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Why I Fast: New Zealanders and the Philippines’ typhoons

By March 1, 2015 No Comments
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Activists call for solidarity not just sympathy in Lima

I haven’t eaten today. I am fasting with the global #Fastfortheclimate movement. I’ve written about the Fast here before, and I won’t repeat the story of Yeb Saño launching the Fast during the Warsaw climate talks in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan. That is why I fast: to call for climate justice in solidarity – not just sympathy – with the climate vulnerable peoples’ of the world.

But this is a different story about why I Fast, and it starts over a bento box in Food Alley on Auckland’s Albert Street with my friend – and colleague in the Aotearoa New Zealand Human Rights Lawyers Association – Cameron. We had just had one of our first executive meetings after the Association’s 2014 annual general meeting, and Cameron and I decided to grab lunch, because we’d barely seen each other since I got back from Europe after the Warsaw talks.

I mentioned that I had been getting involved the Fast’s international working group. I knew Cameron would be interested, as a long-time supporter of Auckland Philippines Solidarity – but I remember him going a bit quiet when I talked about Haiyan, then opening up.

Most New Zealanders knowledge of Typhoons is pretty limited. We don’t exactly get them all that often.

Cameron Walker

Cameron Walker

But the thing I’d forgotten was that Cameron had been in the Philippines when Typhoon Bopha hit – in fact, he’d been in Compostela Valley, which he describes as one of the worst hit regions. The main work in the Valley is harvesting bananas – in 12 hour shifts, starting at 1:00 am. Cameron’s host, Tommy, invited him to come out with him, but he declined. At 4:00 am, he woke amidst the chaos of Typhoon Bopha – an unprecedented, climate-change-fueled disaster.

Cameron: The corrugated iron roof started to tear off in the wind.

The house was next to a stream that had become a raging torrent. Fallen trees and other debris sped downstream. The waters were starting to flood onto the porch so we had to leave to find higher ground.

I followed my friends over broken trees and debris. They ran ahead and I lost them. I tried calling out but my voice was drained out by the wind. I just followed in the direction I thought they had gone to and found a sturdy house where around 50 locals were sheltering.

He fled that house too, as it succumbed to the Typhoon. Eventually, he took shelter in the banana packing house. He was crammed in with 100 others, but remembers their generosity and hospitality.

The Typhoon subsided the next morning. Incredibly, Tommy had survived too – but when Cameron saw him again, he described being submerged up to his neck in raging floodwaters. Just a few kilometres away, in New Bataan, hundreds had been swept to their deaths in the floods.

Cameron: As we made the half hour walk from Osmeña to the highway, we saw that the banana fields surrounding the village had been flattened by the winds. Fields, which had two days earlier contained hectare upon hectare of banana trees, now resembled a desert.

The workers in Osmeña are only paid if they are able to harvest the bananas. They have not only lost their homes but also their livelihood. It will take a long time to recover.

Cameron’s story helped me put human faces on the horrors of climate disaster. If that was Bopha, though, I couldn’t imagine what being caught in Haiyan – a more furious typhoon, with a death-toll almost ten times higher – could be like.

A few weeks later, my partner Rachel called me over to look at something on her laptop. Rachel directs the Aotearoa Youth Leadership Institute, which was then recruiting a youth delegation to send to the Lima climate talks. She had just received an application from a Filipino New Zealander who had volunteered doing relief work in the immediate aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan. I decided I needed to have a chat to her, and made contact through mutual friends. Dewy was happy to talk to me – and joined the Fast.

Dewy: A lady in her early 30s was telling me how her children died. She said: “We were trapped in our own home. If we stay inside our house, the water will drown us. If we go outside, the wind will blow us away. We were helpless. The environment was really there to kill. None of us could swim, so I kissed my two boys before they drowned.”

Typhoons, Dewy said, were normal to the people of the Philippines. Haiyan is named Yolanda in the Philippines. That it has a name beginning with Y, the 25th letter of the alphabet, means that it was the 25th typhoon to hit in 2013. But it was also unseasonally late – and of unprecedented fury. Climate change fuelled Typhoon Haiyan.

Dewy: Most of the locals I talked to were asking themselves: “what have we done to Mother Earth?

In a conservative, deeply religious country like the Philippines, Dewy told me, people inevitably turn to religion for answers after disasters like Haiyan. The Typhoon couldn’t be mere chance, but was an act of God. The people she spoke to believed that there must be a reason behind it – and they didn’t have to look far to find a reason:

Dewy: That reason was to foreshadow what could happen if we remain apathetic towards climate change.

I asked Dewy how volunteering the Haiyan relief effort had changed her:

Dewy: I realised that we are all trapped inside this Earth. If we don’t take action now, the future generations will be as helpless as those two boys [whose mother had kissed them goodbye before they died].

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Dewy at a Fast for the Climate action in Lima

 

The Aotearoa Youth Leadership Institute’s external selection panel picked her to join the Institute’s delegation. Just last week, the New Zealand Herald’s Element magazine published an op-ed by Dewy:

Dewy: It is hard to be positive when you realise your leaders are a long way away from giving you a future you can look forward to. […] I saw a general sense of neglect among most parties to Asia-Pacific countries whose mere existence and territories are threatened by rising sea levels.

[…]

We need this agreement to be strong and, as much as possible, be legally binding because the only logical solution to climate change is collective action.

We need to make sure all countries commit ambitious target emissions and implement these commitments; otherwise the 23 long years spent at COP would be a waste. And we need to make sacrifices now so that younger generations can have a liveable future.

I can’t say it better than that. The grim stories of Typhoons Bopha, Haiyan and Hagupit do not need repetition. However, stories of hope, survival and resistance deserve solidarity and action. Like the Pacific – and like Cameron’s friend Tommy, who survived a day and a night neck deep in floodwaters  – the Philippines are not drowning, but fighting.

The struggle for climate action affects all of us. But in the struggle for climate justice, I can’t think of anything more important than standing in solidarity as an ally to those from the world’s most climate vulnerable countries – especially the Small Island Developing States and Least Developed Countries.

And so, I #fastfortheclimate today. You in?

Fast for the Climate

About David Tong