Written by Criselda Yabes.

The poor mountain villages of Marabut had black patches from charcoal pits, slash-and-burn farming, and illegal logging. They may not be uncommon – here and elsewhere in the Philippines – but it brought to the fore the destructive nature of the country.

Marabut is supposed to be part of a vast natural park on Samar island, the province that was first hit by the super typhoon Haiyan almost four years ago, before it raised a massive storm surge nearly wiping out Tacloban City in the neighbouring Leyte province.

Tacloban’s current debate is the choice between building a wall and planting mangrove. One side of the bay has the city putting up a tide embankment about four meters high from the water, a short and limited construction for the moment. The other side has the prospect of raising mangrove as a shield from flooding.

Both provinces are linked by a spectacular steel bridge, through which the mountain can be reached in less than an hour from the city – the main hub in the region.

Up in Marabut, it is the tribal people that dominate the forest, one that has been ravaged by logging companies in the past. A non-government organisation came here about two years ago to help the Mamanwa tribe.  In the wake of Haiyan, the objective was to teach them a livelihood on a modest standard of sustainability. What the villagers could not understand about climate change, they were taught. They were shown how to build their huts without cutting down precious trees, how to use water without polluting it, how to stop the old method of burning the forest.

Life was moving on, and a school was built for the children. But then another tribal group was envious, killing the chief of the Mamanwas whose clan of twenty-five households eventually abandoned the mountain.

It’s back to the old ways of farming, of chopping down hardwood that could fetch money to ease hunger. The lumbers are brought down to the city in contraptions customised like outriggers from a motorcycle. It is often dangerous, especially in the rainy season, but the mountain people have made their world separate from what goes on in the towns and cities below.

The weather patterns, typhoons and other disasters are mere consequences affecting their fate. Some of them had come down to the coastal shanties of Tacloban, where thousands perished in the most powerful typhoon recorded on November 3, 2013. Many of the coastal dwellers were migrants from Samar province, fishermen and other workers who eked out their living in the capital city of Leyte.

About 14,000 families who lost their homes were supposed to move to a new township north of the city, but only half have been able to do so, according to figures from the city hall’s housing division.  The deadline to have completed a massive housing resettlement project by late 2015 was not met, and critics have said that ongoing complications will delay it still further. For the most part, the houses are of substandard quality, and lack  basic services and road infrastructure.

It was a ‘tunnel vision’ that prompted the local government to push the coastal inhabitants to move further inland, so said some aid workers familiar with Tacloban’s story. It didn’t have much financial support and it was still grappling with a so-called comprehensive land use plan before the typhoon wrecked a vision of what Tacloban, which has shown a rapid population growth over the recent years, was supposed to be.

Other housing subdivisions for the typhoon victims were constructed by private donors and non-government organisations with the help of international agencies.

The city centre, however, has made a turnaround: trendy cafes, shops, restaurants, and boutique hotels have mushroomed. A mall is about to open, taken as a barometer for progress. But the city has also seen some of its natural features demolished – a lake disappearing for a cargo company, a hill bulldozed for a warehouse.

Much of what goes on in the city, as well as in the mountains, has revealed the extent of the provinces’ confusion and mixed priorities in terms of recovery from Haiyan.

Tacloban’s current debate is the choice between building a wall and planting mangrove. One side of the bay has the city putting up a tide embankment about four meters high from the water, a short and limited construction for the moment. The other side has the prospect of raising mangrove as a shield from flooding.

Over the start of the monsoon season, when there was more sun than rain, a small group of French students doing their internship on urban planning gathered communities to help them start planting mangroves over two hectares along the shore. The department of environment and natural resources is said to have overseen this project.

The idea of having mangroves protecting the city from another typhoon seems to have come as an afterthought, following in the footsteps of a few coastal towns in the Visayas region that were caught in the swath of the Haiyan’s path.

Sometimes one gets the feeling that the super typhoon never happened, seeing the city and the mountain hamlets back in their  normal pace of life. The undercurrents of the trauma only come to the surface on long drives to the city outskirts where temporary houses are still there, and the future remains unknown.

Criselda Yabes is a seasoned journalist and award-winning writer. She graduated from the University of the Philippines and has worked as an international correspondent covering political events that saw insurgencies, rebellion, and coup d’etats in the Philippines as well as war and crises across the globe. This article originally appeared on Asia Sentinel and can be found hereThis article forms part of the IAPS Dialogue edition entitled ‘Yolanda: Building Back Better,’ run in conjunction with the ESRC/DFID ‘Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research’ project entitled Poverty Alleviation in the Wake of Typhoon Yolanda’. Image credit: CC DVIDSHUB/ Flickr.

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