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As disaster hits the Philippines again, a farmer’s sorrow reveals the stakes

Residents hand out food Monday as they wade through a street flooded by Super Typhoon Noru in San Miguel, north of the Philippines capital, Manila. (Aaron Favila/AP)

PALAWAN, Philippines — The skies were still clear when the farmer went to take a final look at his crops.

A massive tropical cyclone was hours away from making landfall in the northern Philippines, and the province of Nueva Ecija, known as the “rice granary” of the country, was in the center of its path. Officials warned that more than a million hectares (2.47 million acres) of farmland could be flattened just before harvesting season, devastating the poor, rural communities that have increasingly shouldered the brunt of the country’s natural disasters.

Looking at the paddy field he had labored in for months, Felix Pangibitan picked up his phone and clicked record.

“I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, in the coming days,” he said into the camera, standing in front of the field. “I took a video now, because I don’t know if these will still be standing tomorrow.”

“What God decides, that’s what happens, right?” Pangibitan added, sighing. “But it’s a waste. It’s so hard to be a farmer.”

Shared on Facebook, Pangibitan’s video struck a chord with people in the Philippines as they braced for Super Typhoon Noru on Sunday, drawing millions of views on social media and local television channels. He tapped into the feelings of anxiety and helplessness that had spread across the country as Noru, also known locally as Karding, evolved rapidly from a tropical storm into a Category 5 typhoon.

At the same time, observers said, the farmer from Nueva Ecija seemed to capture what — and who — was most at stake in these typhoons, which have battered the Philippines with growing frequency and severity over recent years.

The country’s agricultural sector has had the highest poverty rate of any sector since 2006, government figures show, with at least 2.4 million people who rely on the sector living below the poverty line. From 2000 to 2019, the industry suffered 63 percent of the damage caused by extreme weather events, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority.

Typhoon Rai, also known as Super Typhoon Odette, caused $550 million worth of damage when it hit the Philippines last December. More than a third of that damage was incurred in agriculture, with some 420,000 hectares (about 1,037,840 acres) of farmland wiped out over a matter of days, according to the relief organization Oxfam. Nearly 390,000 farmers and fishermen were “left with nothing,” reported Lot Felizco, the country director of Oxfam Philippines.

In 2018, Typhoon Ompong caused more than $220 million in agricultural damage, one-fifth in Nueva Ecija, which produces some 10 percent of the country’s rice every year.

Philippines on high alert as ‘explosive’ Super Typhoon Noru makes landfall

Noru barreled through central Luzon, where Manila is located, with sustained winds of up to 150 mph from Sunday night to early Monday. It left dozens of neighborhoods underwater and cut off power lines in at least 12 municipalities, officials said in a news briefing, but it stopped short of causing the widespread loss of life that was initially feared. Five people died while conducting rescue operations in Bulacan province, officials said.

The worst is probably over, experts say, as Noru makes it way out of the Philippines and toward Vietnam, where it’s expected to make a second landfall. But early reports suggest the destruction has been widespread, particularly for the country’s 10 million agricultural workers. On Polillo Island, on the eastern coast, more than 300 hectares (741 acres) of rice and “100 percent” of banana crops have been destroyed, local officials said.

“We were really unlucky that we were hit just right before our harvest,” said Danilo Fausto, president of the Philippine Chamber of Agriculture and Food.

Fausto, who owns a rice farm in Nueva Ecija, said paddy fields can usually survive weaker cyclones, but Noru’s rapid intensification caught farmers off-guard. Many are waiting for their crops to dry to determine what they can save, he said, but it’s almost certain their revenue will take a hit.

“This will really plunge our farmers into poverty, especially those who are dependent on their harvest to pay their debts,” Fausto said. “If they can’t pay for their loans … how will they send their children to school?”

A melting glacier, an imperiled city and one farmer’s fight for climate justice

There are steps that farmers can take to adapt to climate change, like shifting their planting calendars and investing in resilient crop varieties, said Felino Lansigan, a professor at the University of the Philippines Los Baños who specializes in agriculture. But the government also needs to address the root of the issue on the international stage, he argued.

“It is pitiful that countries like us that emit less greenhouse gases are most vulnerable,” Lansigan said. “This is why developing countries, including the Philippines, should really lobby in the next COP that developed countries make big cuts in their emissions now,” he added, referring to the U.N. climate summit.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. serves in a secondary capacity as agriculture minister and has been criticized for his response to Noru — the first weather disaster to hit the Philippines since he took office in June.

On Sunday evening, as evacuations were underway, Marcos posted a video blog post on social media recapping his recent trip to the United States, where he attended the U.N. General Assembly and met with President Biden.

“Our trip to New York was a success!” he tweeted.

Activists and political opponents criticized the video as insensitive and out of touch. Late Sunday night, the hashtag #NasaanAngPangulo — which translates to “Where is the president?” — trended on Twitter.

Marcos said Monday that he preferred to leave the response to Noru primarily in the hands of local and state officials, adding that he didn’t plan to visit any particular disaster sites. “From my experience, when you’re with the local government, especially after a typhoon, they have a lot of work,” he said, “I might just disturb them.”

As Marcos embarked on an aerial inspection of Luzon, Pangibitan headed back out into his paddy field. The rows of rice stalks that had been standing upright a day earlier were bent over like they had been trampled by a huge crowd. A tree that had been felled by the wind blocked a dirt path heading deeper into the field.

“Wherever you look, it’s flat …” the farmer said, his voice trailing off as he walked along the side of the field, surrounded by puddles.

“My poor rice. How can I say it’s a good morning?”

Tan reported from Singapore and Cabato from Manila.