Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Green shoots, deep roots

Six months after Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines, areas in Leyte Province are much greener, showing signs of hope. Photo: Jack Amick

By Rev. Jack Amick*
On my recent visit to the Yolanda-affected area of Leyte, Philippines, I couldn’t help but notice how green things had become. It was green when I visited in January, but not this green. Such a contrast to the landscape that met me in November, 10 days after Typhoon Haiyan (locally called Typhoon Yolanda) made landfall. Then, everything was brown and dark. Brown, with most of the vegetation killed from the salt-water assault of the storm surge and the strong winds that flung the deadly brew of mud, salt, flotsam and jetsam far up the hills; dark, from the pervasive lack of electricity.

Now, six months later, green is the dominant color. Gone are many of the truncated coconut palm trees, cut down and milled using chainsaws. This fresh “coco” lumber, not the best suited for construction, is, nonetheless, often used to build temporary structures. Remaining, are live coconut trees, not as many as before, certainly, but topped with healthy, if not completely full crowns of palm fronds. In one area, the grass had come back so tenaciously, that a young man was wielding a gas-powered weed whip to cut the plants back from three feet to three inches. In other fields, rice plants, green but clearly topped with abundant heads of grain, danced in the gentle breeze. Teams of people were harvesting rice and spreading their bounty on the road to dry in the hot sun.

There was another type of greening happening, in American parlance. Just about everywhere, in the towns and villages and along many roads, people were selling things. My colleague, UMCOR manager of international disaster response activities, Francesco Paganini, noted that “the human being is a deeply capitalist creature. People outside a refugee camp will cut bars of soap into four pieces and sell them at the edge of the camp within a week of its establishment.” But the enterprise that we saw in and around Tacloban and Tanauan was much more far-reaching than slicing up soap. Everything from gasoline to comic books to mangoes to plastic housewares was available at the roadside.

The mayor of Tanauan, Pel Tecson, is a former regional executive of a multinational corporation, and it is not surprising that the entrepreneurial spirit trickles down in this area. UMCOR has engaged in a new partnership with this municipality to bring durable housing to the barangay (or community) of Cologcog. We have taken the time to work with the municipal and barangay leadership to account for issues of equity, durability, economics and community resilience.

As a child, I remember the Easter hymn that begins “Now the green blade rises, from the buried grain….” There are certainly “green shoots” of hope rising in UMCOR’s work in the wake of the Yolanda disaster. Six months later, those closest to the work in this area—myself and Francesco Paganini, providing managerial oversight from New York; Malaya Conejas, our on-the-ground program officer in Calogcog; Toots Modesto, the barangay captain; and Mayor Tecson and the city engineers, have seen the following “green shoots”:

Green Shoots, Deep Roots
• After important discussions between the Tanauan Municipal Council and UMCOR staff, the Mayor of Tanauan and the Calogcog Barangay Captain signed a Memorandum of Agreement with UMCOR on April 29, 2014. This historic partnership between UMCOR and the local municipality allows UMCOR to proceed with the building of the first of more than 200 houses that we expect to build in this community. This green shoot was preceded by months of listening to the needs of the community and local leadership alike.

• Using a model plan of a core house designed to withstand both wind and water, Tanauan City engineers have begun tailoring that design to the individual property of 10 Yolanda survivors who lost their homes. More designs will follow soon on the heels of these 10. These houses are intended to be core homes, to which the homeowner can easily make improvements when they are able to do so and have the necessary additional resources.

• An UMCOR project office (a tent, actually, like those in the old TV series “MASH”) was established right in the barangay of Calogcog, affording the program officer easy access to the 200-plus families living in this community, and vice-versa. The citizens of Calogcog have had lots of questions, and our staff is readily available to answer them. The program officer makes regular visits to people in their temporary homes (tents, tarps and the like) to gather project-related information, but also to build relationships with the beneficiaries. Several meetings have been held with the community to share concerns, discuss next steps, and keep moving forward together.
The Rev. Jack Amick examines the cement blocks produced through partner GlobalMedic. Photo courtesy of Jack Amick

• UMCOR has identified international partner GlobalMedic as a logistics coordinator for the project. UMCOR has partnered with GlobalMedic around the world and found them to be very skilled at expediting shipments of disaster response materials. GlobalMedic has established production of cement blocks in a nearby village which will supply the Calogcog project with high quality press blocks. At the same time, this activity will result in some income generation.

• Also, in partnership with GlobalMedic, UMCOR has distributed Rainfresh water purifiers and provided training on their safe operation and maintenance to the community of Calogcog. Together, we will be providing water purifiers to other communities in the region.

• UMCOR has completed intake interviews with approximately a third of the families in Calogcog. It is our goal that everyone in the community whose home was destroyed will receive a core house. Those who have more income will pay for skilled labor for their house and the house of another beneficiary.• Improvements are being made to a nearby warehouse, so that it will be ready to receive building supplies in the near future.

When Francesco and I visited with Rev. Lelito “Lito” Luana, the pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in nearby Tacloban, I noted how green everything looked to me and that there were now “green shoots” with our shelter project, too. Francesco reminded me that those “green shoots” were the results of “deep roots”—of listening, planning and hard work by many, many people. These “green shoots” are signs of the resurrection in the community of Calogcog. They came by taking the time to plant “deep roots” of partnership in the last several months. We know that our presence will not be permanent—our office is a tent, and our staff is light—but we want the project to be nonetheless rooted in relationships of trust.

In addition to food aid, UMCOR has responded to the disaster with strategies that would result in permanent healing, not just band-aids; sustainable solutions, not temporary fixes. UMCOR’s strategy in Calogcog might be called “durable disaster response.” Where water was needed, UMCOR provided purifiers that, with proper maintenance, would last at least five years. Where shelter was required, UMCOR skipped the temporary strategy employed by so many humanitarian agencies of providing tarps and tents and “kits” of building supplies, and opted to take the time to “build back better.” We chose to work with everyone who lost a home, not just the worst off.

We realize that this strategy can’t be applied everywhere, not even to every community affected by Yolanda. We know we can’t fix everything. There is much work to be done and many local and international partners ready to do the work. But we believe that we can fix one community and, in that community, we can work together with disaster survivors and local officials to “build back better”—not just houses but lives.

It is my hope that, in a year, we will clearly see the fruit of these labors. But, for now, it is the Easter season in Calogcog and, now, the green shoots of hope are rising.

*Rev. Jack Amick is UMCOR assistant general secretary for International Disaster Response.