greater direction…on top of having a perfect holiday.

We are still accepting DONATIONS through our page for IDV found here.