Lowlands

Published: Consented Magazine: Race & Empire, London 2017.

The flat plains of the Philippine lowlands stretch out to meet the mountains in the distance. Caribou’s roam nearby with their noses pierced with iron rings, their frayed hemp ropes gently swaying along. Last night’s fires are slowly dying, the billowing smoke rising up like small chimneys in the grass.

The quintessential Filipino countryside, best experienced in the early hours of the morning, when the damp air carries the sweet scent of burgeoning rice shoots.

A devastating typhoon hit the region in 2016. And while some fields drowned in the torrential rain and flooding rivers, hundreds of rice fields were left dry due to a damaged irrigation system. The work of months of planting, destroyed in a day. Rice seedlings had already begun to wilt and brown in the hot sun. Many, gave up on their fields and decided to plant corn. Not to eat, they tell me. For the animals.

Communities living on these plains have found it harder to survive in an environment that has become increasingly fragile and hostile towards their livelihoods. Their simple cinder block houses and tin roofs hardly stand a chance in the fierce winds. Typhoons are common occurrences. They are used to it in the Pacific, sometimes averaging twenty a year. But it’s obvious that these storms are now much more frequent and much more intense. Farmers lack the money and equipment to upgrade their irrigation systems to a mechanised one, instead relying on their knowledge of traditional agricultural methods - passive, cheap and a system steeped in history. Until now. Until storm after storm leaves it impossible for them to recuperate crops and harvests.

The Philippines has passed through the hands of numerous colonisers, dictatorships and painfully corrupt governments. Resource rich and biodiverse, those in power have relentlessly exploited the land since the arrival of the Spanish. Now the country's agricultural sustainability and food security is compromised by irreversible climate change and environmental degradation. Despite its agricultural backbone, the Philippines is now heavily reliant on importing rice from other countries, satisfying demand and ensuring sufficient national stocks. The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) reported that in 2010, the Philippines “had to import 2.45 million tons of rice to address domestic requirements.” After Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) in 2013, the strongest typhoon to hit on record, agricultural damages amounted to billions of pesos.

Immeasurable strain is put on the women of the families and the children they care for. The irony being, those who are providing most of the nation's food are also among the most food insecure. Without their rice fields, farmers in the nearby villages have turned to selling firewood from the surrounding forests. Others, race against the weather to fix the damage to their property. Re-directing the water through hand built mud trenches or with petrol powered diggers. Meanwhile, the women wait patiently for their turn to replant each and every seedling.

A young woman asks me about London. “I have a friend who works as a domestic helper (a common job for migrant Filipina women) - do you think I will be able to work there?” An older woman interjects “Why would you want to go there?”. And an argument ensues. The younger generation are tired of living in volatility. Their families small farms barely provide enough for them to eat and send their children to school. But the cities have money and colonial legacies have convinced the world that the West can provide a better future.

Climate colonialism’s far reaching impact on the generations of those living on these islands has led to the systemic migration of Filipinos outside the country. Seeking work overseas is a phenomena encouraged to improve one’s livelihood, both economically and via the forced displacement of the working class. Alongside fishermen, farmers form a substantial part of the marginalised communities most affected. Those whose lives are dependable on subsistence farming, and already experiencing high levels of poverty and uncertain land tenure. This insecurity will only continue to grow. My idyllic notion of rural village life was shattered when experiencing the lived reality of those threatened with hunger. And though the children could enjoy splashing in the river which was now double the size, the women could only look to the sky and the palm trees swaying in the wind. Waiting for the drop in humidity. For the dogs to start barking and the birds to fly. For a storm to break through the mountains and the fields to flood.

References:

Suzanne K. Redfern, Nadine Azzu and Jesie S. Binamira, Philippines, Rice in Southeast Asia: facing risks and vulnerabilities to respond to climate change, Plant Production and Protection Division, FAO, Rome, National IPM Program [http://www.fao.org/3/a-i3084e/i3084e18.pdf]



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