Hope and a helping hand overcome Ompong’s wrath

He probably never thought that he would die that day. He and a few men from their barangay only wanted to help. They had rushed to try and rescue a family trapped under the rubble of muddy rocks.
Jun-Jun, as his friends and family call him, was not fortunate enough to escape the mountain of rocks that fell again on the spot where they were. Seven in that group were among the scores of casualties from the onslaught of Typhoon Ompong’s rage that caused widespread destruction in the province of Benguet and other parts of Northern Luzon.
Jun-Jun’s young widow and baby child were among the beneficiaries of the relief operations we conducted in Itogon, Benguet from Oct. 11 to Oct. 16.
Landslides are a common occurrence in the province of Benguet. Signs warning of landslides are seen all along the mountain roads, But the people familiar with the area seem to take everything in stride. When a road is blocked, they patiently wait for a pay loader operator to remove the blockage. They say it usually takes an hour on average.
In Itogon, Benguet, during the onslaught of Ompong, a massive landslide claimed the lives of at least 97 people. A majority of the dead were miners/workers of a big mining company which to date, has not been investigated regarding its accountability.
Instead, the aftermath of the powerful typhoon resulted in yet more losses: 40,000 small-scale miners and their families – almost 65 percent of the population of Itogon, lost their means of livelihood when the Department of Environment and Natural Resources declared the closure of small-scale mining operations.
They were given only one month to collect and process the ores which they have already mined.

Working together
When the opportunity to conduct a big relief operation came, Kaisa volunteers immediately went to work. We partnered with The Amity Foundation, an independent Chinese civil society organization supporting sustainable development in China and worldwide which secured funding from the Disaster Relief Fund of the Government of HKSAR, People’s Republic of China to enable us to carry out the operation. On the ground, we teamed up with Cordillera Disaster Response and Development Services, Kaiabang, which provided us with valuable insight on the underserved municipalities of Mankayan, Bokod, Bakun and Itogon. The two groups were headed by Jimmy Khayog and Riman Mangili, respectively, during the operation.
The Serve the People Brigade (STPB) called up volunteers for the operations. They are a large network of groups that work together to bring support to their respective communities. They brought a banner that stated “Serve the people.” It may sound political, but their partnerships work on the ground. They have designated people and leaders in almost all the areas we went to. STPB volunteers also provide educational discussions on disaster preparedness and response, coping mechanisms in times of disaster, climate change and its impact on indigenous people and the aggravating impact of large-scale mining and dams. These talks comprise part of the psychosocial discussion with the communities.
During our discussions I cautioned the Hong Kong team that this operation will not be easy. They said they know, that is why they sent three strong and sturdy men.
So off to Baguio we went on Oct. 11, to check and do the final work and adjustments for the actual relief distribution from Oct. 12 to Oct. 16. We were fortunate that Ganny and Christina finalized the preparations and planning for us. Those advance meetings with suppliers and local partners made everything run smoothly.

On the road
The roads to get to the sites to bring the relief packs ranged from easy to nearly impassable. We had a baptism of fire on our first day of relief distribution; there were still plenty of rocks over a stretch of the road that still needed to be cleared and our vehicles got stranded.
We nearly gave up on our second scheduled site for the day and thought of turning back. The skies had been clear for a few hours, and we thought that the weather condition would continue to improve. Midway through, it suddenly rained hard. Our trucks carrying the relief goods got stuck in the mud.
Our own service vehicle, a 4×4 Pajero, had a hard time maneuvering along the slippery and muddy road caused by the sudden thunderstorm. Martin suggested that we turn back and “do this another day.”
But our guide encouraged us, saying the site was just 20 minutes away, so we agreed to proceed. Little did we know that their measurement of time and distance is far different from how we apply it in our daily lives. To them, “near” is just across a span of mountain trail they just point to, but is really more like a 5-km hike. They are used to it. Walking long stretches, going up and down a mountain trail, is not a problem for them.
We finally reached the site safely and proceeded to distribute the relief packs consisting of 5 gallons of water, 10 kilos of rice, 20 assorted canned goods and plenty of noodles. Overall 2,300 packs were distributed during the four-day relief distribution.
One major reward for our efforts is seeing the senior citizens, who comprise the majority of our beneficiaries in Mankayan, so happy. Their joy is expressed by their constant smiling, gamely singing and reminiscing stories in an improvised program, because we were all still waiting for another truck that had the sacks of rice. The truck had gotten stuck in the muddy road as well, and the rice had to be transferred to a bigger truck that could handle the terrain better.
We had originally planned to stay overnight in any house that could give us lodging, but the weather was cooperative during the whole program and distribution, that it seemed possible to go back down safely. But as on our way up, with barely an hour on the road, it rained hard again. This time, we came to a standstill.

We could not go over a road because there was a steep incline. The tires of the 4×4 couldn’t get enough traction to get up. We called for help from another group (locals helping out in the operation) riding in the truck, and from the community itself. After waiting for what seemed like an hour, help arrived.
They pulled the Pajero from the incline to a spot where it could move again. The distance from the spot where we got stuck, to the spot where we could move again, was less than 200 meters. A very short distance, but an insurmountable distance to get out of danger if one is alone. It took at least eight people to physically pull the Pajero upwards. Martin was genuinely amazed to witness this. We proudly introduced him to a custom that dates way back to our ancestors, bayanihan, a strong tradition that is practiced in the area to this date.
We still had three days of relief distribution to do but this experience had such a huge impact on us that the succeeding operations were a breeze.

Of course, we never expected this operation to be easy, as operations are always fluid and anything can and will happen. But this experience firmly shows that with good and reliable people working together in mutual respect, all things are possible. In our six days of going around Benguet and Baguio, we saw and witnessed it ourselves.
Our team of mostly city dwellers was able to walk a little of the path they take every day. We were able to be with them, talk with them, link hands and inspire each other to dream of a better future.

That’s the spirit
One of the remarkable traits of the people of Benguet is their cowboy spirit. You feel their toughness. I guess living along ridges and narrow trails of mountains will toughen any person.
What’s really amazing is witnessing the spirit of bayanihan that is so natural for them. It’s been mentioned in our Araling Panlipunan classes back in high school and elementary, but seeing it with your own eyes is really humbling. They have a term for this in their local dialect: Ob-obfo, meaning helping each other.
It was indeed a privilege to witness it so many times while we were in Benguet. Men paving the road with soil to make it passable again. The whole community lining up to pass along relief goods. The patience and discipline they follow in navigating the roads of the mountains. They always acknowledge each other when someone gives way on a two-way, one-lane road. Seeing all these brings back faith in humanity.
As I was able to address them before the start of the distribution in Goldcreek, Itogon, I shared how happy we were to bring them something to help them during this time. That even though the operations were hard to accomplish, the strain and toll on us could not begin to compare to what they have to endure every day.
And among the beneficiaries in Loacan, Itogon were Jun-Jun’s young widow and baby. I asked her about her plans. She was still full of hope. She plans to return to school, get a college education.

We are truly amazed at their resilience – and resourcefulness – at least two women approached us for help finding work as domestic helpers in Hong Kong.
The Amity boys share the same sentiment. The character of the people of Benguet in general was truly inspiring..

Looking back
It was really an incomparable experience and such a privilege working with different people from different backgrounds, all working towards the same goal – to help!
Donald, Zhang Chao, Martin, Eden and I were talking about what we can do after this operation is done. We talked about it during the last dinner we shared in Baguio. We know starting anything is going to take a lot of effort given the massive problems we saw and the odds that have to be overcome to get things done. But we cannot, must not, lose hope. Having become involved, I kept telling myself I am going to start something. It gnawed at me and compelled me to do something.

Mushroom farming in Sitio Malasin, Brgy. Ucab, Itogon.

After I got back to my daily routine in Manila, I tried maintaining communication with the people I worked with in Benguet. When I learned that some were given a training on mushroom farming, a group of friends and I immediately gave our personal pledge to support their endeavor.
Within days, after sourcing suppliers and connecting with good people from the Bureau of Plants Industry, there are now two communities in Itogon that will care for 1,600 mushroom fruiting bags each.
The variety provided was oyster mushrooms, which can be harvested in a month. One fruiting bag can hold up to five months’ worth of harvesting. They can also learn to make fruiting bags themselves. Itogon was a mining area where majority of the people were small-scale miners or workers at mining sites. If this project succeeds, then the people of Itogon can look forward to mining mushrooms instead of mining ore.
Mankayan and Bakun, on the other hand, are vegetable growing areas. When we were there from Oct. 11 to 16, although large areas remain barren and covered in debris, we saw some patches of vegetable fields that have already been replanted. The fighting spirit of the Filipino people never falters.
Looking on the brighter side, the government is conducting training to equip people with other alternative sources of income. They just have to source the means to implement it themselves. There are plenty of good people willing to help other people without fanfare or any strings attached.
That is why we are naming our endeavor as Shenshou (伸手), which literally means reaching out. To reach out is to become a friend, to communicate and to help whenever we can. Right now, our aim is to see what they do with this opportunity before we get more involved.
The next endeavor will be to provide heirloom vegetable seeds to some communities in Pangasinan where I had previous interactions. Inspiration for this project came from a friend, who is giving out seeds that, aside from providing vegetables, can also be a source for more seeds to plant. The potential for a continuous cycle is most ideal. He has been generous in sharing knowhow and providing some valuable guidance. He started it while doing his own relief work in Cagayan Valley.
We all just want to help, individually, or as a group. It doesn’t matter whether we have limited resources or vast resources, we can still make a difference.