Updated: 7 days ago
By Allison Gacad. Art by Alice Hackey
I was twelve years old when I first travelled to the Philippines, nearly three decades after my family had emigrated from this archipelago in Southeast Asia. My mother took my father, sister and I to her village barrio: a two hour drive from the capital, Manila into the countryside of Hagonoy, Bulacan. She had grown up here with her four siblings in a two-storey house surrounded by towering coconut and papaya trees. Okra, pepper, and tomato plants grew in the back. These were tended to by Inang, my grandmother, while Amang, my grandfather, travelled to work every day at a fish pond he managed.
My mother’s last visit had been twelve years prior for her father’s funeral. The home was later occupied by Tita Nini, my mother’s youngest sister, and her children, Nico and Mikee.
Tita Beth, my mother’s younger sister, drove us to their home through narrow village streets sandwiched by tall metal gates and concrete fences. People stared wide-eyed at the rare sight of a CRV inching its way down a road more often populated by tricycles, motorbikes, and sometimes, wooden boats.
“It’s good you came during the dry season,” Tita Beth said. “When the rain starts, you will be walking around with water up to your ankles.”
We were received at the gates with big hugs and smiles from Tita Nini and my cousins. I remember sitting by the window that evening with Nico and Mikee, chatting about the stress of school and what we wanted to be when we grew up. Echoes of the barrio chimed in through the window: women laughing, drinking cheap beer, and smoking cigarettes on the street while they could, before they would be submerged under inches of murky water.
The Philippines, like many countries located close to the equator, experiences less fluctuation in the solar energy it receives throughout the year in comparison to countries located further away from the equator, such as Canada. As a result, changes in temperature throughout the year are minimal, while changes in precipitation are more pronounced, thus dividing the year into two seasons by rainfall. Here I learnt that there were only two seasons in this part of the world: the rainy and the dry.
Today, the Philippines has a booming population of over 100 million people. My parents had both grown up in the probinsya, or the countryside, where they were raised on fish ponds, rice paddies and tobacco crops. Success often meant having to leave the country for work and send money back home to family members. According to the World Bank, there were about 2.3 million Filipino migrant workers abroad in 2018, who sent back nearly 33 billion USD in remittances, or 10% of the country’s GDP. My mother too worked as a nurse in Kuwait for nearly a decade, funneling money back home to pay for her siblings’ education, before moving to Canada.
I was born and raised in Canada. My parents eventually settled down in a two-storey townhouse in Scarborough, a neighbourhood in the land-locked city of Toronto.
On a typical summer evening in Scarborough, my parents would tend to our garden that overflowed with the tomatoes and flowers we planted earlier that spring. When we escaped the humidity in favour of air conditioning indoors, my mother would then make her weekly calls back home to Tita Nini in Sagrada Familia.
Hi Nini, kamusta ka na? May bagyo doon? May bumabaha?
Hi Nini, how are you? Is there a storm there? Is it flooding?
While the days were long and sunny in Toronto, torrential rains lashed my mother’s home in the village. During the rainy season in the Philippines, typhoons form over warm tropical ocean water, where the swirling air accumulates large amounts of heat from the sea. As a typhoon makes landfall, all of this energy dissipates as heavy rain, wind, and flooding.
“Yes, it’s flooding, up to our knees,” Tita Nini would reply, worriedly. “We can’t use the toilet, because it’s on the ground floor, and it’s flooded. We don’t know when the water will subside.”
My mother received some iteration of this response weekly. From 1971 to 2013, extreme tropical storms – classified as category 4 or 5 with speeds of over 150 kilometres per hour - have become more frequent in the Philippines, now averaging around six per year. This is attributed to rising sea-surface temperatures since the 1970s, as the ocean absorbs most excess heat from greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. This is not a phenomenon unique to the Philippines: in 2019, the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society found a global trend of increasing incidence of category 4 or 5 extreme tropical storms in recent decades.
During my early teens, I would often come home late, only to find my mother still on the phone with Tita Nini, speaking with concern and urgency.
Pwede mag tinatambakan yung bahay para tuma-taas?
Can we renovate the home to make it stand higher?
The answer was no. Each year, their home in the barrio continued to flood and it soon began to affect their health. When the house flooded, the water lay stagnant with no possibility of draining until days after the rain subsided, serving as breeding grounds for mosquitos. Once, my cousin Nico contracted dengue and had to be hospitalized for weeks.
At some point during my applications for university, my mother suggested to her siblings that they should consider selling the family home. Tita Nini was against it, and Nico wanted to live in the house once he graduated from university. But my mother said it wasn’t reasonable.
“It’s so sad,” my mother said. “If not for the floods, it would still have all the trees and vegetables. And our furniture, it was so beautiful. But now everything is gone. Not livable anymore. So much broken.”
Tita Nini was fortunate to eventually move to the capital of Manila, prompted by both of my cousins who received full university scholarships to study there. Among the residents of the barrio, only those who had the opportunity - coupled with the means to leave - left, too. In the Philippines, a 2017 study published in Population and the Environment found that migration within the country of those with higher earning potential - particularly young, educated, males - was more likely to take place in response to rising temperatures and typhoons, compared to their older, less educated, and often female counterparts.
In 2016, I left Scarborough to attend university in Vancouver, a city on the other side of Canada. Coming from a suburban neighbourhood, I was won over by the mountains, forest and ocean surrounding the campus of the University of British Columbia. It was here that I dove deep into learning about our food system, and often as the only Filipino student in the room.
When peers in class asked where I was from, I said Toronto, and if their question lingered a bit longer, I told them that my parents had immigrated from the Philippines nearly three decades ago.
“Wow, the Philippines! I had a Filipino nanny once,” was the usual response.
I spent most of my time outside of class in spaces similar to the backyard garden I grew up in - cooking in volunteer kitchens and tending to the farm on campus. I often found Filipinos in similar spaces. I would overhear chatter in Tagalog among food service workers over lunch in the dining hall. I learned that many of them had been professionals back home - engineers, doctors, and lawyers. And they were surprised to hear that I was interested in pursuing a career in agriculture.
“Your parents immigrated all the way here for you to be a farmer? Do you know how hard it is to be a farmer in the Philippines?” they would often tease.
Indeed, part of me felt guilty about having such aspirations. I thought about what my parents left behind in pursuit of a better life for their children – relatives and friends, ancestral homes filled with memories and celebrations. I was attending university on a scholarship that granted me the privilege to study any subject of my choosing and my parents would have preferred a career in law or medicine for me, which would guarantee greater social and economic stability.
But I also thought about what my parents had taken with them. I thought about meals of fish, wrapped and steamed in banana leaves, that my father has shared with me. I thought about the tomato seeds I have sowed in my mother’s garden in our backyard. If I listened to both of their memories closely, I could taste the papaya trees and fresh coconuts of their childhood.
In agriculture I found a means of resistance, hope, and resurrection. I was on the other side of the world - diaspora displaced from the things they left behind, the culture they have tried to share, and the incessant floods knocking at my mother’s door. Yet perhaps not all was entirely lost, so long as there were meals to share and seeds to sow; food systems to uproot, adapt, and cultivate in new spaces.
In my third year, I discovered that my university had an exchange program with the University of the Philippines, Los Banos, which was known for its agriculture and forestry research. I leapt at the opportunity, and in my final year of university, I found myself in Los Banos on a rainy August day.
The weather was consistently humid. The rain provided little relief from the smoggy air. My Tagalog was mediocre at best, and I was worried about how people would receive me as a Filipino-faced foreigner. But it was in Los Banos that I learned about Filipino culture and economy in ways that I had been removed from before - and rice was often the medium.
“Rice is life!” my new friends on campus would say. Gone were the days of chia seeds and oatmeal for breakfast: my first breakfast on campus was sinangag – fried rice, one of the seven different words to describe rice in Tagalog. Every day, for all three meals, rice was served with a different type of ulam, a dish that tasted of one of the sour, sweet, or salty palates of Filipino cuisine.
One weekend I traced the source of food back to the palengke – a street market best attended to at 6 AM when everything is fresh. I navigated my way through the sounds of aggressive bargaining between shoppers and sellers, and the confusing, mingling scents of fermenting seafood and fresh meats. In one section, vendors lined along the sides of the road, spilling local root vegetables and leafy greens onto the street; in another, the floor was slick with dripping water from freshly scaled fish, and of course, there was an entire section full of sacks upon sacks of rice for sale. I was surprised to see that most of the rice being sold were the product of neighbouring southeast Asian countries, and they were sold at a much cheaper price than local Philippine rice.
“What is it like to live in a country that kills its own farmers?” a painted poster seemed to scream at me, as I entered my university’s student building in my first week of school. The rice tariffication law, newly implemented by President Duterte, allowed for tax-free imports of rice to feed the growing Filipino population. Local farmers found it difficult to compete with the low-priced imports, and suffered from poverty, unable to feed themselves and their families.
The plight of these farmers was central to student activism on campus. There was a rally every week that attracted hundreds of students to the steps of the university building, denouncing the president. Despite Duterte’s campaigns to liberate rural farmers from poverty, the government has continued to be largely inefficient, with peasant farmers continuing to live in poverty.
Thus as the Global Climate Strike approached, I anticipated large crowds to draw. Climate change will inevitably hit rural farmers in the Philippines the hardest, I concluded. I was excited to chant, cheer, and call for change, alongside new friends in this country.
I scrolled through my Instagram feed of activist friends in Vancouver who were hopeful and mobilized for climate justice. They were calling for action to ensure a liveable future for all, condemning fossil fuels, blocking traffic and bridges, chanting with smiling faces in solidarity for a better future, a sense of hope permeating throughout the crowd.
In Los Banos, my activist friends were livid. The Philippines is one of the deadliest countries in the world to pursue environmental activism, and the chants were calling on Duterte to investigate the deaths of and better protect journalists. There were calls on Duterte to revoke the rice tariffication law and to employ better land policies for all of the peasant farmers in the country. The myriad of environment and climate issues seemed to go on indefinitely: Duterte isn’t doing enough!, they shouted. Duterte, step down! Join us to mobilize against Duterte!
Hours later, my clothes, moist with sweat, stuck to my skin. I was exhausted, defeated, and quite frankly, depressed. But the small crowd of about 30 activists stood solemnly around me, chanting, chanting, chanting, to a beat of hope and solidarity I couldn’t resonate with.
In class, I learned how to plant rice mana-mana – the manual way, as many smallholder, rural farmers plant rice. Rice is grown in paddy fields, which are partially submerged conditions that allow for the seedlings to flourish. When I stepped into the paddy, my entire leg sank calf-deep into the mud.
Flooding is essential to grow rice, but it is a calculated amount by rice farmers every season. In my fourth month in Los Banos, Typhoon Kammuri – locally known as Typhoon Tisoy – arrived to destroy this calculation.
My phone buzzed with emergency SOS alerts warning about what would be the strongest storm of the year. It was an unexpected hit to the country, late in the typhoon season, when farmers had only been weeks away from their final harvest.
When the typhoon hit the city, the power went out: there was no wifi and cellular signal for nearly 36 hours. I headed to the lobby of my dorm to hang out with the other exchange students, with no knowledge of the havoc that the typhoon wreaked beyond our dormitory walls. We shared snacks, waited, and watched the rain pour for hours, the aggressive drum of the storm humming over the roof on our heads.
I was restless from being indoors all day, growing irritable from feeling trapped. When the storm had cleared, I went out for a run. I didn’t see much. The campus was desolate, aside from a few emergency vehicles roaming around. The skies were grey and fallen, large banana leaves lined the streets. As I made my way onto the main street, all shops were shut, aside from a lone Starbucks cafe.
I came home to a Facebook newsfeed flooded with articles on farmers who had lost all of their crops and whose homes had been destroyed. Tisoy resulted in an estimated loss of up to 74 million USD in agriculture across the country, much of this loss felt by rice farmers.
Despite the Philippines’ vulnerability to typhoons and natural disasters as an island nation, I learned that every year, the funds intended to prepare and protect against these incidences have never been sufficient to deal with the true damage.
My classmates were not as rattled as I was about the typhoon, as it was a normal occurrence for them - as long as they stayed indoors, they were fine. But I couldn’t help but wonder: weren’t my classmates angry that the Philippines bore the brunt of climate impacts, when the country was hardly responsible for them? Why was it then, that the Philippines was solely financially burdened to recover from these storms? Should Western, more developed countries be stepping in with financial assistance, as they were indirectly responsible for these typhoons through the fossil fuels they’ve developed?
I didn’t find any answers to my questions, and after the typhoon, I only had one month left in the country.
I found solace in hanging out with cousins whom I hadn’t met before, going on surf trips and checking out the local indie music scene. My father joined me for a while too. I travelled to stay at his family home for some nights, roaming around the neighbourhood he grew up in and riding the jeepney he took to his university. I couldn’t resist the urge to visit my mother’s village too, as it had been nearly a decade since I had last travelled there when I was 12. In that span of time, Tita Nini and Tita Beth’s lives had been uprooted from their village since they had sold their family home. I asked Tita Nini and Tita Beth if I could visit Sagrada Familia. ‘You can’t go. There is nothing left there anymore.’ they both echoed. Could I at least visit my grandparents, who were buried there? But I quickly learned that they were no longer buried in their original grave by the church in their village. In my mother’s village, the dead are not traditionally laid to rest buried below the ground but instead above it, in concrete caskets stacked atop of one another. As the floods got worse, it was impossible to visit them unless you waded through knee-deep waters with no knowledge of what was swimming by your feet.
In 2016, my mother funneled money back home to pay for their re-burial in Malolos, a town in the same province on higher ground. I travelled with my mother’s siblings to pay our respects with prayers and candles, but as we stood over their new grave, I grew uncomfortable with the realization that even in death, you cannot escape the effects of a changing climate, unless the living have the means to relocate you. I wondered if it would only be a matter of time before this new gravesite, located still in the same vulnerable coastal province of Bulacan, would be flooded too. It felt like my family was running without pause on a treadmill, the threat of uprooting yet again nipping at our feet - every new typhoon and incessant flood serving as a reminder that this is not home anymore, you are not welcome here - leave, now, while you can, while there are still places for you to go.
Allison Gacad is a budding scientist, writer, and farmer. She is in her final year of a BSc in Global Resource Systems at the University of British Columbia, pursuing research in biological tools that will address the challenge of growing food in a changing climate. You can find more of her writing here.