In a race against time, Oxfam helps Filipino farmers clear land of felled coconut trees

By Coco McCabe

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Typhoon Haiyan damaged millions of trees—a vital source of income for farmers. Now portable sawmills are helping those farmers turn some of that devastation into profit.

Farmers on Leyte Island in the Philippines remember, with longing, the shade beneath the dense canopy of their coconut trees and the fruit from those trees that they would leave to dry in the sun, promising them much-needed income.

But Typhoon Haiyan changed all of that. When the storm slammed into the central Philippines in early November, it caused widespread damage to the country’s coconut industry, the second most important agricultural sector. About a third of the Philippines arable land—or 3.26 million hectares—is planted with the coconut tree, known locally as “the tree of life” for all the goods it can produce including coconut meat, oil, and juice.

In the Eastern Visayas region, the destruction from the storm was particularly bad: an estimated 33 million trees suffered the blow, and with them countless farming families. In Tanauan, Leyte, the typhoon destroyed 90 percent of the trees.

“After Yolanda (the local name for Haiyan), it was a total mess here,” said Gistado Gallaron, a rice and coconut farmer who has lived in the area for 48 years. “Coconut trees were on the ground. The grass was washed out. I was very sad because the thought of having no livelihood is devastating for us.”

And it’s not just the loss of an immediate crop that has farmers worried—it’s what will happen to future ones if they can’t quickly remove the felled trees. Those left on the ground for more than six months will rot and become a breeding ground for pests, including the rhinoceros beetle which destroys the wood.

Farmers need to rid their groves of the downed trees and plant new ones as soon as possible because it will take another six to eight years for those saplings to mature. And in the meantime, many farmers will have to find some other way to earn income.

“This area is the number one copra-producing region in the country,” said Crispin Miranda, a local farmer who remembers well the trees his grandfather planted. “I think the economy will be paralyzed in this area of the province.”

To help farmers begin to recover from the devastation, Oxfam has formed partnerships with farming associations and cooperatives on Leyte and launched a project to clear the damaged trees. Oxfam has provided chainsaws, sawmills, protective clothing, and training for farmers on the safe use of machinery. Sawed into the planks, the trees can be used to help people rebuild their homes or sold to wood merchants thereby providing farmers with a source of income.

Oxfam set up one of the sawmills at the Kabayan Farmers Association in Tanauan where Miranda serves as the association’s manager.

“Look at these trees that have fallen down,” he said. “You could barely see the sky because this area was covered in trees.” Now, they are becoming timber. Around him on a recent afternoon, the air roared with the sound of chainsaws slicing boards from the long, straight trunks.

“With this project that has been given to us by Oxfam, this will help not only the members, but even the community,” said Miranda. “Oxfam has given us the equipment. Our counterpart is the manpower. So let us work. Let us help each other in order to succeed.”