Philippines: People resist catastrophic climate destruction

The 'Peoples Caravan', initiated by the Party of the Labouring Masses, is taking relief directly to affected areas.

Catastrophic climate change due to greenhouse gas emissions from industry is not merely a future threat for humanity. It is happening now.

When Super Typhoon Yolanda (known outside the Philippines by its Chinese name, Haiyan) slammed into the islands of Samar and Leyte in the Philippines’ Eastern Visayas region on November 8, and cut a path of destruction through the Visayas, it was the strongest storm ever recorded to hit the cyclone-prone Philippines.

According to some scientists, it was strongest storm to ever hit land anywhere on Earth.

When Philippine chief negotiator Yeb Sano tearfully addressed the Warsaw conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change on November 11, he attributed the devastation directly to human caused climate change. This was generally unquestioned.

Not, however, by Australia’s recently elected climate science denialist government — which pointedly failed to send a minister to the Warsaw talks.

In the first question time of the newly elected parliament on November 13, Prime Minister Tony Abbott responded to a question from Greens MP Adam Bandt by saying that the Super Typhoon could not be attributed to greenhouse gas emissions with scientific certainty.

This is true to the extent that if a heavy smoker dies young from lung cancer, you cannot say with scientific certainty that smoking killed them — just that it vastly increased the probability that they would die the way they did.

No single weather event can be attributed to climate change and the Philippines has always been affected by typhoons. However, climate scientists’ models predicted that these events would be more frequent and stronger. And they have — with Yolanda the strongest yet.

So frequent have tyhpoons become in the Philippines that Sano’s tearful pleas are becoming an annual event at UN climate summits. During the Doha climate talks in December last year, it was Cyclone Pablo that was devastating his homeland.

Apocalyptic

Climate change is real and its effects are apocalyptic.

Communications with Leyte and Samar have been mostly cut since November 8. Initially there was no news, which Filipino government spokespeople used to imply there were few casualties.

By November 10, a figure of 10,000 dead just in Tacloban City, on Leyte, was being quoted. The government’s efforts to revise down this body count have included sacking the official responsible for the estimate: the chief superintendent of police for Leyte Province, Elmer Soria.

More than 80% of buildings were destroyed, as were almost all crops, power and communications installations and other infrastructure. Government and civic organisation dissolved.

A week after the typhoon struck Tacloban, most of its residents had still received no food, water, medicine or tents — and the dead were still decomposing in the streets.

Military cargo planes started landing and taking off in Tacloban apparently carrying relief supplies. But for days, no aid was delivered.

Foreign journalists reported desperate survivors thronging the airport hoping to leave on the military planes, but it was only on November 14 that airforce began evacuating survivors, the November 15 Philippine Star said.

More remote areas affected have not even received the minimal attention that Tacloban has. The fate of these areas, which are without any telecommunications and ignored by visiting journalists, has been absent from the media.

Sano drew attention to the fact that rich countries were responsible for most greenhouse gas emissions and poor countries, such as the Philippines, were currently suffering most from the effects.

However, his vision of climate justice did not go beyond asking the rich countries with more help in mitigating the effects.

Climate debt

A 1000-strong protest outside the US Embassy in Manila on November 11 demanded that the rich countries pay their “climate debt” — reparations for the devastation already caused by profits by emissions. Protesters demanded rich nations immediately cut emissions to a safe level, something not on the agenda of the UN climate talks.

A November 10 statement by the left-wing Party of the Labouring Masses (PLM) said: “Our international ‘allies’, such as the US, … have sent us their best wishes. But these so-called ‘allies’ are also responsible for the situation faced by our people.

“These typhoons are part of the climate crisis phenomenon faced by the world today … The still-rising greenhouse gas emissions responsible for the climate crisis are disproportionately emitted by the rich and developed countries, from the US, Europe to Australia.

“For centuries, these rich, developed countries have polluted and plundered our societies, emitting too much greenhouse gases to satisfy their greed for profit.

“They have built countless destructive projects all over the world like polluting factories, coal-fired power plants, nuclear power plants and mega dams. They have also pushed for policies allowing extractive industries to practice wasteful and irresponsible extraction of the Earth’s minerals.

“They continue to wage environmentally destructive wars and equip war industries, for corporate profits. All of this has fast-tracked the devastation of the Earth’s ecological system and brought about unprecedented changes in the planet’s climate.

“But these are the same rich countries whose political elite are ignoring climate change and the climate crisis. Australia has recently elected a government that denies the very existence of climate change and has refused to send even a junior minister to the climate conference in Warsaw, Poland…

“The way the rich countries demand debt payments from us, we now demand the payment of their climate debts, for climate justice and for them to take every necessary measure to cut back their greenhouse gas emission in the shortest time possible.

“These rich ‘friends’ have preached to us about our courage and resilience. But as many here have pointed out, resilience is not just taking all the blows with a smiling face. Resilience is fighting back.”

Teody Navea, PLM secretary in Cebu City in the typhoon-affected Central Visayas region, told Green Left Weekly: “Even though we are fighting the construction of dirty coal-fired power stations here in Cebu, we don’t know if our efforts will succeed because the amount we contribute to the emission of greenhouse gasses is very negligible, unlike the rich countries …

“The Philippines is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change and Cebu, where I am now, is ranked the 12th most vulnerable province in the Philippines [out of 80]. But whatever campaigns we do will go to waste because these rich nations continue to emit dirty gases that contribute to calamities like Yolanda.

“This is why we believe the Philippines government should be supporting our calls to stop, or drastically reduce, rich nations’ emissions of gas.”

On November 13, Sano told Deutsche Welle: “We have all the other problems of a developing country to overcome too. Poverty, education, health — we just don’t have enough money to adequately protect ourselves from extreme weather.”

Corrupt government of the elites

This is true, however he was stretching the truth when he used it to argue that his government couldn’t do more in the crisis. The Philippines’ role in the global economy as an exporter of cheap labour for the rich nation corporations is facilitated by a Filipino elite comprised of political dynasties whose wealth is based on political office.

The priorities of this elite has been exposed by their response to Super Typhoon Yolanda: to prioritise “law and order” over relief. Soldiers were dispatched to stop “looting” — by desperate people in need of food and water.

“This is not looting,” the PLM statement said. “People are taking food, where they can get it, in order to survive. If there is no timely and organised support system from government, people just have to do it themselves.”

A November 14 PLM statement charged that the government’s “response had been to send in armed troops to re-establish ‘authority’ — that is, to protect the property of the rich and business interests.

“Tonnes of relief goods and billions of dollars of aid have been sent by the international community, but these all sit in warehouses and relief stations and have not been delivered to the people …

“The traditional politicians, the political dynasties of elite clans, these rent-seeking rulers who exist and persist parasitically on the gangrene of poverty and underdevelopment have proven themselves unworthy of continued leadership in our country.”

Local elites in Samar and Leyte were so concerned about “law and order” that they unsuccessfully lobbied the government to declare martial law. Yolanda did not leave the local elites with much property to defend, but the militarisation of relief allows the elites to control its distribution to help reestablish control.

Grassroots relief

More assistance has reached the stricken areas through the efforts of ordinary people than the authorities. This includes family groups getting in boats looking for relatives, but there are also more organised initiatives such as the delivery of aid to the University of the Philippines campus in Tacloban by students from the main campus in Manila.

On the morning of November 13, two 10-ton trucks and a fleet of jeeps and cars left Manila with donated relief goods. This “Peoples Caravan” was organised by the PLM with support from the PMT transport workers union and other community groups.

The donations overwhelmingly came from Manila’s poor. Donations continued to be given as the “People's Caravan” travelled south through Philippines’ main island, Luzon.

PLM chairperson Sonny Melencio told GLW from the convoy while it was still in mobile phone range: “In Calamba, the community donated cases of bottled water and clothes, and it is a good sign, because people in the community came out to give the goods to us …

“While the trucks were filling up at a gas station, someone came up and gave us a 1000 peso donation. People are donating because they know where we are going and what we’re doing and are giving us discounts along the way.”

The government and the big international groups and NGOs have been using the threat of looting as their excuse for not distributing the substantial amounts of aid they are accumulating. But Melencio said: “If we cannot get our aid to our intended destination because people in areas that have also been hit by the calamity are desperate and want it, then so be it.

“This caravan is just the first, we intend to keep it going because we might not be able to reach our intended final destination …

“Actually right now we’ve got a lot of goods in Manila that people are bringing. The problem is distributing them … I don’t think security is that bad. It’s the media and also the businessmen who have been playing it up.”

On November 15, the caravan reached Calbayog City in Samar. Melencio said: “People in Samar and Leyte have had no food for days, almost a week now, and people are walking in the street desperately foraging or trying to get out of the place.

“Actually, we’ve been getting queries about whether we can bring people out — not only deliver food, but bring people out when we go back.”

PLM branches closer to affected areas have also been coordinating grassroots relief independently of the government, international bodies and large NGOs.

Navea told GLW: “Right now, here in Cebu we are having ongoing operations … We are focusing our efforts in Bantayan Island. We are also mobilising some goods intended for Leyte, Tacloban City.

“We have members who are affected in Bantayan Island. It is part of Cebu Province. Unfortunately, it was the hardest hit by the landfall of Typhoon Yolanda, together with Tacloban.

“We are still accounting the names of our members who died, but we have created a taskforce already who will be going there at the earliest opportunity tomorrow. We have gathered together goods for them.

“The relief mobilisation is in coordination with Sanlakas, Philippines Movement for Climate Justice, Freedom from Debt Coalition and Action for Nurturing Children and the Environment.

“Other areas affected include Cebu City, Lapu-Lapu City, Mandaue, Minglanilla and Talisay City. Compared to Bantayan and Tacloban, there was only slight damage in these areas but we are still distributing relief goods in them.

“It’s really unfortunate that the national government is not really prepared to help the victims. There are still dead on the streets.

“Despite the donations pouring in from various countries right now, it still hasn’t gotten to the victims. Most of those helping them are non-government — civil society and the like.”

[You can donate to the “people's caravan” relief efforts at Transform Asia, or via the following account: Transform Asia Gender and Labor Institute; Account No. 304-2-304004562; Swift Code: MBTCPHMM; Metrobank, Anonas Branch Aurora Blvd., Project 4, Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines.]

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