Cashing in on the Climate Crisis: climate justice and climate disaster in the Philippines

The Philippines has become a poster child for vulnerability to climate change. Our islands experience over 20 typhoons a year, making us one of the most if not the most typhoon-exposed country in the world. But nothing could have prepared us for the fury and the devastation brought by Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) that hit the Central Philippines in November 2013.

Over 6,000 dead, 3.4 million families affected or 16 million individuals, and close to a million displaced from their homes. Almost three years on hundreds of thousands remain in temporary shelters or tent cities, as the recovery and rehabilitation efforts continue to move at a snail’s pace, marred by issues of corruption, irregularities and inefficiencies.

Super typhoon Yolanda was a wake up call to Filipinos and the bigger global community to the reality that the impacts of extreme weather events related to climate change are already being felt now—these are not something that we expect will happen some ten to twenty years into the future; and also to the extreme urgency for a concerted global response to address the climate crisis.

Super typhoon Yolanda also exposed and aggravated pre-existing and long-standing conditions of vulnerability, poverty, marginalization and exclusion and paved the way for new forms of exploitation and injustice.

In the climate change discourse, and from the climate justice perspective we highlight that while the country is a minor greenhouse gas emitter, the injustice lies in the fact that we are one of the most vulnerable to climate change impacts. We are most at risk from problems other more developed countries are primarily responsible for.

Oftentimes however the country’s vulnerability is portrayed more in relation to geography—focusing on the fact that the country is situated in the typhoon belt, with less emphasis on the underlying reasons, the roots of our vulnerability.

The provinces worst hit by the storm are among the poorest in the country. And as our forthcoming report, The Philippine Experience: Climate Change, Disaster Capitalism and Food, points out poverty is one of those underlying reasons: In Eastern Samar for example close to 60% of the population were living in poverty prior to Yolanda.

The greater tragedy is that those regions, provinces, and communities that are made vulnerable by poverty, are at risk of sinking even deeper into poverty, loosing those few entitlements they already had or foregoing the chance of secure these entitlements. They are made even more vulnerable by each typhoon, each disaster that they face.

You would have thought that the devastation from Yolanda, would have translated to an uprising of affected communities demanding justice and reparation for damages, amplifying a clarion call for a serious transformation of the way in which development is currently pursued, with people and the environment continuing to pay the price for development.

Yet what we have seen in the aftermath of Yolanda is the speed in which the system reverts back, reconfigures and thrives during crises. It is understandable that the first order of business for affected communities, or for an affected nation for that matter, is to recover and rebuild. The government’s framework for this was to ‘build back better’. However ‘better’ in this sense did not mean a process of recovery and development that moves away from the unsustainable and inequitable development path that created and aggravated the vulnerabilities in the first place. It meant the continued and perhaps even the accelerated pursuit of the same development trajectory.

Very quickly the disaster became an opportunity to make money. ‘Disaster Capitalism’, a term coined by Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein, was clearly evident in the Philippine experience with Yolanda.

Klein notes two main elements of disaster capitalism. Firstly, “orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events”, and secondly the treatment of disasters, as exciting market opportunities, which we observed in the Philippines.” [1]

This reorganization, or what Klein also referred to as “radical social and economic engineering” has been most evident in at least two policies governing land use and land ownership in the Philippines.

Critically, the government instituted a No-Build Zone Policy—where farmers, fishers, and urban poor communities who were displaced from their lands because of the devastation, were eased out for the second time because they were banned from rebuilding their homes and re-establishing their lives and livelihoods in typhoon-hit areas. Instead these are being eyed up for development into commercial and tourist zones.

Even without clear and definitive guidelines for implementation, except for putting up placards and streamers or fences identifying areas as part of the no-build zone, this policy has already facilitated the take-over in practice. [2]

In fact the no-build policy is based on a clear push for private sector participation and the proactive creation of new market opportunities in the wake of disaster. As cited in a recent report:

“Corporate involvement or private sectors’ participation in Yolanda relief and reconstruction was one of the key strategies of the Philippine government’s relief and recovery efforts.

“The government divided the 171 Yolanda-affected cities and municipalities into 24 “areas of development” and convinced conglomerates to adopt specific areas by acting as “development sponsors” involved in the implementation of the areas’ rehabilitation and recovery plan. Through this strategy, the government hopes to align the private sector’s Yolanda projects with its own priority plans.” [3]

The disaster also paved the way for further land grabbing and a major challenge to agrarian reform. In the area of Sicogon for example, local landlords, the Sarroza family and private company Ayala Land developed the lands into a resort, and the farmers who had a legitimate claim under CARPER [1] were no longer able to return.

Overall I think that the discourse on climate change and disaster has been systematically and consciously shifted towards the pragmatism of disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation, rather than allowing for a deeper discussion on systemic alternatives.

There is no doubt that the Philippines will again be devastated by another typhoon in the near future, and maybe the lessons from Yolanda would result in a much better, much more effective relief and recovery effort. For the sake of the communities at the front line, we surely hope so. But the bigger issues, pertaining to long term, systemic alternatives remain a big challenge.

Very recently, our new President announced in the media that the Philippines will not honor the Paris climate deal, and he has challenged rich countries to do their share in the mitigation efforts. However, he was not arguing for a shift away from the development model that has created the crisis in the first place, but from the vantage point of the Philippines right to development—to industrialize, or in other words to pursue business as usual.

This is the challenge that front line communities and climate justice advocates need to confront in the Philippines—a never ending cycle of disaster, the disastrous impacts of development, and the corporations’ insatiable desire for profits even at the expense of people’s suffering.


Presented at the workshop ‘Climate Change: Crisis or Collapse?’organised by the Climate Space at the World Social Forum 2016 in Montreal

[1] Klein, Naomi. 2007. The shock doctrine: the rise of disaster capitalism. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada.

[2] Manahan, M, Militante, C, and Purugganan, J. 2014.Preventing Disaster Capitalism and Advancing Climate Justice, Human Rights and People’s Participation in Recovery Efforts. Unpublished paper.

[3] A Portrait of Two Storms: The State of Yolanda Reconstruction Two Years After, by Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace/Pedrosa, A. 2016. CCODP. 

[4] The Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program Extension,