Arnulflo Barcero is hacking away with a machete at weeds growing at the base of a coconut tree. The 52 year old takes care of this plantation in the countryside town of Pastrana. The dried meat of the coconut, or copra, is used to make oil. But Typhoon Haiyan, known here as Yolanda, has put the future of this farm and many others in the region in question.
“Before the typhoon we had 700 trees and now there are only 90 trees still standing. It’s a problem for the community because we rely on the copras to earn a living.”
Around 40 percent of farmers in Leyte province work in the coconut industry.
The downed trees mean they have nothing to sell and the help they employ have no work. But for some others, the devastation is creating income.
Francisco Alverca is a chainsaw operator who’s been called in to help cut up the fallen and damaged trees here. “This is a big help for me. Even my neighbors are asking me to cut up all the fallen trees. The money I’m now making really helps me get by.”
On average, Alverca and the other chainsaw operators at this farm earn 400 pesos, or about 10 dollars a day. And Alverca says he estimates that this job will keep him busy for many months to come. “This will take several months to complete all the work here, it’s a big property.”
For now, their employer is OXFAM, one of the handful of international aid groups sponsoring sawmill projects like this. They pay the salaries and provide the equipment.
Caroline Gluck is a spokeswoman for OXFAM.
“OXFAM operates six sawmill projects across this province. The key issue was the number of fallen coconut trees, millions across the typhoon-hit area. There is an urgent need to clear the trees that have fallen. Because a lot of the trees were blocking roads, creeks and waterways and productive agricultural land. So the farmers need to clear the land before they can start replanting and they can’t do that until the trees are moved.”
Gluck says OXFAM is also training out of work farmers to use saws so that they can start earning a living again. She adds coconut lumber is now in high demand.
The wood is transported from the ruined farms to the city of Tacloban to build shelters for those displaced by Typhoon Haiyan. And around 100 families in the town of Palo are rebuilding their own homes with the freshly cut lumber.
74-year-old rice farmer Rudolfo Palamos‘s entire house was ripped apart by Haiyan’s strong winds. He shows me around his new two storey home that he rebuilt with the wood from nearby coconut farms. “This area has a lot of coconut trees. The wood isn’t so expensive and it’s easy to build with. Most of my house was rebuilt with the coconut tree lumber, including the walls, the corner posts.”
But there are still plenty more fallen trees back in the plantations. And OXFAM’s Caroline Gluck says time is running out to get them all off the ground before a new problem arises.
“In three months the likelihood is that many of these trees will rot and become infested with pests. And those pests can eat some of the still standing and productive trees.”
Once the downed trees are cleared, aid groups can start helping coconut farmers replant on their land. But it could take several more years before new trees are ready for harvest.