“It was as if the earth itself had stopped breathing” How the Manobo survived and thrived after Typhoon Haiyan

Chieftan of the Manobo Tribe, Leyte, Philippines 2014. Copyright Tess McClure
Chieftan of the Manobo Tribe, Leyte, Philippines 2014. Copyright Tess McClure

The night before the storm came, the birds stopped singing.

“Nothing made a sound,” she says.

“It was like the earth itself had stopped breathing.”

She told the tribe to prepare. That night, she climbed the mountain behind them to pray.

Divina Padecio, Chieftainess of the Manobo tribe, has lived in this forest for almost thirty years – long enough to know every sound by heart, she says. But on the first week of November last year, the trees and animals sounded different.

“They were different sounds to anything we had ever heard before,” she says, “So we listened.”

Isolated from the world without television, internet or electricity, news had not reached the tribe of the super-typhoon building itself into a fury out in the South China Sea.

Below the hills, in the city of Tacloban, the government had issued a level-four storm warning, the highest possible. Schools were closed, military were on alert and those in low-lying areas ordered to evacuate.

As it approached the coast of the Philippines, Typhoon Haiyan was reaching wind speeds of more than 300km per hour – among the strongest ever recorded.

The Manobo knew nothing of this, but at Divina’s orders, they began to prepare.

A local man carries hi sleeping child out to work in the gardens. Copyright Tess McClure, 2014
A local man carries hi sleeping child out to work in the gardens.

A tiny, isolated tribe of 72 people, the Manobo are indigenous to Mindanao, almost 800 kilometres from the hills of Leyte where they now live.

The title for this land was transferred under a government resettlement agreement. Traditionally a forest people, they arrived to find they had been gifted 200 acres of barren grassland.

“When we first came, the tribe did not want to live here, “Datu Rico Padecio says. “This land was barren, neglected, no other people here because the plants would not grow.”

On the dirt path up toward the village, it is easy to see why. The hillside shimmers in midday heat. The earth is baked. The sun is relentless, dizzying.

It was Divina who decided they would stay, plant, and slowly rehabilitate the land. She was the first to construct shade, dig a garden, and begin tilling the land.

It was took almost ten years of to transform the land. They religiously constructed compost heaps, tended to worm farms, gathered native saplings from the mountain, potted and nursed seeds into shrubs, and eventually, trees.

“After 5 years, little by little, our trees began to release water back into the ground. After 10 years, we are not short of water, even in dry season.”

After 30 years, shaded by papaya and banana trees, the village land had become unrecogniseable from the plains surrounding them.

But in November 2013, a storm that was building could wipe all that away.

A storm builds on the coast of Tacloban. Corpyright Tess McClure, 2014
A storm builds on the coast of Tacloban.

“We knew something, a calamity, was coming.”

Divina’s husband Datu Rico Padecio struggles to find enough English to explain.

He says reading the small signals of the land, the forest and the seasons was enough to warn the tribe.

“In advance, you have a feeling. We can interpret it only by having a deep knowledge of the forest system.”

“The tribe knows – the tribe knows the land. Maybe others will not believe, but we believe – because we knew to prepare before Yolanda.”

Divina choose one kubo (traditional indigenous hut) for shelter – the only building with corrugated iron roofing. They strapped down the roof, re-roped the beams together and cleared the surrounding trees.

That night, they remember the forest was silent.

“We walked into the kubo two by two,” Padecio remembers: like animals into the ark. They took a pot of rice porridge and an enormous trough of worms.

The storm hit at 5 am.

Dawn should have already broken, but the sky was black. The entire tribe of 72 was crammed into the corrugated iron hut.

“When the wind started, my wife advised no panic,” Padu Rico says.

“But we saw the house, torn into pieces. The trees taken away, blown off. It is very strong, since my whole life, I have not encountered a strong wind like this. I have seen many typhoons before because I am already 76 years old.”

Manobo children look out from the traditional Kubo houses of the village. Copyright Tess McClure, 2014
Manobo children look out from the traditional Kubo houses of the village.

Typhoon Yolanda was the strongest storm ever recorded. By the time the tribe had emerged from their shelter, it had devastated the entire district. Around 8000 people were dead, much of the city had been leveled, and creating billions of dollars in damage.

Most of the Manobo village homes had been destroyed, the fragile woven walls and thatched roofs of their homes wiped away. The irrigation systems they had built over the last 30 years were destroyed, as were the terraced vegetable gardens carved out of the hillside. Many of the trees had fallen, and parts of the hill had washed out.

But every member of the Manobo was alive.

One year on from the storm, the Manobo are partway through replanting their gardens and the forest surrounding their homes.

The tribe is one of the beneficiaries of the New Zealand government’s contribution to rebuild small-scale farming communities after the typhoon.

New Zealand gifted more than US$2 million for the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), to be distributed among 4,000 small farming families.

In the Manobo village, the money will go towards building a small nursery, and rehabilitating the terraced gardens that they had used to grow vegetables.

They are no strangers to beginning their lives from scratch.

“We are still teaching the people: To plant to plant to plant. That is how we will survive,” Padecio says.

This story was originally published in The Philippine Star