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PHILIPPINES: Storm-weary Farmers Suffer Huge Losses

Prime Sarmiento

BAGUIO CITY, Philippines, Oct 20 2009 (IPS) - Café by the Ruins, a popular rustic restaurant situated in Baguio City, the Philippines’ famed mountain city resort, usually caters to tourists and residents who enjoy sipping their cups of brewed coffee while appreciating the artworks displayed on the café’s stone walls.

These days, however, the quaint café is busy running a soup kitchen – coordinating about a dozen café staff and volunteers in cooking and delivering meals to evacuees whose homes and farms were destroyed by Typhoon ‘Parma’.

Many of these evacuees are farmers whose lands have been ravaged by one of the most devastating typhoons to hit their homes and main source of livelihood in recent years.

Shortly after learning that the evacuees needed food, clothes and medicines, manager Feliz Perez and the co-owners of the café — a group of entrepreneurs, artists and art lovers — turned the café into a temporary relief center, invited volunteers to help, and accepted donations of food, money and blankets for the typhoon’s victims.

The café has been delivering between 200 and 300 packed meals daily to evacuees in Baguio and nearby towns in Benguet, a landlocked province in the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR), home to indigenous tribes collectively called ‘Igorot’.

Perez said the evacuees often request mung beans “because they are more filling,” alluding to the fact that most evacuees do not have immediate access to food and thus need to eat something that will keep them full while waiting for the next delivery of relief goods.

CAR encompasses most of the areas within the Cordillera Central mountain range of Luzon, the largest island of the Philippines. Blessed with fertile soil and cool weather, farming is one of the region’s key industries.

The farm folk of Cordillera supply vegetables and mountain-grown rice and coffee to both local and international markets.

But the back-to-back typhoons — ‘Ketsana’ and ‘Parma’ — that swept through the country in late September and early October changed the fortunes not only of the Cordillera but other key food-producing provinces of Luzon.

One of these is Nueva Ecija, in Central Luzon, the rice granary of the Philippines. Lito Tambalo feels lucky enough that the floods did not destroy the one-hectare farmland that his family had been tilling for decades. However, Parma damaged most of his rice crop.

“I’m supposed to thresh the rice that I just harvested, but I wasn’t able to dry the grain because of the rains,” said the 40-year-old farmer. He added that he was forced to sell his rice at a price hardly enough to recover his capital.

Even if the typhoons have left the country, Tambalo will not be able to plant because most irrigation facilities have been damaged. Besides, he said, the rains might just damage his harvest, which makes him hesitant to spend for another cropping season — assuming he even has money to spare.

Philippine agriculture officials said the agriculture sector suffered the most from the two cyclones. They placed the total damage to agriculture and fisheries wrought by the two typhoons at 18.5 billion pesos (397.65 million U.S dollars). The amount covers lost crops, fish and livestock, the damaged irrigation facilities and 200,000 hectares of submerged land.

The impact of the two typhoons on Luzon was so huge that it forced Philippine agriculture secretary Arthur Yap to downscale the country’s farm growth rate to between 0.5 and 1.5 percent from the previous target of three percent. Luzon accounts for roughly 50 percent of the country’s total farm output.

The worse part is that hunger and poverty now persist in what is supposed to be the country’s food basket. The once abundant farmlands — now heavily damaged — may no longer be rehabilitated, depriving farmers of their main source of food and livelihood. In an economic forum held last week, Yap said that the two typhoons left more than 50,000 farmer families in Luzon “in a state of financial ruin, hunger and severe poverty.”

Unless the government will provide loans and subsidies, it will be difficult for these farmers to recover from this devastation, said Rolando Dy, executive director of the Center for Food and Agribusiness at the University of Asia and the Pacific (UA&P).

“These farmers lost everything, ” he said. Aside from the fact that their land and irrigation system were destroyed, he added, they might also be deep in debt, having borrowed money for planting crops. With their crops destroyed, they will be hard put to repay their debts.

And while several NGOs, government agencies and international organisations have been actively providing much needed help to these farmers, not all of them were benefiting from their donations, at least during the first few days after the typhoon.

Santos Mero, deputy secretary-general of the Cordillera People’s Alliance (CPA), a federation of indigenous people’s organizations in northern Luzon, said they could not send relief goods to other hard-hit Cordillera provinces like Ifugao, Apayao and the Mountain Province, as the main road connecting Baguio City were rendered unpassable by the slides brought about typhoon.

Mero said that over 2,000 farmer families in these areas are in dire need of relief goods, which is why CPA is also helping the workers to clear the roads so that they can send them basic supplies such as rice, cooking oil, soap and clothes.

But Mero said that food donations are just palliative measures. What is more important is to help these farmers get back on their feet and reclaim their livelihood.

“The next step is rehabilitation. We’ll be asking our member organisations and the government to provide seeds and other farm inputs so that these farmers can start over,” he said.

Mero, along with and other farmers, may just get their wish. In a speech delivered in an agricultural forum held last week, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said that she had already directed Yap to distribute seeds to farmers within this month. She added Yap would prioritise seed distribution to areas that had not been severely affected by flooding to ensure that they can be planted immediately.

UA&P’s Dy welcomed the presidential directive, but noted that the government assistance must come in as soon as possible so that the farmers can plant and at least reclaim their capital.

In the meantime, the likes of Perez and Mero will continue cooking porridge and boiled mung beans– to temporarily stave off hunger, giving the evacuees strength for another day.

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