'Pablo' reduces ComVal farmers to beggars
NEW BATAAN - The secluded valley that sheltered Jerry Blanco's banana crop from communist and Muslim rebellions offered no refuge from Typhoon Bopha, which left him destitute in seconds.
Last week's terrifying storm has left more than 1,600 people dead or missing in the southern Philippines, and all but wiped out the banana plantations that are one of the desperately poor country's few export earners.
"First the strong wind came, then a sheet of rain. Our roof rattled, the house creaked and then the wall was blown away," Blanco, a 39-year-old plantation worker, told AFP in the southern Philippines.
"I looked out across the field, and all the (banana stalks) were felled. Our harvest was gone. The first thought in my mind was, we've just lost our future," the father of four said.
Barefoot, shirtless and wearing torn trousers, Blanco stood by the roadside with neighbours who had also suddenly lost everything.
Days after Bopha obliterated their town of New Bataan, they were reduced to begging for help from passing motorists.
For fellow plantation worker Ben Alpor, the disaster meant the three youngest of his seven children would have to stop going to school.
"I will not be able to afford it. What little savings we had was in a (children's) piggy bank, and that has been blown away too," the 55-year-old told AFP.
"We've been reduced to begging for food, when before we had so much to eat," Alpor added.
Ensconced in a valley on the southern island of Mindanao that is the centre of the country's banana industry, New Bataan is surrounded by a wall of mountains that had long protected it from storms before Bopha barrelled through.
From the 1960s, the valley was settled by migrants who found its sheltered location ideal for growing bananas, a crop that earned the nation $471 million last year in exports -- about 12 percent of total Philippine farm exports.
Big corporate farms bought up large tracts, contracting locals as sharecroppers in an industry that has grown to become the world's third-largest exporter of bananas -- after Ecuador and Costa Rica.
Up to 200,000 farm hands plus their families live around the 42,000 hectares (104,000 acres) of plantations across Mindanao that supply major markets such as China, Japan and Iran, according to the industry association.
The banana regions had weathered the worst of deadly insurgencies by Muslim and communist rebels that engulfed other areas of Mindanao over recent decades.
The New Bataan plantation workers earned up to 10,000 pesos ($240) a month and were allowed to build wooden homes near their places of work.
"We had everything that we wanted, a simple life, enough food on the table and friends and family -- until the typhoon came and destroyed everything," Blanco said.
Up to 14,175 hectares of banana crops were destroyed, a third of the country's production, said Carlo Mallo, spokesman of the Philippine Banana Growers and Exporters Association.
The group estimates the damage to crops and infrastructure at eight billion pesos ($185 million).
It will take two months to clean up and replant the fields and nine months after that before the next harvest, Mallo said.
Governor Arthur Uy of Compostela Valley province said up to 80 percent of the province's banana crop had been lost, with dire consequences for the 150,000 local farmers and relatives who depend on the industry.
"It would take years," he told AFP when asked about the plantations' recovery. "We need assistance from the national government."
Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala said the production shortage would cause the Philippines to lose foreign customers for high-quality bananas to Ecuador.
"The worrying thing is that if we lose them we might not get them back," Alcala told ABS-CBN television in Manila.
Businessman Richard Acaso, who buys bananas wholesale and sells them to local markets, said he may now be forced to sell his home and move elsewhere.
"I used to get 5,000 to 8,000 crates of bananas a week," he said, equivalent to 75-120 tonnes. "You would be lucky to buy a (single) crate this time around."
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