Disasters and the poor

The devastation caused in Mindanao by Typhoon “Pablo” is, for now, largely measured by the number of dead, injured and missing people. The number of recovered bodies has reached 714, says the NDRRMC. About 900 more are reported missing. Thousands of others suffer from wounds and various forms of injury, not to mention deep trauma, but only a few can be attended to in clinics and hospitals. The scale of the destruction is becoming clearer as the attention shifts to the staggering number of families who have lost their homes and their livelihood. The prospect of starvation and disease looms before them.

While a typhoon of such great force as Pablo is unexpected in Mindanao, the kind of suffering it inflicts on poor people is predictable. The poor have a natural affinity with disasters. So close is this relationship that one can single out vulnerability to disasters as a major defining element of poverty. Disasters therefore are not so much natural as they are social. That is why social scientists speak of “disaster thresholds.”  Let me explain.

Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, storms, intense rainfall and floods are natural phenomena. But the destruction they cause is a function of a society’s capacity to anticipate, withstand, contain or absorb the force they bring. This capacity is largely defined by a society’s level of development. But it is also shaped by its own subjective calculation of risk. It is the poor who seem to take greater risks, not because they are stupid, stubborn or uninformed, but because they have fewer options. The poorer a society is, the greater the loss of lives. The rich lose their property, but the poor lose their lives.

More than anything else, therefore, what the devastation wrought by Pablo has revealed is the reality of persistent poverty in Mindanao—a region that ironically has been billed as a land of prosperity and a food basket for the whole country. When we look at the problem from this perspective, we realize that disaster preparedness has little meaning other than rhetorical unless it zeroes in on the problem of mass poverty.

In the banana town of New Bataan in Compostela Valley, most of the affected families are workers or, as an Agence France-Presse report puts it, “sharecroppers in an industry that has grown to become the world’s third largest exporter of bananas—after Ecuador and Costa Rica.” Because of its revenue, New Bataan is classified as a first-class municipality. Compostela Valley itself, which was carved out of Davao del Norte only in 1998, has been described as one of the richest provinces in the country because of its natural resources. Yet, overnight, the town that had been sheltered from strong winds by mountain ranges has been reduced to a gigantic heap of debris. Its economy has been shown up to be as frail as the wooden homes of its residents, its prosperity as shallow as the roots of the banana plant.

I still distinctly remember the landscape of this place from the first time I saw it in the early ’80s as a researcher. Like most of Davao, it had the feel of a frontier town that was fast filling up with settlers lured by the smell of an economic boom. The banana plantations were expanding in response to the seemingly insatiable Japanese demand for Cavendish bananas. Japan was at the peak of its prosperity, enjoying a phenomenal surplus that was being expressed in the form of Japanese aid, investments, “sex tours,” and frenetic consumer demand. We bought their cars and electronic products, and paid with our women and our bananas.

A friend of mine, the late Japanese journalist Yoshiyuki Tsurumi, traveled with our research team to look at Mindanao’s banana plantations. We stayed in the homes of farmers who had become contract growers for some of the corporate banana growers that sell mainly to the Japanese market. We saw how the entire household was mobilized for the care of the banana plant, and how the easily bruised fruit was meticulously protected from insects, fungi and diseases from the time it is a flower until harvest time.

Tsurumi took photographs showing how the bananas received more conscientious attention than the children of the farmers who grew them. On his return to Japan, he published a little book describing the social conditions from which the beautiful banana fruit on the Japanese dining table was sprung. It became a classic. The book helped form a generation of young Japanese who became sensitive to the effects of Japanese prosperity on the poor peoples of Asia.

On our part, we showed how the economic relations in these modern plantations were so onerously structured that they left as little of the proceeds as possible to the farmers who produced the fruit. The latter had no control over the pricing of technological inputs and the quality specifications that determined how much of their crop was accepted and how much was rejected. Even when they owned the small piece of land on which they grew the crop, it did not look to us at that time that this was an economic activity that would enable them in the long run to get out of the vicious cycle of poverty.

Yet, in terms of export value (recorded at $471 million last year), the banana export industry, now covering 42,000 hectares of prime agricultural land, seems to be doing well. It has given rise to first-class municipalities. The veneer of progress it has installed is visible in the road networks that connect the plantations to the ports from where boxes of bananas are shipped. What Typhoon Pablo has done, in effect, is strip away that veneer, exposing the reality of the poverty underneath.