The Philippines is the world’s third highest risk area for natural disasters. Frequent typhoons and cyclones bring excessive rain and wind, threatening the livelihoods of around 60% of the poorest groups who tend to live in rural communities and must also contend with rising sea levels, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
Reaching the end of my trip to the Philippines, I found a moment to reflect upon the social investing activities of the Oikocredit partners that I have visited while here.
From my room, I’m watching the rain build over the lush hilltops and listening to the light pitter patter of spray on the roof and trees below me. I’m soaking up the earthy, fresh scent and gentle breeze that comes with the rain; grateful for this welcome relief after the humidity, heat and frenetic activity of Metro Manila.
Just two days later, I’m finding it tricky to get off the island to catch my flight home from Manila. Most boats have been cancelled due to a ‘36-hour typhoon warning’, and my 2 days’ of planned sunshine have turned into a wash-out (I thought the rainy season ended in November?).
But a starker reality sinks in for me - namely, what this sort of weather really means for the Filipino smallholder farmers we have recently visited? For them, I know that it is not just about the ceaseless volume of heavy rain, 20 typhoons, and innumerable cyclones each year. It is also the unpredictability of the weather that exacerbates their problems; particularly for the 30% who rely on farming to generate a modest income; many already living below the international poverty line.
A few days earlier, while visiting the agricultural region of Lugana, south of Manila, I had spoken with Lorena de Padres – a smallholder farmer-member of Oikocredit MFI partner, Ahon Sa Hirap Inc (ASHI). I had asked Lorena whether her husband’s rice paddies were overflowing, since they certainly looked it to me. And it was raining. She assured me that they were fine: “but, if the rice is bearing its husks, and a sudden burst of heavy rain comes, it will wipe out the crop and destroy the mud walls which separate the paddies. The trouble is, that we just don’t know when the rain will come, or how long it will last”.
For people like Lorena and her husband, Enrico, farming has been a way of life for generations. It’s in their blood. Their ancestors read the weather and seasons like a book; planted and harvested like clockwork; and eked out a modest, but sustainable existence.
Nowadays, however, many climate scientists believe that these extreme weather patterns are occurring more frequently, more violently and less predictably because of climate change. And it particularly affects the poorest, most rural communities. Many smallholder crops are instantly destroyed, impacting earnings generated from farming and creating the need for additional sources of income.
For Lorena, this initially took the form of a small ‘sari-sari’ (which means ‘mix-mix’) kiosk to sell her husband’s rice. To set it up, she applied for, and was granted, a small agricultural loan of 25,000 PHP (€ 470) by ASHI.
ASHI became an Oikocredit partner in 2011 and uses Oikocredit’s investments to expand its operations across more than 20 branches around the Philippines. They focus particularly on providing microfinance and other support to female agricultural entrepreneurs living in poor, rural areas and vulnerable settlements near river banks.
Jimmy Ramos, head of ASHI operations, told me that their pastoral approach “begins with ensuring that each client - or nani (an affectionate term for ‘mother’) - comes from the poorest agricultural groups so that our mission, and their progress out of poverty (PPI), can be measured from the outset”.
Before a nani is granted an agricultural loan, she must join a small group of like-minded women to assess her ability and commitment to pay off the loan, and to attend regular meetings that are designed to monitor and support the group financially, practically and emotionally.
Thirteen years on from her first loan, Lorena’s life has measurably improved. Whilst ASHI has granted Lorena further ‘incentive’ loans for home improvements and educating their 13-year old daughter, Madeleine; Enrico has also contributed by working as a machinist in Korea and Dubai for many years so that they could build their dream house and expand his farming activities.
Income remains tight, however. So, Lorena plans to take out future ASHI loans to help fund her daughter’s college education in Manila and perhaps start up a café. “I’m a great cook”, she says with a grin.
“And besides, I dream that I will be able to stop working in my 60s, never having to worry about money again”.
“Then you and I have the same dream”, I say with a chuckle.