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St. Bernard Landslide: Six Years Hence, and the PSF Bill

Francesca Celmar’s youngest child saved her and her family from perishing in the massive landslide that killed over 2,000 individuals (official count: 1,126) of Barangay Guinsaugon in the town of St. Bernard, Southern Leyte, on February 17, 2006.

Rain poured heavily for 10 days after.

They were in Mindanao at the time, awaiting the birth of her seventh child. “We meant to come back, but since I was about to give birth, I wasn’t allowed on the boat,” she relates in the local dialect.

The rest of her extended family perished, including her closest aunt who was identified only when her skull was found. “We knew it was her from the bansil (gold cap) on her tooth,” Celmar says.

Her whole family returned to St. Bernard only in 2009 to see if they could salvage their rice field. On the surface, it looked as if debris from the avalanche had already been cleared away, but the land—once rich and fertile—had turned hard and stubborn.

Stubborn, too, were the survivors. Even when they were banned from visiting the site, old residents went to look for their dead, pray, and pick at the rocks that buried their homes and land. The earth, they say, would ooze blood with each step; music and laughter could be heard on nights when fiestas used to be held.

New Guinsaugon

A little over six years year to the day of the landslide, life remains difficult for the survivors, even with their relocation to New Guinsaugon some 20 minutes away.

Housing, the school, and health center have been provided by donor agencies—part of the commemoration ceremonies this year was the presentation of certificates of occupancy to the new beneficiaries of homes built by JICA—and Barangay Captain Beauty Cabacungan, 32, has urged each household to be self-sustaining. But many residents still choose to return to Old Guinsaugon to try to revive their old rice fields.

“We keep a logbook on who goes to Ground Zero—they can go, but they’re not allowed to build permanent dwellings and they have to come back when it’s raining,” Cabacungan explains in Tagalog.

And rain does come often nowadays in St. Bernard, interfering with the usual planting and harvesting cycle. Local farmers harvested their rice crops only once in 2011—in November—and have not been able to start another since. It’s a blow both to their egos and their pockets: in Old Guinsaugon, the yield of land was so rich that their harvest supplied towns as far as Maasin and Bontoc, located four hours away.

Now, even the paltry yield is at the mercy of the weather and flooding. Coupled with the lack of post-harvest facilities, 30 percent of the meager crop goes to waste.

So they don’t have to depend on rice as a sole source of income, Cabacungan encourages the villagers to plant their own vegetables, bananas, coconut, and camote. “It helps a little, but due to the rain, they don’t grow well and tend to be infested by worms.” The recent assistance they’ve received from DSWD’s Cash For Work helps rice and other basic necessities.

A Fund to Help Victims Adapt

The St. Bernard experience is not unlike that of many rural areas across the country that are most vulnerable to climate change.

“These are not just episodic disasters but the effects of slow-onset impacts such as rising sea levels and increasing temperatures,” explains Red Constantino, executive director of Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities. “There is less moisture in the ground, and many crops cannot withstand an increase of a degree. There can be increasing precipitation¬¬¬—not necessarily creating severe floods, but crops can drown just like gardens can drown.

“Unless measures are taken, agriculture will be on a steady decline,” he says.

The efforts of leaders such as Cabacungan are admirable, but aren’t enough to create, finance, and sustain adaptation programs on a larger scale.

Hope comes in the form of the People’s Survival Fund (PSF) Bill, authored by Senator Juan Ponce Enrile and led in the Lower House by Deputy Speaker Lorenzo “Erin” Tañada III. The PSF Bill seeks to establish a “long-term, predictable fund dedicated to adaptation for local governments and communities.”

In an earlier interview, Sen. Enrile said of the bill: “Adaptation finance should always be seen as an investment, not a cost. The PSF intends to provide incentives for early adaptation action by dedicating finances for local resilience-building needs.”

Already passed in the Senate last September 2011, the bill is on its way to plenary for second approval reading after the Lower House finalizes the report of the Committee on Ecology. Constantino, whose NGO is a strong supporter of the bill, is eager to see it pass third reading and signed into law. “According to Congressman Tañada, it has been included in the priority bills by Speaker Belmonte and may pass before the House adjourns in March,” he says.

Don’t Wait For Next Disaster

Now 40, Celmar is recently widowed. She’s not sure how she can support her seven kids; even if she has a little land to till, she has no major source of funding, so she cannot seeds by bulk but at the more expensive by-the-kilo rate. And for every two and a half taro (roughly the size of a medium-size can of milk) of seeds, she has to spend P5,000 for pesticide and labor.

She wears a red and white plastic rosary on her neck. Threaded into it is an old peso coin from 1979. “To keep away bad elements, curses, spirits,” she explains sheepishly, scooping grains of rice into a sack.

“We’re all in debt,” echoes Hernani Hangras, 47. Barely surviving the “anas” (landslide) six years ago—the earth slid around him and hit the hill in front; if it had ricocheted, he would have surely died¬—he has returned to the exact same site where he used to live. It took him two years before he could grow anything on his land again. At the time of this writer’s visit, there were eight sacks of rice in his shack. He didn’t expect to harvest more, nor earn more. “I make almost the same as before, but things cost more now.”

Natural disasters cannot be controlled, but they and their effects—and the way we respond to them—can certainly be managed. This is the simple but relevant significance of the PSF bill. “Tañada’s message is that we should not wait for the next disaster,” says Constantino. “And communities at the frontline of the climate crisis need not waste away as too high or too little rainfall decimates their cropland.”