TACLOBAN (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Three months after Typhoon Haiyan devastated central Philippines, land ownership regulations and a lack of equipment are hampering the clearance of millions of fallen coconut trees before they rot and become insect-infested.
The fallen trees cover swathes of land in the areas hit by Haiyan, undermining efforts to restore the livelihoods of some one million farmers, and pushing them deeper into poverty.
If cleared in time, the 15 million trees could provide valuable lumber for urgently needed temporary shelters. But experts say the clearance needs to be done before May, as there is only a six month window before the coconut trees start to rot and insects set in.
Time is running out.
"The extent of the devastation is too staggering. We have deployed around 251 chainsaw units but we need around 1,500," said Edilberto Nieva, head of the Philippines Coconut Authority (PCA) in Eastern Visayas, the second largest coconut-producing region in the Philippines and one of the hardest-hit areas.
"The worst case scenario is that felled trees are still on the ground and there’s pest infestation, which will attack healthy coconut trees and reduce their yield significantly," he told Thomson Reuters Foundation in Tacloban, a coastal town in Leyte Province that was devastated by the storm. Insect infestation also threatens replanted seedlings.
Aside from a lack of labour and equipment, the clearance work could also be stalled by land ownership laws that require poor farm workers to seek permission from landowners before clearing can begin, international aid agency Oxfam said.
When Haiyan, locally known as Yolanda, struck on Nov. 8, it left almost 9,000 people dead or missing and 1.1 million homes damaged.
It also damaged 33 million coconut trees, 15 million of which were completely destroyed, and affected the livelihoods of more than a million farmers, according to the PCA.
Even before the storm hit, 60 percent of small-scale coconut farmers lived in poverty, said the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).
The task, a parallel process of clearing the land as soon as possible while finding alternative livelihoods for the farmers, is overwhelming.
In addition to the land rights issue, fallen trees block the fields, preventing farmers from replanting.
And while an influx of chainsaws would help speed up the clearance, it could be challenging to control and might lead to a spate of illegal logging, warned Adam Marlatt, logistics coordinator for the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) and an expert on coconut lumber.
UNDP is developing a plan to dramatically increase the labour available to remove trees and the numbers of mobile saw mills which will process the cleared lumber. The mills produce more accurately cut pieces of timber and are much more fuel efficient than chainsaws, Marlatt said.
"Under the current target we aim to clear and process over one million trees in the next three to five months from vulnerable communities with small to medium enterprise farmers," he added.
The clearance programme could be scaled up but that would require additional donor funding, according to Marlatt.
Oxfam has also provided farmer cooperatives with chainsaws and sawmills while the International Organization for Migration (IOM) is running a project, funded by the European Commission’s humanitarian agency (ECHO), to use lumber from fallen trees in the construction of emergency shelters.
"The wood produced is distributed free to families with priority given to the most vulnerable, while landowners received 10 percent of the wood," said Mathias Eick, a spokesman for ECHO.
During a 10-day trip in late January to typhoon-affected provinces, Thomson Reuters Foundation met many coconut farmers who had lost their livelihoods. Those that owned no land had no assets to sell, and many were dependent on aid to survive.
It could take six to eight years for newly replanted coconut trees to reach maturity and return to full production, during which time alternative livelihoods are urgently needed, said Rajendra Aryal, acting FAO country Representative in the Philippines.
One option is intercropping, Aryal said, referring to the practice of growing two or more crops in proximity in the same field.
This requires a long-term strategy as the combination of crops must not only provide income to farmers but also stabilise and conserve soils to minimise the risk of erosion and landslides in a disaster-prone country hit by about 20 storms a year.
Over the next three months, an increasing number of fallen trees will start to rot and pests targeting them will spread, said Marlatt.
"After that point the trees will continue to degrade exponentially until fewer and fewer trees are viable for lumber recycling," he added.
PCA’s Nieva has urged the international community to help.
"We cannot do this alone. We cannot do this overnight," he said.