Red Cross volunteers reach out to Palawan tribal communities

Published: 23 July 2014 10:50 CET

By Kate Marshall, IFRC

The Tagbanwa villagers on the island of Banuang Daan gather excitedly as Philippine Red Cross staff and volunteers arrive by traditional bangka outrigger from the main island of Coron, Palawan, two hours away by boat.

They greet the visitors with “Mupia ong-koi, ong-koi,  [welcome friend],” as they disembark and make their way to the outdoor meeting hall where Philippine Red Cross is scheduled to conduct a recruitment drive for 30 community volunteers and the barangay (village) recovery committee.

Later in the day, a staff member will present a session on building back safer illustrated with eight simple shelter messages.

Ancestors of Palawan’s various tribal nations, including the Tagbanwa and Palawano, date back at least 24,000 years. Exact numbers are hard to come by but their descendants make up about 30 per cent of the 800,000 residents of Palawan, the westernmost island of the Philippines prized by tourists for its pristine waters and spectacular natural attractions.

For many years, Philippine Red Cross has been conducting regular outreach programs to remote communities in the Calamian Islands, which can only be reached by boat or by foot. Just days after  Typhoon Haiyan struck the Visayas and northern Palawan last November,  Philippine Red Cross was the first aid organisation to deliver food and relief supplies to three island municipalities: Coron, Cullion and Busuanga.  With the support of the Swiss Red Cross and the IFRC, this was followed by cash, non food items, shelter repair kits, tools and CGI distributions to 2000 of the neediest households.

The Swiss Red Cross has committed a minimum 2 million Swiss Francs (USD2.2 million) for recovery, which will be boosted by the Irish Red Cross. This will be used for shelter assistance, water and sanitation projects and improvements to schools and health facilities. A separate livelihoods assessment is underway, including training for carpenters.

Barangay official Jaime Aguilar says: “Philippine Red Cross has established a good relationship with us and has been visible in the community. They were the only ones who delivered food to us after Yolanda [Haiyan].”

Banuang Daan might look idyllic, with its turquoise waters, coconut trees and thatched homes, but life is far from easy for the few hundred scattered inhabitants. Nearly all are fishermen or seaweed farmers. A handful of the younger ones find work in Coron town as waiters and cleaners. Some of the men supplement their meagre income in the dry season by making a treacherous climb up the limestone cliffs to collect swiftlets’ nests from cracks in the rock. These are destined for Chinese wedding banquets, for which buyers will pay up to $10,000 US dollars a kilo to make the highly prized delicacy bird’s nest soup.

Longstanding Philippine Red Cross volunteers Isabelita ‘Belet’ and Felix Pamor, who regularly visit the islands and speak the tribal language, explain that the inhabitants face a constant struggle to survive and that their way of life is under threat by dynamiting of fishing grounds. Unscrupulous collectors use cyanide to stun sea creatures and make them easier to trap. They can fetch a lot of money on the black market.

“Here in Palawan the only source of income for the Tagbanwa is fish, tambalang and hagar hagar [the tasty local seaweeds],” Belet explains. “Before Yolanda [Typhoon Haiyan] they were suffering, and when the storm came they experienced trauma and their suffering  worsened because they lost  seaweed, clothes, blankets, everything.”

The local seaweeds are susceptible to wind damage, and much of the crop was wiped out by Haiyan. “When the wind is blowing the children and the elderly will start wailing ‘’Oh no! Not Yolanda again!’’,” Belet says.

Water, or lack of it, is also a problem, especially in the dry season. In order to have enough for their needs and to water crops, the islanders will resort to deliveries from the mainland. Although there are springs further inland, the two wells in the village usually dry up before the rainy season starts. Past attempts by Spanish Red Cross to fix the problem with a series of pipes have failed through lack of maintenance and replacement parts. Although some homes harvest rainwater, the practice is not widespread because of the cost of installing drums and downpipes.

“There’s not enough water in the dry season,” says Aguilar. “We need help to install pipes from the source to the community.”

But what Banuang Daan needs most of all, says Aguilar, is alternative livelihoods, so that Tagbanwa people can learn new ways of making a living while they wait for the seaweed to grow back.