Barely four months ago, three unwanted guests, typhoons Unding, Violeta, and Yoyong, visited the country in rapid succession. Nueva Ecija, Aurora, Quezon, and Oriental Mindoro were among provinces hardest hit. The after effects of generations of indiscriminate logging and slash-and-burn farming aggravated matters. The bald mountains could not stem the rising water. Flash floods and landslides swept entire communities, killing people and destroying their homes and means of livelihood.
Gabaldon in Nueva Ecija, a four to five hour drive from Manila, is a a town nestled among the mountains of the Sierra Madre and is one of the places which continues to suffer from the aftermath of the typhoons.
Thelma Pascual, 39 years old, has four children and one grandchild. She moved to Gabaldon when she got married in 1983. The memory of the storms remains vivid and she continues to be hurt each time she tells her stories. She says that as the disaster began, she heard loud thumping sounds from the mountains, reminiscent of gunfire, above the crashing sound of typhoon Violeta’s pouring rain.
She woke her children and told them to pack their things so they could escape before the waters rose. But soon after, walls of water thundered down the mountains and into the town, ripping the riverbeds open, scarring the mountainsides, and hurling massive boulders and logs into the air. “Diyos ko po, tulungan Niyo kami! (God help us!)” cried Thelma, who could do nothing to protect herself and her family from disaster.
“Iyak daw nang iyak yung mga kapatid ko [at saka] yung nanay ko kasi ako lang mag-isa [rito], (My siblings and my mother could not stop crying, because I was alone here,)” related Thelma. But thankfully, Thelma and the rest of her family were able to reach vehicles helping with evacuation. They hopped onto a rather small Isuzu Elf cargo truck and then transferred to a larger Army truck that took them to higher grounds in Palayan City, the provincial capital.
To this day, months after the floods, she and other town residents who have returned to Gabaldon still inhabit high risk sites, and still live in fear of another disaster. “Yung mga damit namin, hindi na namin nilalagay sa aparador. Puro na [sila] nakasako, (We could not even bear to put our clothes in cabinets. They’re all in sacks,)” she says. “Pati batang maliit, sabi [nila], ‘Mama, alis na tayo. Maaanod na tayo,’ (Even little children say, ‘Mama, let’s leave. We’ll be washed away.’” she continues.
But as the year 2005 opened, Thelma, her family, and hundreds of other Gabaldon residents received a great gift from Kalinga Luzon. They received an opportunity to rebuild their homes, their lives, and their spirits in a safe place. KL initially aims to shelter up to 200 families in Gabaldon by providing each with a new and decent home. About a hundred homes have to be built in the soonest time possible since half of these families remain homeless and do not have any capability to build a new dwelling place for themselves.
As of May 2005, 16 homes have been built, with the next several dozen awaiting completion by summer’s end, thanks to dozens of Ateneans who continue to troop to the site every summer weekend to build alongside the future homeowners and the Dumagats from the nearby mountain rehabilitation site, Sawing Balite. The house builds have laid the foundations not only for future houses, but have begun to nurture networks of trust among the lowlanders, the indigenous people, and GK benefactors.
Aside from providing new shelter for the tragedy’s victims, GK and the local government aim to prioritize setting up livelihood programs in the soonest time possible. Lack of livelihood in the town and nearby areas apparently leads some of its folks to resort to illegal logging and kaingin activities, which have dangerous effects on the soil, and contribute to the risk of flash floods and land slides.
Gabaldon Mayor Dominador Mandia, an agriculturist, has been exploring necessary interventions to improve the situation in Gabaldon and is studying the possibility of various agricultural livelihood projects. The seasonal flooding of Gabaldon’s rivers has made them extremely shallow and unpredictable over the years. Dredging the riverbeds will most probably help irrigation efforts and reduce the risk of floods. There is also an urgent need to find livelihood opportunities and markets that are suited to Gabaldon’s cool upland climate in order to improve the income of the town and its people. Some possibilities include rattan weaving, floriculture (flower farming), aquaculture, honey production, probiotic farming, sustainable lumber farming, and growing alternative high-value crops like specialty upland rice and coffee. [FRANCIS RESPICIO/ALI FIGUEROA]