Text by Dominique Flores and Aly Lampano
It has been eight months of television screens tallying dead bodies every night, and throughout the lockdown, people have either died from COVID-19 or human rights violations.
Then November came with another spate of deaths.
Howling winds shattered window panes as the downpour of rain pounded on worn-out corrugated roofs. In just one night, cities were plunged in muddy water as families rummaged for high ground, barely holding onto anything but each other.
John de Leon, a 22-year-old Math teacher from Virac, Catanduanes, still has the morning of Nov. 1 etched on his mind. He recalled how he and his family had to evacuate into several houses as Typhoon Rolly continued to raze through the night.
“Dinig ang paglipad ng mga yero. Ramdam ang hagupit ng bagyo. Maya-maya pa, may tubig na mabilis na umaagos sa bahay. Dito ko inisip na baka ito na ‘yung oras ko at [ng] pamilya ko,” he said.
On top of the fear plaguing families due to the pandemic, the ravage of Typhoon Rolly has brought death another step closer to their door.
Climate change as a domino effect
Witnessing all these horrors of disasters, people are left to ponder on its origins, in hopes of avoiding this nightmare from haunting them once more.
Though unpreparedness seems to answer why emerging outbreaks and floods cause catastrophes, it isn’t the root problem. Rather, it is the human-induced climate crisis that creates a series of ecological problems people often overlook.
Dr. Rodel Lasco, a pioneering climate change scientist and the Executive Director of Oscar M. Lopez Center for Climate Change Adaptation and Disaster Risk Management Foundation Inc., described climate change as a “natural variation” which humans have exacerbated since the period of industrialization.
“[The climate crisis has] a compounding effect,” Lasco said. “If you have communities hit by typhoons and you have communities weakened by COVID, here comes another layer of complication.”
For families in typhoon-prone areas like De Leon’s, they will struggle to rebuild and recover from the devastation caused by tropical storms while the risk of the virus still ripples through neighbourhoods.
“Mas naging mahirap [ang bagyo] kaysa sa pandemya dahil ‘di sira ang aming bahay nu’ng pandemya [pa lang ang pinoproblema]… ‘Di tulad ngayon, dalawang problema ang kinakaharap namin: ang aming bahay at ang pandemya sa mundo,” de Leon lamented.
According to Dr. Aaron Bernstein, the Director of Harvard Chan School of Public Health, pandemics arise because of human activities aggravating climate change.
One of the largest and most observable contributors is said to be deforestation, which is the main cause of habitat loss worldwide. In fact, 31% of zoonotic diseases such as Ebola, Zika and Nipah virus can be significantly linked to deforestation, a study by EcoHealth Alliance revealed.
With wildlife habitats and ancestral lands turned into mining pits or farmlands, animals of different species come into contact and create zoonotic diseases from the transmission of infectious agents known as pathogens. Take, for example, the SARS-CoV-2 which developed in a wet market abundant in various wild, live animals exposed to different body fluids.
This incessant deforestation — exacerbated by fossil fuel combustion and wildlife trade — forces animals to migrate into cities and other unfit environments neighboring human communities.
“It’s a perfect storm,” Lasco said. “You have the virus, you have the host — and ‘pag nagdikit sila, then you have these kinds of events becoming possible.”
The people at risk
This climate crisis affects all, yet it also disproportionately places at risk people who contribute the least to the problem: the poor.
Families under poverty are scarcely provided with the means to withstand storm surges, floods and diseases, Lasco said.
“Just the vagaries of climate can cripple them,” Lasco added.
He explained how even without climate change, typhoons easily batter Filipino communities because more than half of the population live in coastal areas where sea levels rise quickly.
Studies also show that the urban poor are more vulnerable to viruses due to high air pollution levels suppressing their immune response. Not only are they the first victims of pandemics, but are also the first to lose properties when flooding strikes.
“Sira pa po ang aming bahay, walang pader, walang pinto sa likod [at] walang bubong ang ilang bahagi ng aming bahay,” de Leon said, despite a month having passed since Typhoon Rolly landed.
For farmers whose livelihood is dependent on changing seasons, Lasco explained that an overflow or shortage of water devastates plantations, leaving them with little to no harvest and barely any food on the table.
Deep within the ancestral domains of Indigenous Peoples (IP), companies incessantly pursue mining and logging concessions that raze down forests and shave mountaintops. These operations are among the most pressing causes of deforestation in the country.
For the Dumagat, an IP community in Southern Tagalog, Sierra Madre has long been their first defense against typhoons and floods. However, with government agencies like the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples approving several companies’ “development projects,” IPs are being displaced from their own land. Kaliwa Dam is a prime example.
“Dahil sa katangian ng Sierra Madre, napoprotektahan tayo. Kaya ‘yung mga pagbaha, ito ay dahilan na rin ng mga pagmamalabis ng mga naglo-logging… hindi nila ginagawa para sa bahay nila kundi pang-negosyo,” Kakay Tolentino, National Coordinator and Spokesperson of BAI Indigenous Women’s Network in the Philippines, asserted.
The government’s complicity in corporations’ commercial agenda defiles the country’s ancestral lands, which houses both IP communities and endemic species. Even amid the pandemic and devastating calamities, attacks against the Lumad and militarization of their communities persist.
Lumad school volunteer teacher Micah Simon challenged the culture of ‘development aggression.’
“Palagi nating tatanungin, ‘Development para kanino? Sino bang pinaglilingkuran ng development na ito?’ Kasi kung pag-uusapan ang development, ang development para sa mga Lumad ay ang pagpapayaman at pagprotekta ng kanilang lupang ninuno,” she said.
Corporations felling the last of our trees inevitably sever the tie between IP communities and their ancestral lands. For many of our tribal groups, destroying the forest — the heart of their culture — decidedly means destroying their lives.
“May inutang kayong dugo mula sa mga mamamayan,” said Simon. “Kasi para sa mga IPs, ang lupa ay búhay… sa lupa kasi nakatali ‘yung kanilang kultura, ‘yung kanilang kasaysayan.”
When industrial development comes with a climate crisis, it’s laid bare that the crux of capitalism can never bode well with the environment.
Dealing with the largest contributor
Because capitalism optimizes profit at the expense of the planet’s resources, the fight against climate change is fundamentally one against the capitalist system.
As long as business industries exploit land for profit and choose the cheapest way possible to manufacture products, oceans will continue to warm and pandemics will emerge still.
Lasco pointed out, “Fossil fuel is still perhaps the cheapest source of power… So for many of [the corporations], profit is still a primary consideration.”
Industrialization may have procured society with transportation, electricity and machines that make living convenient, but the Earth which was first robbed of a longer life will strike back tenfold to humanity.
In breaking off this cascading effect of climate change, temporary solutions will no longer suffice. For the Earth to rehabilitate, there is a need to collectively pressure private corporations to assume environmental responsibility. Urging the government to implement sustainable policies protecting the environment is part of the first step.
“The only way to [be heard] is by exerting pressure coming from organized groups like the academe, civil society and hopefully other sectors as well,” Lasco emphasized.
Individual efforts in combating this climate crisis are essential, but they only graze the surface of the problem if not done with joint efforts.
“[People] should be aware that what they do in their own small household cannot impact the planet,” Lasco said. “We have to operate at multiple scales, we have to target policymakers, business leaders on the macro scale.”
While environmental disasters are beyond human control, they are paradoxically results of human action and inaction. Typhoons, earthquakes, storm surges and viruses won’t cease to exist, but the devastating impacts of these natural hazards can be averted if proactive measures are strictly practiced.
Oftentimes, Filipinos are left to brave storms on their own. But as remarkable as it appears to be, Filipino resiliency should never be romanticized to deflect institutional accountability.
“Alam natin ‘yung kasabihan na ‘pag maikli ang kumot, matuto kang mamaluktot.’ Pero tatanungin natin… bakit ka mamamaluktot? Anong rason kung bakit maikli ‘yung kumot [sa una pa lang]? Dahil sa kapabayaan ng gobyerno,” Simon said.
Responding to people’s needs
Preventing another outbreak means supporting public health leadership and public health sectors.
Since the lockdown began, over 120,000 Filipinos have been detained for breaking quarantine protocols. With work suspended, thousands of families have gone below the poverty threshold, becoming more susceptible to the virus and floods.
Heeding the call of health professionals, funding the country’s science and technology sector and investing in testing kits and supplies would have been a more competent response to outbreaks and calamities. Cost-effective strategies and solutions, when implemented stringently, can be utilized to combat climate change and improve the health and safety of humanity.
Tipping the scales of the climate crisis will not be easy, but this reveals the greater need to collectively and actively participate in demanding major contributors to stop digging humanity’s own grave.