(Photo: Tony Oquias)

The Philippines Fights Climate Change With Rice and Religion

The deeply Catholic nation's 100 million people, battered by typhoons and rising seas, are responding to Pope Francis' call for action with moves to slash agricultural greenhouse gas emissions—and a resounding demand for help.
Nov 30, 2015· 16 MIN READ
David Page has written for The New York Times, Men's Journal, Skiing, Outside, and many other publications. He is a co-founder of Mammoth Medical Missions, Inc.

LEYTE ISLAND, PhilippinesUldarico Castañeda Jr. keeps five tattered life jackets hanging at the ready on his front porch. When Typhoon Haiyan hit central Philippines two years ago, it blasted the glass from the windows of his house and blew the roof off. Then came the storm surge, seawater rising quickly to the ceiling. He and his family survived by donning the life jackets and climbing onto a concrete beam over the porch. Many others were not so lucky. The typhoon, known locally as Yolanda, killed more than 6,300 people, left more than 1 million homeless, and razed 33 million coconut trees, destroying the livelihood of more than a million coconut farmers. Some 100,000 fishing boats were lost, and rice crops were ravaged across several major islands as the typhoon flattened villages and cities.

“What is happening now is the destruction of the climate,” Castañeda tells me one afternoon in October just up the path from the beach in Bislig, a small fishing village where he serves as an elected neighborhood official charged with peace and security as well as disaster risk and reduction. The resilient, perpetually smiling villagers, many of whom live on less than a dollar a day, have rebuilt their lives as best they can, mostly in the form of a dense shantytown inside the 130-foot coastal “no-build zone” mandated by the national government in Manila in the wake of Haiyan but not yet enforced. Residents cobbled their homes together from bamboo, rattan, salvaged roofing metal, and sheets of white tarpaulin emblazoned with the fading logos of international humanitarian relief groups. Some have dirt floors perhaps two or three feet above the high-tide mark; others are on stilts or attached to the tops of broken tree trunks.

(Map: TakePart)

On the eve of the second anniversary of Haiyan, with typhoon season once again bearing down on the country, Castañeda is afraid. “The storms get stronger and stronger,” he says. As long as there’s enough warning—as there was last year before Typhoon Hagupit hit—people will get out. They’ve learned their lesson. But their homes, their animals, their small stocks of food, their livelihoods—all of it will easily be swept away again, and the downward spiral of poverty and destruction will only get worse. The government, he says, is still not serious. The aid organizations have for the most part come and gone. “When are we going to do this?” he wonders. “We still have time to protect the environment. If only we could all cooperate.”

FULL COVERAGE: Climate Change(d): The Future Is Now

As world leaders meet this week in Paris to hammer out a binding agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the stakes have never been higher. Of the 171 countries on the United Nations’ most recent World Risk Index, the 100 million people of the Philippines are ranked the third-most-vulnerable population on the planet to extreme natural disaster. The only places at greater risk are Tonga (No. 2) and Vanuatu (No. 1), tiny archipelagos in the South Pacific with populations of 105,000 and 250,000, respectively. As global warming accelerates, the Philippines is likely to face not only more catastrophic typhoons but also heat waves, coastal flooding—sea levels are rising in the Philippines at a rate three times the global average—loss of fisheries and forests, drought, and widespread food shortages.

With the archipelago’s extreme vulnerability compounded by a population explosion and endemic poverty, Pope Francis’ encyclical on the social costs of climate change, “Laudato Si,” has struck a deep chord among the country’s 90 million Catholics already feeling the impacts of climate change. Inspired in part by the pope’s words, the government has joined religious leaders in calling for swift action on climate change in Paris, promising to cut 70 percent of the Philippines’ greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 in exchange for financial assistance as the country tries to adapt and steel itself for an uncertain future.

Filipino nuns pray during a mass conducted by Pope Francis at Rizal Park in Manila on Jan. 18, 2015. (Photo: Dondi Tawatao)

Making good on such a bargain will require sacrifice, hard work, and cooperation on the part of all Filipinos. One wild card is the pope, who visited the Philippines in January, preaching to 6 million people at a mass in Manila. It is difficult overestimate the cultural and political power of Catholicism in a country occupied for three centuries by the Spanish, when church and state were one. The Philippines remains one of the only countries in the world where divorce and abortion remain illegal and where another champion of the poor—Cardinal Jaime Sin, the archbishop of Manila—rallied “people power” to depose a dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, in 1986 and influenced the democratically elected governments that followed.

One of Sin’s successors, Luis Antonio Tagle, has embraced Pope Francis’ call to action on climate change. “We see in our country refugees who are not driven away not only by conflict, battles, or lack of employment, but by climate catastrophes,” Tagle told the National Catholic Reporter in September. “For me, success would also [be] getting the grass roots, the local communities to achieve a level of conversion of heart, a change of lifestyle, and for them to monitor at the grassroots level what is implemented in terms of the Paris conference’s direction. Without the involvement of the grass roots, I don’t think there will be real success.”

With a frightening future drawing ever closer, the will to act may finally have become reality.

The Francis Effect

Three days after Haiyan struck on Nov. 8, 2013, Filipino negotiator Naderev “Yeb” Saño broke into tears during an opening speech at the U.N. climate negotiations in Warsaw. Many of his relatives were still missing. His brother had survived, he said, but was struggling to find food and deal with dead bodies. “I speak for the countless people who will no longer be able to speak for themselves after perishing from the storm,” Saño told the delegates, announcing that he would go on a hunger strike until rich nations made financial commitments to help developing countries like his cope with the effects of climate change. Now was the time, he pleaded, to stop the empty talk and half measures. Now was the time to take meaningful action to “prevent a future where super typhoons become a way of life.”

Two years later, the message is the same. “Climate change is something we have to confront,” Pel Tecson, the mayor of Tanauan, Leyte—a municipality of 50,000 people that includes the village of Bislig—tells me over lunch in his mercifully air-conditioned office on the first floor of the rehabilitated town hall. He is just back from giving a presentation to the U.N. General Assembly in New York. Pope Francis spoke to the same body a few days earlier, calling for “concrete steps and immediate measures for preserving and improving the natural environment.” The mayor’s topic was Tanauan as a case study for successful community-led development and resiliency. “The town of Tanauan was submerged,” he told them. The water was 15 to 20 feet high in some places and ran more than a mile inland. “We cannot just leave,” he says to me. “This is our home. So we have to develop a plan to mitigate the impact of these disasters, to protect the people and be ready.”

Tanauan Mayor Pelagio Tecson Jr. points to the name of one of his volunteers who died during a rescue mission after Typhoon Haiyan struck the city. (Photo: Tony Oquias)

Tanauan was the first Haiyan-devastated municipality to come up with such a plan to prepare and adapt to future climate change­–spawned super typhoons, less than two months after the disaster. Funding has been sporadic, and implementation on nearly every front has been excruciatingly slow; however, there have been successes. Streetlights have been restored and converted to energy-efficient LED. Schools have been rebuilt with second stories that can serve as evacuation centers. Fishing boats and pedicabs have been replaced. Rice farmers were given free high-yield seeds and fertilizers and in 2014 brought in record harvests. The number of completed resettlement housing units is about to reach 400, providing stormproof shelter, more than a mile inland, for nearly half of the estimated 880 families living in what the mayor calls “danger areas” along the shoreline. The average resettlement rate elsewhere is less than 10 percent, the mayor tells me. “So we’re ahead of the game.”

After lunch, I visit some of these new units with one of the mayor’s aides. They are painted in bright colors: yellow, orange, purple, and red. Each eligible family will receive one room with a small loft, a kitchen sink, and a toilet. There’s a playground, a meeting area, and a communal vegetable garden. The few dozen families already living there seem happy enough. Whether people who have already rebuilt near the beach, like Castañeda’s neighbors in Bislig, would be willing to move inland permanently, especially those with livelihoods that depended on fishing, is uncertain—at least until the next Category 5 storm comes along and sweeps everything away again.

I ask the mayor to what extent the pope’s campaign for climate action has helped the process. Of course, he says, the church is integral, not merely in helping to restore the victims’ faith, but also in charting a way forward. “It’s great that there’s advocacy from all sectors,” he tells me, “because we need everybody.”

Later I climb onto the back of a crowded, diesel-belching jeepney to visit Father Al Cris Badana of the Relief and Rehabilitation Unit of the Archdiocese of Palo, just north of Tanauan. “If Mao Zedong has his ‘Red Book,’ we have our own red book: the ‘Laudato Si,’ ” he tells me. “This is our guide in our interventions.”

Since Haiyan, Badana and his brothers have helped to rebuild more than 500 homes. Instead of just delivering new equipment or packaged solutions imported from elsewhere, they first hold a series of meetings with the community, to let residents determine and articulate their own needs. “First we have to listen to what they really want,” Badana explains. What they want is not always the most obvious thing. Many rice farmers, he says, would prefer a water buffalo to a mechanical harvester. The latter requires gasoline, ongoing maintenance, and technical training, while the former can sustain itself simply by eating grass. The animal also provides milk and reproduces. For about $700, Badana says, the church can provide a water buffalo that serves five families, with a written agreement that the offspring is given to the next in line.

Finished homes in Tanauan, where 100 families from the coastal town of San Roque will be relocated. (Photo: Tony Oquias)

Pope Francis visited Leyte in January. As a Category 2 tropical storm moved in, the pope stood on the airstrip at Tacloban, 12 miles north of Tanauan, and delivered a homily in the rain before a crowd of 150,000. The next day Francis appeared in Manila, the most densely populated megacity on the planet, one that in 2009 felt the full brunt of Typhoon Ketsana, which killed 700 people. Before a rain-soaked gathering of 6 million people, the pontiff spoke of the inseparability of the natural environment and the dignity of human beings. “When we destroy our forests, ravage our soil, and pollute our seas,” he said, “we betray that noble calling.”

Six months later, Tagle, the archbishop of Manila, responding to the pope’s call to action in the “Laudato Si,” launched what he hoped would be a massive global petition campaign. The goal is to collect 10 million signatures from Catholics all over the world—1 million from the Philippines—addressed to delegates at the Paris climate negotiations and calling on world leaders “to drastically cut carbon emissions to keep the global temperature rise below the dangerous 1.5-degree-Celsius threshold and to aid the world’s poorest in coping with climate change impacts.”

On Saturday, church officials presented 800,000 signatures to U.N. officials in Paris.

Mayette Rodriguez, executive director of Aksyon Klima, a coalition of 40 organizations working on climate change in the Philippines, appreciates the church's call to action. She credits it for raising general awareness among Filipinos. In her neighborhood in Manila, for instance, she says has seen an increase in environmentally friendly activities such as recycling. "It's important for the grassroots to realize that the power actually lies in their hands," Rodriguez says. "They have been disempowered for so long that they have to be reminded that if they are consolidated they can effect change in society."

Pope Francis waves to well wishers in the rain after a mass in Tacloban on Jan. 17, 2015.

Rice Power

In 1995, the year of the first major global climate change negotiations in Berlin, Tony La Viña was a young human rights lawyer working on a Ph.D. at Yale in the then-esoteric field of climate change. As one of the only Filipinos who had any knowledge of the subject at that time, he was asked to advise his country’s delegation to the conference. By year’s end he was appointed undersecretary of the environment. He negotiated the Kyoto Protocol for the Philippines in 1997 and has participated in every major conference since as a senior negotiator. He is now dean of the Ateneo School of Government in Manila.

“In the beginning we were just preaching to developed countries: Cut emissions, cut emissions,” he tells me one dark and rainy evening at his office on campus. On the windowsill is a stack of well-worn paperbacks that include a selection of writings by Mao, the autobiography of Trotsky, Plato’s Dialogues, and Cervantes’ Don Quixote. “Of course they never listened.” Now, he says, the negotiations have evolved to the point where every country is being asked to cut emissions, “regardless of how much you’re contributing to climate change or how much you’ve contributed historically.” At the same time, developed countries are being asked to put real money up to help poorer countries that are severely impacted by climate change.

President Benigno Aquino III himself, La Viña says, refused to go to Paris with a weak offer. What had been a tentative promise to reduce Philippine greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent suddenly became a bold pledge to slash the country’s carbon spew 70 percent by 2030—even though the total Philippine contribution to global emissions is less than 1 percent. “We made a very big commitment,” says La Viña, “and we made it contingent on support by developed countries.”

If it happens, Filipinos will have to make some big changes. In theory, the biggest cuts in emissions will come from new efficiencies in energy, transportation, industry, and waste management.


Photographer Tony Oquias shows how life moves forward in an area continually devastated by typhoons.

Much of the focus will be on agriculture. Farming is responsible for more than one-third of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions and is the second-biggest emitter after power plants. Also, as the Philippines attempts to adapt to changing climate conditions, food security is a primary concern. According to the U.N. Development Programme, 11 million people are directly involved in rice production in the Philippines, nearly a quarter of the overall workforce. Rice is the country’s most important food crop, and yet production has not been able to keep up with population growth. Every year the Philippines imports rice from Vietnam and Thailand. Those imports are likely to grow as typhoons regularly wipe out rice crops and rising temperatures lowers agricultural productivity.

Evangeline “Vangie” Sibayan is an agricultural engineer and head research specialist at the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) in Muñoz, an agricultural center several hours north of Manila. “This is basically the rice granary of the Philippines,” she tells me as we drive across the province of Nueva Ecija, which has the highest yields in the nation and essentially feeds metropolitan Manila.

Her colleague, Bernardo Tadeo, an agricultural engineer and a senior consultant for PhilRice on energy and environmental issues, is behind the wheel. We’re on our way to visit a 12-megawatt power plant he’s helped set up in San Jose City fueled entirely by rice husks. Built with private financing, the plant is a spin-off of research done at PhilRice. It’s a prime example, Sibayan says, of how adaptation and mitigation are “co-benefits” in the fight against climate change. In other words, by looking at ways to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture, they’ve also hit on a way to produce cleaner electricity. All of it hinges on participation by government, private enterprise, scientists, and the rice farmers and millers themselves. “It’s really a collective effort,” she says. “Otherwise there’s no impact.”

Bernardo D. Tadeo, chief executive of Full Advantage Phils. International, stands in front of the one-of-a-kind power plant he helped develop. The 12-megawatt power plant produces electricity using rice husks, long considered farm waste.  (Photo: Tony Oquias)

Tadeo negotiates his way past farm trucks, pedestrians, motorcycles with sidecars, and intermittent stretches of golden-yellow rice grains spread out to dry right on the roadway. Whenever possible, people try to swerve around it into the other lane. It’s harvest time, and in the fields, groups of men and women in T-shirts and conical straw hats use knives to cut and gather handfuls of grain. Water buffalos drag mechanical harvesters, and here and there a modern diesel-driven combine works its way across a muddy field. Sibayan points out whole sections of fields where the crop is flattened, courtesy of a Category 2 storm named Kabayan that blew through a few days earlier. Some of the rice might be salvaged, she says. Much of it will be ruined.

On the gated campus of PhilRice in air-conditioned labs surrounded by manicured lawns, teams of scientists are hard at work developing more resilient, more productive varieties of rice that can better cope with the changing climate. They’re also plotting ways to make radical improvements in cultivation methods—to save water, improve yields, reduce methane gas emissions, and curtail the use of fossil fuels. One of their climate change projects is the development of carbon-neutral gasifiers that burn rice husks to produce electricity or to power small engines for hand tractors and water pumps. Rice husks are what are leftover after the grains are separated to be dried and packaged. Rice millers once had to pay to have husks hauled away for disposal; now they make money selling them as renewable fuel.

We pull into the parking lot just as the sun is dipping behind the corrugated steel building. The plant hums softly as we don hard hats and climb several flights of stairs, past gauges and boilers and the main generator to the hoppers at the top. Below us, an enormous loader is shoveling mountains of rice husks onto a conveyor. Burning 12 to 14 metric tons per hour of husk, the plant generates enough electricity to power tens of thousands of homes. The technology is relatively simple, Tadeo says, but to make it viable, it took almost eight years to push through a 4-centavo charge—a fraction of a penny—for renewables on people’s utility bills. Now, says Tadeo, “everybody in the Philippines is contributing to renewable energy development.”

A water pump for farms powered by burning rice husks.  Farmers can save money with the use of the pump as they don't have to buy fuel to run their pumps. (Photo: Tony Oquias)

One of Sibayan’s projects is an ambitious but low-tech initiative developed in collaboration with the U.N. and a major investment bank based in Japan. By alternately flooding and drying rice fields rather than flooding them continuously right up until harvest time, as is traditional, it is estimated that methane gas emissions can be reduced by more than 50 percent. That’s because organic matter decomposes in the water as it sits in the fields, releasing large amounts of methane gas, which contributes to global warming. Other benefits include a potential increase in the hardiness of the plants, a rise of about 5 percent in yield, and significant water savings that can be banked against the potential for drought or used to increase the amount of land in production. All this, Sibayan explains, is from “modification of water management at the farmer’s level.”

The trick is getting the farmers to change their ways. There are no incentives in place for using less water—yet. The farmers are charged an irrigation fee based not on how much water they use but on the amount of irrigable land they’ve planted. Often, if they don’t get as much water as they want, they don’t bother to pay the fees. So for now, the experimental initiative is voluntary and limited to one small group of farmers.

We drive down along a network of irrigation channels to meet the farmers of the Lateral B irrigation association. Outside the village meeting hall in Santo Domingo, the basketball court is spread with newly harvested rice grains drying in the sun. We sit in the shade on woven-cane benches and chat about the successes and pitfalls of the alternate wetting and drying program. It has worked well enough, the farmers tell me. It wasn’t even that much extra work. The problem was, the plots they farmed were down at the end of the ditch and hadn’t been getting enough water throughout the season, or they were getting it at the wrong times.

“If you don’t need it, it comes,” complains one old-timer, 57-year-old Edgar Mariano Sr. Some of the farmers with fields farther up the ditch, who were not on the new program, had been taking all the water they could get for themselves. So those downstream weren’t always able to stay on track with the watering program, and at times they risked drying out entirely. “There are a lot of farmers who are hard-headed,” he explains. “If you’re not courageous enough, you won’t get water when you need it. You need to bring out all the weapons you’ve got to get it.”

Sibayan asked the group what could be done to make the program work better. The answer was unanimous: Everybody needed to participate—everybody or nobody. For that to happen, Sibayan knew, the laws would have to change. There would have to be real incentives, such as a break on irrigation fees based on water savings, or reduced rates on crop insurance. Beyond the abstract threat of climate change, there would have to be money.

Seeding Resilience

One Saturday afternoon in the full press of the day’s heat, I meet Madonna Songalia beside an army-troop transport along the Yolanda Highway, just across the bridge from Bislig. Songalia works for a local nonprofit group called Burublig Para Ha Tanauan (Coming Together to Help Tanauan). A gaggle of schoolkids has gathered, along with several neighborhood leaders and some soldiers from the Charlie Company of the Philippine Army. A Japanese nonprofit has provided funds for a batch of mangrove seedlings to replant along the estuary in the hope that it would begin to restore a lost ecosystem and perhaps, one day, provide some protection against storm surges.

We carry the seedlings in plastic sacks down a dirt path strewn with unspooled videotape. We leave our flip-flops at the edge of the water and walk out into the warm mud. A group of fishers watch us from the shore, greatly amused. Digging holes underwater with our hands, we set the plants into the mud, three feet or so apart, and cover them as best we can. They seem terribly delicate, but Songalia points out another batch that was planted earlier in the season. They’re at least twice the size of the new plants.

“It’s a good way for the children to learn to help protect the environment,” she says, “and to bring awareness to the local people. If you help together, you can do something.” Then she adds, “It’s our time to give back.”

The PhilRice climate change mitigation team in Nueva Ecija. Evangeline 'Vangie' Sibayan, supervising science research specialist (third from left), has helped develop rice seeds that are climate change–resilient. (Photo: Tony Oquias)

We squish our way back to our shoes and solid ground. We stop by a hut along the path for some sweet pandesal bread and rest in the shade while Songalia talks to the kids.

It’s all part of what La Viña sees as a new and important development in the global conversation: justice for the people most vulnerable to climate change. “I’m talking about communities and peoples that are not necessarily represented by their states,” he says, “because they’re excluded also within their own countries. How do we make sure that they don’t bear the cost of the impacts of climate change? If they’re going to be our solution to climate change, we want those people to have a say.”

If a global agreement can be struck in Paris that includes real and sustainable financial assistance for developing countries, vulnerable populations like those in the Philippines may have a decent shot at adapting to a changing climate, building toward a more secure and self-sufficient future. “A strong mitigation agreement has very real consequences,” says La Viña. “A weak one means we’re in real, real trouble. I don’t even know how to prepare for that.”

Meanwhile the farmers in Santo Domingo are barely making ends meet. Even before increased storm surges, coastal flooding, and coral bleaching, Bislig’s fisher folks, as they’re called locally, were no longer catching enough fish to cover the cost of bait and fuel and to sustain their families. Now the trees are gone too. There’s no shade and no protection, and typhoon season is upon them once again. “Leyte will happen again and again,” says La Viña. “It’s still the same vulnerable place. If it happens tomorrow, the whole place will just be destroyed all over again, and it will get worse.”

Sure enough, as if to punctuate his point, two days after I land back in the United States, a storm called Lando, the 15th typhoon of the season, plows across Luzon, right over the top of Manila, PhilRice, San Jose City, and Lateral B, destroying 326,000 metric tons of rice—enough to feed the 12 million people in Metro Manila for about three months.