Continuing with their post-disaster survey, Tzu Chi volunteers noticed the trend of hillside farming in the town of Baggao, Cagayan. Whereas the volunteers saw a potential for greater disaster stemming from such a trend, local farmers have to do everything to be able to get by in difficult times.
Over the course of two days, Tzu Chi volunteers are welcomed by a remarkable sight as they enter the town of Baggao.
The farming town at the base of the Sierra Madre Mountains makes the most out of the fertile space within its borders. Every square inch of arable land is dedicated to growing rice and corn, two of the region’s major crops. Flatlands, riverbanks, and even the steep slopes of Baggao’s rolling hills.
When Typhoon Ompong (Mangkhut) made landfall on Baggao on September 15, not a single stalk of corn was left standing. The growth of the locals’ prized crops has been stopped, forcing them to sell their corn as they are.
The family of 27-year-old Jennifer Gamata normally make a gross income of around Php 20,000 from their half-hectare of corn. Minus the expenses, they earn Php 15,000 come harvest time. After Ompong, however, they’ll be lucky if they can make a gross income of Php 15,000 from the premature harvest.
Family expenses aside, she also worries her debt to the traders. Local farming involves borrowing capital and paying it back with the harvest.
“Now, it’s difficult because our income in selling corn is severely reduced,” said Gamata.
Meanwhile, the family of 36-year-old Angelina Garrino can take heart at her landlord’s kindness. They may still sell their harvest but for a lower price because of the typhoon.
“Our boss might still buy our harvest, and we’re hoping to make up for the losses with other crops,” said Garrino.
Both families maintain farms by the hillsides, which Cagayan governor Manuel Mamba describes as once thriving with trees. Logging activity years ago, he said, had all but stripped the hills bare. And now, farmers are taking advantage of the slopes to grow their livelihood, something the governor wants stopped.
“It will destroy our mountains, our topsoil, and also our river channels. This should be reconverted back to forest land,” Mamba said.
Running the risk
According to the Cagayan Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, close to 160 hectares of farmland fell victim to Ompong. Over 90 percent of the farmland grows rice and corn. Overall damage is estimated to be close to Php 4.7 billion, making the typhoon one of, if not, the most destructive since Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) in 2013.
Tzu Chi’s survey team on September 22 flew to Tuguegarao City to learn more about the extent of Ompong’s onslaught. During their two-day survey in Baggao, they took note of the trend of hillside farming and conveyed it to Gov. Mamba. Already, they’re sharing a grim outlook in the coming years should the mountains continue to lose its trees.
“The Cagayan River is an outlet for other waterways in the region, including those of the Cordilleras, the Sierra Madre and Caraballo Mountains. All the water from the provinces [in these places] will flow to Cagayan. I’ve been warning people that they can expect a flood that will kill a lot of people in Cagayan,” Mamba explained.
Among the survey team, Tzu Chi volunteer Ferdinand Dy understands the pressing need for the families to farm, especially in these difficult times. However, he hopes to show other ways without harming the environment.
“I hope we can educate them and introduce to them other means of livelihood. If they learn that they can make a living in other ways, they won’t have to be too dependent on farming. There’s a chance that the mountains can be reforested. This is, I believe, the most important thing we can do right now,” said Dy.
For the Garrino family, however, the slopes are the only viable place to farm. The flatland next to their home, which belongs to Angelina’s brother, is filled with narra. These trees are protected under environmental law and cannot be cut down.
The Gamata family, meanwhile, has to keep farming to survive in these difficult times.
“We’re aware of the consequences [of turning hillsides into farmlands]. But for us, our lives are tied to farming,” said Gamata.