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Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Into the Bokod and Itogon Mountains


Enhancing capacities and reducing vulnerabilities in disaster-prone communities

It was past 7 o'clock in the morning of March 22 when we left Baguio and started traveling the mountain roads that will lead us to Bokod and Itogon. We were to learn about the impacts of Typhoon Pepeng (International name: Parma) in the villages, the response of the residents in these areas and the dangers that they continue to face.

It has been five months after typhoon Pepeng hit Northern Luzon, but as we traversed the slopes of Bokod and Itogon, we still saw evidences of Pepeng's destruction.

Remembering Pepeng

Our country has not yet recovered from the effects of Typhoon Ondoy (International name: Ketsana), when in October, eight days after Ondoy exited the country, typhoon Pepeng lashed the Northern part of Luzon, making three landfalls over the same area.

It caused massive flooding and landslides in Regions I, II, and the Cordillera Administrative Region which isolated major cities and blocked major highways.

The number of casualties reached 719. Of this, 465 were killed, 207 were injured, and 47 remain missing. In the landslide-hit area of Cordillera alone, 346 people were confirmed dead.

First Stop: Labey, Bokod

Two pick-up trucks took us to Labey, one of the sitios in Barangay Ambuclao, 4 km away from the town proper of Bokod in Benguet Province. There are 57 families or 320 people in the area. Their key sources of income before typhoon Pepeng were gardening, farming, and vending of tilapia fish and vegetables.

Sitio Labey and neighboring villages were isolated for almost two months due to landslides. Although no deaths or serious injuries were reported, local agricultural lands and infrastructure were destroyed and more than 50 families were devastated when the river grew and overflowed in the evening of October 8.

Our ascent and descent by foot gave us a clearer view of the area where Pepeng buried or washed away houses, washed out a church, destroyed fish pens and three footbridges, and filled school buildings with mud.

At 11:30 am, we proceeded to a spot surrounded by trees and tall grasses. There, a short program consisting of speeches and sharing of experiences was held. I listened attentively to Mary Bugtong, chairperson of the Labey Indigenous People Community Association (LIPCA) as she recounted the community's experience before, during and after the disaster struck the village.

"It was an unusual night for us. Dogs were barking nonstop, and we heard stones and rocks falling. We thought these could be signs of an impending danger so we quickly moved out to find a safer place to stay," she said.

But even the church where they stayed temporarily was very unstable as it was being eaten from underneath by the river.

"Some family members were also missing. We were crying. We felt relieved when they were later found alive and safe," Mary added.

People from Labey is now slowly recovering. They have cleared their lands, and in some parts, various kinds of vegetables are already growing. "But it will take several years to rebuild the rice fields," the vice president of LIPCA admitted. Because of this, and the proneness of the area to rain-induced landslides, residents plan to relocate. They have found an area suitable for settlement, but the landowner is still hesitant to give a portion of his land.

It was 2 o'clock when lunch consisting of tilapia, ricecakes and brewed coffee was served.

Next Stop: Luneta, Itogon

Our next destination is Luneta where we are to stay for 3 hours to check the situation of the residents and see how they are coping with the typhoon's aftermath. Luneta is a sitio in Antamok, Itogon, which stands atop an open pit mine. It is populated by small scale miners and their families.

From afar, we could see white balls mushrooming inside a gated area, but as we walk nearer, we saw white round tents serving as temporary shelters for the survivors of Pepeng. It's been five months, yet they are still there, enduring the hot afternoons and cold nights. I wonder how long those tents could protect them after El Nino ends and typhoons start coming in.

That afternoon, community members and leaders began to arrive one by one to share their stories.

"A huge portion of Sitio Luneta suddenly sank at the height of Typhoon "Pepeng. Our houses were totally wrecked," said one of the villagers. The area, according to the them, is a former underground worksite of a mining company.

"It ate through most of Luneta, and now, we people are homeless," he added. The space which the residents now temporarily occupy, is privately owned by a mining company. Looking for a permanent relocation site remains a problem.

Many of the villagers still suffer from trauma. Children are still haunted by the stories of those who died in Itogon at the height of typhoon Pepeng. One of the Nanays, who was supposed to tell how she lost a member of her family stood up and walked away. She has not recovered from the the pain of losing a loved one.

I could only imagine the horror of the residents as rocks and mud slammed into their houses.

Thoughts on Mining

I've heard stories before about the assaulting stench of grayish rivers in Benguet. No, I did not smell anything like that from where we were standing. The downpour of rain probably washed away the source of stench temporarily. But the scene we were looking at in Luneta was enough evidence of how the mining activities of the defunct Benguet Corporation aggravated the effects of Pepeng.

Large-scale mining has been destroying Benguet mountains since the 19th century. It began to wipe out watersheds, pollute water channels, destroy water systems and halt the development of wet rice culture. It later stripped and caved mountains, and before the year 2000 ended, it had destroyed 20,000 hectares of agricultural land.

It worries me that forest and mountain lands are stripped to make way for mining. It saddens me learning that in addition to the big local and global firms operating in the area, new local and transnational corporations are coming in. It saddens me more thinking that unless we put a halt on destructive mining, there'll be more sinking villages in the midst of strong typhoons. Something has to be done.

Helping People Help Themselves

Help poured in after Pepeng destroyed villages in Bokod and Itogon. Local Government Units, People's Organizations and various humanitarian groups offered assistance, focusing on the immediate needs of the survivors.

The Citizens' Disaster Response Center (CDRC) in partnership with the Cordillera Disaster Response and Development Services (CDRDS) distributed food relief, non-food packs and shelter materials through projects funded by Caritas Switzerland, Caritas Austria and the Austrian Development Agency.

Psychosocial sessions/therapies for children and women were also conducted simultaneously. These helped alleviate their sentiments of loss and hopelessness and helped them cope with their current situation.

Aside from these, CDRC and CDRDS also conducted trainings and seminars on community-based disaster management, disaster preparedness, sustainable agriculture and alternative sources of living. Both veered away from the dole-out approach and instead made sure that the community's and people's organizations' capability were enhanced. They have both relied on people's capacity and cooperative action.

In Labey, the Labey Indigenous People's Community Association formed became active not just during disaster situations but even in times when pre and post disaster measures were undertaken. Rice cooperatives are functioning. Disaster Preparedness Committees were also formed in other villages and were involved in relief delivery, organizing, advocacy and livelihood activities, among others.

"We are thankful for all those who helped us, especially CDRC, CDRDS and CARITAS for the rice, the pots, blankets and GI sheets. We are also thankful that you allowed us to participate in the trainings that you have conducted. You have taught us to stand on our feet," Mary Bugtong said.

In Luneta, our friend from CDRDS admitted difficulties in organizing the community. There are some who remain dependent on what humanitarian organizations can provide. But the social workers and organizers remain hopeful. "It's hard work, but we are getting there, slowly but surely. The number of active participants increases everyday," they said.


It was past 6 pm when we headed back to CDRDS Office in Baguio City for a brief discussion and assessment of the activity. By 9 pm, I was in bed, contemplating.

Benguet is in Cordillera, a geologically unstable region. It is the region with the highest incidence of rainfall in the country, so we can expect more typhoons, more floods and more landslides in the coming months. (And didn't I mention that Cordillera also has four dormant volcanoes and eleven major earthquake faults?). Moreover, over-exploitation of the region's mineral resources, poverty and government neglect make the people extremely vulnerable to disasters.

Our visit to Labey in Bokod and Luneta in Itogon is a tiring yet enlightening one. Floods and landslides caused by typhoon Pepeng definitely wrought havoc to Labey and Luneta. In Luneta, in particular, the effects of the typhoon were aggravated by the destructive large-scale mining. Hearing the stories from survivors and seeing the destruction themselves, I realized how important it is that communities learn how to prepare for and respond to both natural and human-induced disasters.

But I'm glad that with the help of CDRC and CDRDS, these communities are already taking steps to enhance their capacities and reduce their vulnerabilities.

Angeline Odilao

Information and Advocacy Officer

Research and Public Information Department
Citizens' Disaster Response Center, Inc.
72-A Times St., West Triangle Homes, Quezon City, 1104 Philippines

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