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  • Xavier Alvaran

Echoing Ecosystems: How Disaster-Afflicted Communities Make Connections Work

When a number of social enterprises and people’s organizations in Culion, Palawan came together to address concerns arising from the grave damage the Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) left behind, they gifted themselves a befitting name: the Culion Livelihood Ecosystem, or CLE.

As their name suggests, the Culion Livelihood Ecosystem patterned the operations of their young network after the scientific concept of an ecosystem. An assessment report coursed through the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)explains that an ecosystem is “a dynamic complex of plant, animal, and microorganism communities and the nonliving environment, interacting as a functional unit.”[1] The report adds that for an ecosystem to be well-defined, it must have “strong interactions among its components.” In other words, in order to function well or run smoothly, an ecosystem,must foster a very significant degree of harmony and cooperation among its members. There’s no doubt that CLE hopes to accomplish just that—building organic connections among themselves and making them work towards the sustainable development of their livelihood.

CLE was formedlast year as a consortium of prominent groups in Culion—namely, social enterprise Hotel Maya, ecotour service provider Kawil Tours, Isla Culion Consumers Cooperative (ICCC), Loyola College of Culion (LCC), and two livelihood-oriented fisher folk people’s organizations Hugpong Mananagat ng Binudac (HUMABI) and Samahan ng mga Responsableng Mamamayan ng Galoc (SAREMAGA). As a result, each member organization benefits by building on the strengths of one another and improving on their weaknesses.This convergence of organizations in Culion, a modern manifestation of the Filipino culture of bayanihan (solidarity), is their response to the need to increase their financial resilience in the face of disasters. This reciprocal relationship is what eventually enabled them to set off livelihood initiatives that are truly for the books.

Take for example CLE’s collective role in accelerating economic activity in Culion. Realizing the immense potential of the island’s ecotourism and marine resources, the consortium developed an intricate system where member organizations can operate to expand and diversify the market of their products and services while considering each other’s niche. As a start, the ICCC, a primary merchandising group in the town center, established itself as a centrifugal point of goods, expanding its market through satellite sari-sari stores which are managed by HUMABI and SAREMAGA and roving boat stores fancily called boatindahan. It has created greater access to basic goods for hard to reach parts of the island.With their competitive pricing, it has also helped influence the lowering of the prices of goods in these areas. For their part, HUMABI and SAREMAGA assist in delivering local seafood resources that ICCC sells and distributes in the town proper. The residents, even those who are not members of the CLE organization, are now able to enjoy local seafood instead of having to import them from the adjacent Coron. This economic activity shows that it is beneficial not only to the CLE members but also to the community in general.

Another case: Hotel Maya, the LCC-run accommodation service provider whose profits help support the education of college scholars, has ICCC, HUMABI, and SAREMAGA as its primary suppliers of goods and seafood. Hotel Maya and Kawil Tours, on the other hand, are in a bilateral agreement to promote their ecotourism-based services. Kawil Tours further links with ICCC by being the caretaker of the boatindahan, while ICCC directs operations and destinations of these roving stores. For the long term, LCC looks to create institutionalized engagement with the different CLE communities for the formation of its students and to provide student volunteers when needed. Business graduates of LCC are given the opportunity to work in the CLE enterprises.

Moreover, as its commitment to responsible livelihood that takes into account environmental sustainability, CLE vows to also become a champion of the pro-environment advocacy in Culion through its leadership in the comprehensive Coastal Resources Management (CRM) program spearheaded by Simbahang Lingkod ng Bayan (SLB), and the Ateneo-based Institute of Social Order (ISO). CLE is on its way to creating a holistic development plan that will sustain the resources in the island and significantly improve their livelihood. SLB, which has since supported the formation and development of CLE as part of the former’s comprehensive disaster resilience effort in Culion, has witnessed the effectiveness and impact of such model in driving sustainable livelihood in many other disaster-afflicted communities.

In its report entitled Ecosystems, Livelihoods and Disasters: An integrated approach to disaster management published in 2006, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) detailed its support for the so-called “Ecosystem Approach”in managing disasters.It was defined as “a strategy for the integrated management of land, water and living resources that places human needs as its center.”Therefore, the use of the term “ecosystem” in disaster management is not new, although the model that has thrived in the areas where SLB is involved has put a solid emphasis on forging human relationships as focal point of a livelihood ecosystem.

SLB has observed similar relationship in the heavily-hit Eastern Visayas region where the organization conducts the majority of its rehabilitation projects. The Calvary Meals eatery, which was established by the SLB-assisted Calvary Hills BEC Homebased Workers Association (CHBHWA) of Tacloban City in Leyte, serves semi-organic food. Their rice is sourced from the produce of the Bontay Farmers’Association,another SLB-supported organization. It is the only farmers’ group in Typhoon Ruby-afflicted Calbayog City that practices 100 percent organic farming. Members of Barangay Magay, also supported by SLB, are looking to extend the market of their produce of vegetables via the pro-environment zero-waste farming (Bokashi) to Tacloban City through Calvary Meals. This unique integration of livelihood initiatives in SLB communities has led to an increase in their income and built lasting friendships among the stakeholders.

As SLB brings the community-based disaster preparedness program to Barangay Concepcion in Arteche, Eastern Samar, the organization hopes that its community partners in the area will also be inspired by the ecosystems model. After being hit by Typhoon Ruby, livelihood development in Barangay Concepcion has been compromised by the district’s relative isolation.With the guidance of the local church,several of its community members started their building their initial livelihood programs—a piggery and a poultry.They are already looking forward to exploring a wider market which would entail forging these sustainable human relationships.Replicating them will require long and tenacious effort but past experiences of livelihood ecosystems in other SLB areas have proven to be worthwhile.

These stories of integration in Culion and Eastern Visayas echo the tenth point of the guiding principles of the organization- “SLB does not work alone.” SLB believes that the organizations and communities it serves must work in harmonywith one another in their pursuit of a common mission.After all, in the cases of disaster-afflicted communities, it is the collective power of the many and the interconnectedness of their dreams and labors—a human ecosystem—that will help them to stand strong and united against the force of disasters.

[1] Alcamo, Joseph, et al., Ecosystems and Human Well-being: A Framework for Assessment, 2003.

Note: This article is also published in Windhover: The Philippine Jesuit Magazine.

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