Typhoons and Tycoons: Disaster capitalism in the Philippines

Big corporations are spearheading reconstruction efforts, but some stand accused of exploiting residents.

When the strongest storm to ever hit the Philippines – Typhoon Haiyan – struck the island of Sicogon five years ago, it left a trail of destruction in its path. The 6,000 residents on the island were left homeless.

Village chief Wenefred Gonzales was one of them. But he says the worst was yet to come.

“You can see how the typhoon will destroy you but you don’t see how they are going to destroy you,” Gonzales said.

Today, he says the residents face an even bigger battle – eviction from their island by one of the wealthiest and oldest business conglomerates in the Philippines.

Ayala is building hotels and an airport on the picturesque island, with the vision of turning it into a multimillion-dollar ecotourism destination. The company claims it is providing jobs and opportunities to the island. Gonzales disagrees.

“What happened on Sicogon is disaster capitalism,” Gonzales told Al Jazeera. “They took advantage of the situation after the tragedy and left the people with nothing.”

Disaster capitalism is the term used to describe what happens when companies exploit catastrophes for profit. Rosario Bella Guzman, a lead researcher at IBON, a local NGO that monitors the rebuilding of disaster zones, says that in the Philippines, the government has helped corporations take advantage in typhoon-affected areas.

“Typhoon Haiyan was actually the beginning of a very, very bad reconstruction programme,” Guzman says. “Here comes a corporation that is interested not in your rehabilitation, but in a lot of things that your trauma can offer.”

For the first time in the country’s history, the government asked 20 corporations, including Ayala, to spearhead rebuilding efforts after Typhoon Haiyan. The companies were able to choose which islands they wanted to rebuild. Ayala chose Sicogon. 

Sicogon residents have tried to rebuild their lives after Haiyan, but say they’re suffering even more now due to land grabbing by private corporations [Khalil Majeed/Al Jazeera]

“The disaster was so humongous,” says Ruel Maranan, a managing director of Ayala. “The whole business community mustered its resources and divided accordingly [among] the islands, so that we would be able to reach out to the far-flung areas.”  

His company already had connections to Sicogon. Before Typhoon Haiyan hit, Ayala had partnered with local resort company, SIDECO, which owned 70 percent of the island. When the superstorm struck, SIDECO was already embroiled in a legal battle with the local residents. 

The government had planned to give more than 200 islanders parcels of land through an agriculture programme. This would have required SIDECO to give up a large part of its landholdings.

After the storm reduced Sicogon to rubble, Ayala and SIDECO offered survivors a $3,000 cash payout or a house on another nearby island and $100. In return, the villagers had to surrender their land and leave. 

Wenefred Gonzales alleges Ayala abused its position as a reconstruction partner by giving the residents meagre food rations so they would be forced to go. 

“They tried to starve us into taking one of their options. Their goal was to make the people lose hope from the hunger, so that we will have no other choice but to leave the island,” Gonzales says. 

Months after Haiyan struck, the companies also sent out a memo to boat owners and nearby village chiefs, instructing them that construction materials were banned on the island.

Anecito Mercurio Jr, a Sicogon island storm survivor who worked as a security guard for Ayala and SIDECO, says he was given orders to stop supplies from reaching residents.

They destroyed their house and told them to leave. They even fired a gun next to a pregnant woman.

Anecito Mercurio Jr, Sicogon Island Haiyan Storm Survivor

“We made sure nobody can bring in any materials to rebuild their house. All materials, including cement and tin roofing … they don’t allow to dock near the port,” he says.  

Mercurio also says guards harassed and intimidated storm survivors who refused to sign deals to hand over their land. 

“They destroyed their house and told them to leave. They even fired a gun next to a pregnant woman,” he says.

As tensions rose on Sicogon in 2014, the companies, residents and government representatives signed a compromise agreement. The residents would approve all the tourist ventures on Sicogon. In return, the companies would provide them with a resettlement site, farmland and work training.

Four years after the deal was signed, an airport runway and two hotels are under construction but the island’s residents say they have received nothing. 

“They came out with an agreement, but that agreement was useless. It only benefited their own development,” says Gonzales. 

SIDECO calls those allegations false and malicious, and say they are providing jobs and opportunities on the island. Ayala’s Ruel Maranan says he is not aware of any memo that ordered supplies to be stopped from reaching Sicogon, but says he will investigate the claims. He also denies that residents have been treated unfairly.

Critics argue that the government and private sector have failed to consider that a 27-km sea wall will make it more difficult for fishermen to make a living and cause long-term environmental damage [Khalil Majeed/Al Jazeera]

 “I think the term ‘exploit’ might be too harsh for us because we are very authentic and transparent with our plans … such disasters are way beyond business initiatives. In Ayala’s case, actually what we saw was an opportunity to respond to those who were affected.”

But the residents of Sicogon island are unconvinced and have pledged to continue fighting for the land they believe belongs to them.

If they like your island, they will do anything they can to chase the people out, all for their own interests.

Wenefred Gonzales, Village Chief

Village chief Wenefred Gonzales fears other villages across the Philippines could fall victim to disaster capitalism if corporations continue to control reconstruction efforts in the aftermath of typhoons.

“If they like your island, they will do anything they can to chase the people out, all for their own interests,” Gonzales says.

“It is our rights that we are fighting for. We should not just surrender our humanity or our dignity to these rich people. Because if we give this to them, what is left for us? Nothing.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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