How To Survive A Super Typhoon
In Batanes, the northernmost islands of the Philippines, a small indigenous population routinely survives the most violent storms in the world. But in an era of unprecedented weather disturbances, can centuries-old methods of adaptation survive modernization and economic struggle?
Then comes the thunder a’rumbling,Then comes the lightning flaring,And then downpours the heavy rain.But the lightning is my torch, the thunder beatsthe cadence of my steps,And for my walking cane the rain…!– Traditional Ivatan poem
All over Batanes, the signs came days before the storm. The residents of the northernmost Philippine archipelago — even the ones without radios or televisions — could sense the typhoon’s approach. The hermit crabs began scuttling away from the beach. The moon looked full, but dull. Old folks complained of reawakened aches and pains in their joints. In Uyugan, a coastal town of 1,200 people, a friend called fisherman Alex Ibay with an urgent piece of news: The water buffalo was out.
Ibay, 49, remembered his grandfather’s simple warning about the islands’ severe weather: “Just be ready.” He taught Ibay to look daily toward the promontory called Disiay south of Uyugan, where the island’s main throughway, National Road, wrapped around a cliff. If a lone water buffalo looked out from Disiay over the water — forgetting, for a time, its grazing and its herd — a destructive typhoon was on its way to Batanes, one that would require the islanders’ best preparation. If the water buffalo was not there — if his friends were mistaken — Ibay could relax.
Ibay looked out toward Disiay on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013. There it was: a brown water buffalo, unmoving, staring toward the ocean as if in vigil.
Ibay rushed to his motorcycle and drove north to the capital, Basco, the only town in Batanes with internet cafés. There he read that three days earlier, some 1,500 miles north, scientists at the Japan Meteorological Agency already had begun to watch a tropical depression roiling 800 miles east of Manila, the Philippines’ capital. The weather forecast, sent by the JMA to the Philippine weather service, PAGASA, confirmed what Ibay suspected: An ominous blue and red mass spun west toward Batanes. Its international name was Usagi. PAGASA named the storm Odette.
The Philippines has long been at the heart of the Pacific’s typhoon belt. Now, with the warmest decade ever recorded in human history, the seas east of the archipelago have experienced the highest degree of sea level escalation in the world: 60 centimeters, or three times the global average. With more water at the ocean’s surface, pushed by stronger, hotter winds, typhoons are becoming more monstrous. By day’s end, Typhoon Odette, which was rapidly intensifying, would be reclassified as a super typhoon.
Alex Ibay motorbiked from the internet café home to Uyugan. He and his fellow fishermen met near the port and agreed; they would bring their wooden fishing boats ashore, and, using the protective methods of their forebears, cover their hulls with the thick, heavy fronds of coconut leaves. Local officers at Batanes’ branch of the National Council of Indigenous Peoples have given a name to the indigenous methods of reading the arrival of a storm, one passed down through generations: ethnometeorology.
The people of Batanes, like Ibay and his grandfather, are the Ivatans. The Ivatans rarely fear or deny the storm. They have built their lives around their preparation for nature’s unpredictability. They know how to read nature’s messages and have minimized risk by building strong homes, always having a month’s worth of food on hand, and obeying commands to evacuate or remain inside for typhoon warnings. Their history and mind-set show that the people of Batanes are of the storm, shaped by the storm’s demands, rooted to their soil even as strong winds and rains buffet their fates. With lives made near unforgiving waters, Ivatans’ stories of unbelievable survival are far more common than unspeakable tragedies. For the Ivatan people, to die in a storm is so unnecessary, it’s nearly shameful.
That tradition of self-reliance is largely a product of the islands’ sheer isolation. Only recently has Philippine Airlines begun flying to Basco once a day from Manila, and flights are frequently canceled due to severe weather. Fuel, imported food, and new clothes are triple the price they are elsewhere in the Philippines. To supply the islands with necessities, ships must pass through the Luzon Strait, where the biggest waves in the world form underneath the ocean’s surface.
“We are as one,” says William Agsunod, the mayor of Mahatao, a town in Batan, the archipelago’s largest island. “We understand nature. Nature cannot live with us. We have to live with nature.”
As citizens around the world find themselves coping with more vicious and unpredictable weather, the centuries-old practices of the Ivatans offer modern lessons in disaster preparedness. While the rest of the Philippines — and the world — debate the practicality of adapting versions of the Ivatans’ best practices, the people of Batanes themselves may be growing away from the customs that have enabled them to survive for so long.
Batanes appears on a map like tiny footprints making their way to Taiwan. One of the most remote archipelagos in the greater Philippine archipelago, it has a population a little under 17,000. It’s a tropical Ireland by way of the Pacific: an undulating green, hilly, limestone-cliffed panorama — coastal grandeur in every shade of blue. The beauty of the oceanside commute from the capital of Basco to the southern towns of Batan Island defies all hyperbole. Small goats leap from rock to rock on the hillsides, some wearing sweaters; families of carabaos graze on cogon grass and regard passersby peacefully. Fishermen and farmers leave their doors unlocked; small children startle visitors by taking their hands and asking, respectfully, for the traditional blessings of their elders.
According to the latest statistics, Batanes has one of the lowest crime rates of any province in the Philippines, and its physical landscape may be its Ivatans’ best law-enforcement method: “If you commit a crime here,” Mayor Agsunod says wryly, glancing toward the rough seas outside his office window, “there’s nowhere to run.”
Foil this with life in the Philippines’ capital. Manila, 400 miles south, is a 12 million-person megalopolis, where residents live 3,400 times past its rate of sustainability. Most of the city’s paltry green space has been overtaken by private corporations, and scenes of poverty are matched only by surreal shows of wealth. Manileños often cultivate a self-protectiveness, a simmering fear about theft, car accidents, random crimes — cruel realities constructed by the country’s income inequality, overpopulation, and poor urban planning. In Batanes, visitors often shed their wariness. To leave the region is to mourn.
On Sept. 20, as Typhoon Odette approached, Batanes Congresswoman Henedina Abad was in Manila texting every official that the storm coming would be a strong one. Local Batanes leaders went town to town to perform the bandillo, a town-crying tradition from the days of Spanish control. They traveled to each town’s square, calling out for locals to gather and listen, making sure the citizens without televisions and radios knew what was coming. Residents readied their monthlong stores of canned goods and local food: sweet potatoes, dried fish, rice, sardines, corned beef. They secured their roofs with fishing nets and tied strong ropes around the walls of their homes. If they had the room, they brought their pigs, goats, and chickens inside with them; cows and carabaos would be heavy enough to withstand the outdoor gales. None of these measures were enshrined into law; everyone obeyed their memories and traditions. Around 2 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 21, Abad’s iPhone woke her up. Versions of “Ma’am, please pray, the storm is here” buzzed in from different numbers, over and over.
In Uyugan, William John Nanud, 29, sat with his father and his wife in the house his overseas wages had helped them to furnish. He had returned home safely from a job in Afghanistan, where he’d taken shelter from missiles; he and his family prayed now against the assault of Odette. Jhing Umal was at Nanud’s side, pregnant with their first child. She clutched her belly as she listened to Odette’s wind in the dark morning hours. It did not seem to merely blow; this wind screamed from all directions. She was sure it signaled the end of the world. In Jhing’s home region of Bicol, 500 miles south, storms less intense would kill untold numbers of people. “Don’t be scared,” he said. “Here in Batanes, a strong storm is normal.” They could not yet know that Super Typhoon Odette was the equivalent of a Category 5 hurricane, the most powerful storm to hit Batanes in 25 years.
A few streets down from Nanud, Alex Ibay settled into his storm routine. He was well-stocked with food. Ibay had anticipated the power would go out, so he readied his radio with batteries. While the storm exploded around him, he rested in his one-room, limestone home, a narrow, ancient plank of wood set in two holes across the doorframe for protection.
Decades ago he had slept on the wood floor next to his grandparents during storms, as was the Ivatan way with small children. Now he rested in his own bed. His black cat, Ming, kept him company, curling on an old blanket near his feet. He warmed his throat with Matador brandy and listened to his favorite American country singers, Tim McGraw and Dan Nelson. He listened, too, to Odette’s wind; whenever it slackened, he emerged from his room, struggled the few yards to his boats, and replaced the blown-off coconut leaves.
The tail and eye of Typhoon Odette moved through Batanes from Friday into Saturday, the 21st. In Ivana, the town just northwest of Uyugan, Narciso Cabas, a 68-year-old farmer, watched in disbelief across the street as the second story of the home he’d renovated only five months before was sucked into the sky. Odette’s winds blew from the north; his green, galvanized iron roof smashed to the National Road. Odette’s winds blew from the south; his home’s wood frame scattered like matchsticks. Before he ducked into a neighbor’s concrete and limestone home, Cabas watched the destruction in disgust. He had purchased his building materials from Manila, and nature had undone his home in hours.
The storm lingered until making its way toward China early Sunday. The city of Basco and surrounding villages were without power and water. Water pipes and bridges were demolished. Concrete roads washed away. The windows of Batan Island’s only air traffic control tower were blown out. The wind and rain measuring equipment of the local PAGASA weather station were ruined. The roads that remained were covered with fallen fruit trees: Local avocados, coconuts, and bananas would take years to grow back.
Congresswoman Henedina Abad reached Basco on Monday, Sept. 23, riding a Philippine Air Force C-130 military plane filled with food packs. She met with local officials to assess the aftermath. The storm reports calculated massive destruction: nearly $43 million USD in Batanes. One hundred and seventy-four houses were totally destroyed, largely made of inexpensive lumber and aluminum from Manila. The list of injuries? Three men, cut by flying glass and aluminum. None were knocked unconscious.
Odette held the title of 2013’s largest storm to date until, in early November, even stronger Super Typhoon Haiyan would kill 6,000 Filipinos and displace many thousands more. After one of the strongest typhoons in the history of Batanes, no one went missing, and no one died.
In the Philippines’ brutal history, Batanes was the last region to be subdued. Dominican missionaries arrived in 1686, over a hundred years after the largest Philippine island, Luzon, where Manila would be built, had been colonized. The Spaniards did not like the Ivatan homes built of planks and boughs atop natural precipices in the mountains. The roofs of the precolonial homes were set low, for wind resistance. The average Dominican priest could not stretch his long legs in such structures, and the structures also abetted the tribal warfare that characterized early Ivatan life. So Spaniards forced every Batanes resident down to settlements on the coast for easier governing. They imposed Catholicism, the orders of the Spanish king, and large-scale limestone harvesting for the homes lining the coasts today. It was a mixed inheritance, as the results of colonization often are: The Ivatans lost their low-roofed settlements in the mountains, which were safer locations from storm surges and tsunamis. But they gained windproof, stone homes that would last centuries.
The limestone house is traditionally planned with walls a meter thick or more, depending on the wealth of its owner, and is built through the cooperation of the local community. The roof is a thick, woven net of cogon grass that can last for decades. No limestone home is ever built facing the north, the direction from which the wind typically roars strongest. The windows, equipped with tough wooden shutters, face the oceans at the east or west. The following centuries saw other invaders, other influences: a United States military installation after the Philippine–American War, a Japanese occupation during World War II, the Marcos dictatorship, and, now, modern democracy. The land has never been easy to till; the seas have always been rough to maneuver. But the Ivatans’ deep regard for nature’s offerings, and nature’s dangers, has remained throughout.
“Disaster preparation is not just a construction style or a choice in architecture,” says Dorian Merina, an American Fulbright scholar of Ivatan heritage. “It also means creating and maintaining a culture of resilience.”
Electricity reached the most populated island, Batan, only in 1987; Sabtang and Itbayat nearby still have limited hours of electricity. The region’s biggest employer is the national government; no private industry can support the islands’ entire population yet. Government employees have second jobs as small-scale farmers and fishermen for their basic needs. There is no movie theater, no chain store, no fast food restaurant.
“Being so remote has certainly caused the people of Batanes hardship over the years,” Merina continues, “but it has also meant that people had to choose cooperation, honesty, and integrity in order for the community to get through the current disaster, whether a typhoon, lack of food, or other problem. These qualities, developed over generations, are not always so easy to transfer.”
Henedina and Florencio Abad have overseen Batanes for the past two decades. (It’s not unusual in the Philippines for congressional representation to be occupied largely by one family.) Henedina has served as the congresswoman of Batanes twice in the past 10 years; before that, Florencio was congressman from 1987 to 2004 (he is now budget secretary of the Philippines). Both earned their master’s in public administration at Harvard University. The couple are known locally as Dina and Butch, and when they travel to Batanes, crowds gather to greet them and gift them with choice catches of bluefin tuna.
One day during his Christmas vacation away from Malacañang Palace, Butch Abad took his youngest daughter and two nephews to White Beach in Mahatao, where he knew freshwater and saltwater met to produce strong, palo maría saplings. His grandmother had taught him, like all Ivatan children, how to cultivate plants, so Butch spent his holidays gardening. His family laughed and followed along as Butch directed them, carefully uprooting and placing the baby trees in cardboard boxes. They replanted nearly a dozen palo marías near the road leading uphill to their home outside Basco. The afternoon was not merely hobby; Butch was thinking ahead to when the limestone hills on each side of the road might crumble during a storm. The palo maría trees, once matured, would prevent landslides.
“The most basic thing you can do is really cultivate respect for the environment, and make that respect a part of your lifestyle,” Butch Abad says. “You ought to be able to live with what you have, with what is there, and adjust your lifestyle to the reality that you face around you.”
Even without having read the latest, most alarming scientific reports, many Ivatans could feel the realities of climate change. They did not doubt what nature was telling them; they made their own observations and small adjustments. For 70-year-old farmer and city councillor Emma Nanud, the increased temperatures of climate change meant she no longer had to cover her feet in thick, burlap rice sacks to keep warm at night during December. Educators had to reschedule the annual summer events for students, because Batanes’ Little Summer — the predictable period of warmth from September to October, during which towns held festivals and outdoor games — had ended some time in the ’90s.
Prior to Odette, though, several years without notable typhoons had caused some in Batanes to think that global warming had offered them a strange, rare reprieve. The super typhoon reminded them: The only certainty climate change offers is that storms will become more powerful and less predictable. And then the horror of Typhoon Haiyan arrived. Haiyan spared Batanes, but in other parts of the country, bodies were still being unearthed from the broken landscape three months after the storm.
Experts contend that while climate change certainly manifested in the storm’s intensity, the devastation in the Philippine city of Tacloban during Haiyan was largely manmade. Shoddy housing construction, extreme poverty, building on vulnerable waterways, and overpopulation created, in the words of one expert, an “urban time bomb.” Another Typhoon Haiyan will arrive again, and another urban time bomb will detonate, perhaps in the Greater Manila area, home to 25 million people: It is not a matter of if, but when.
Though Filipinos admire the Ivatans’ disaster prevention practices from afar, there is no government drive to hire them as consultants for the next super typhoon. Naderev Saño is the Philippines’ climate change commissioner, whose impassioned pleas for wealthier countries to act responsibly on the country’s global warming emissions have been covered many times by the press. He has mentioned the Ivatans in his writing as head negotiator for the Philippines at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
“Batanes has always been regarded as a community we must always take a page from when we talk about resilience,” he says. He cites, especially, the collective assistance of its neighbors, whether it’s sharing food, clearing roads after a storm, caring for children, or constructing homes. It’s an Ivatan principle called yaru, in their native tongue: the collective spirit of helping one’s neighbors. In Filipino, the word is bayanihan, a characteristic central to the Philippines’ national pride.
“We have to treat these success stories not just as human interest features in the news, but actual examples that we can emulate, that need to be replicated, and can be part of the bottom-up approach that can help us build better policies at the national level.”
Saño acknowledges that it would be unfair to compare Batanes too closely to metro Manila, or to more urbanized parts of the Philippines like Tacloban. Batanes, after all, has not experienced an influx of landless, low-income individuals desperate for work, as the capital has. A few migrants from the nearby island of Itbayat do live in flimsy shelters in Basco. But there are no corporations or state agents forcing violent evictions, no mass neighborhoods of homes made from scavenged materials with prayers as their residents’ only protection from storms. Non-Ivatans are usually hesitant to make their lives in such a remote archipelago, and so Batanes benefits from its small population.
For the rest of the Philippines to become as storm-resistant as the Ivatans, a population divided too often by class differences would need to engage a revolutionary sense of yaru. And for the rest of the world to prepare for more severe, erratic weather, wealthier lands too often complacent about their roles and fates in climate change must invest in the needs of poorer countries.
In a Philippines practicing the most ideal sense of collective spirit, all construction would halt near vulnerable waterways, which landless, jobless Filipinos often have no choice but to occupy. The country’s disastrous overpopulation would be contained with birth control and family planning, a reality the powerful Catholic Church has defied. Lawmakers and property owners would enact real land reform, so that low-income Filipinos could legally build stronger, more permanent structures on the land they occupy. Companies and individuals would construct homes resistant to 200 mph winds; current Philippine regulations require structures resistant to 125 mph winds, a number that both Typhoon Odette and Typhoon Haiyan rendered obsolete. The country would encourage industries that can offer dignified jobs to Filipinos — who so often must leave the country for fair living wages — so they can afford stormproof homes.
But, despite the increasingly shattering storms, expensive condominiums and shanties alike continue to rise in areas especially vulnerable to typhoons. Over 100,000 Haiyan survivors still live in tents, waiting defenselessly for the next storm season. The Reproductive Health Law was only recently declared constitutional by the Supreme Court after a lengthy legal challenge driven by the Catholic Church. Architects sketch innovative solutions for flooding and housing; conferences gather local and international experts on climate change preparation. But locals fear that the next storm’s winds and waters will arrive faster than Filipinos’ efforts to adapt to them, faster than wealthier countries’ willingness to take responsibility for their roles in climate change.
Ivatan building codes have never needed to be formalized by law, a fact that makes many Ivatans proud — but one that infuriates Ivatan architect Syra Valiente, 37. She grew up in Batanes, sketching for introductory architecture courses, but it wasn’t until college in Manila that she had her awakening: Batanes architecture was the missing link for building in the Philippines, and for building in areas similarly battered by cruel weather. Her professors had instructed her in the copying of foreign designs, but she realized she needed to look only to the limestone house for a local source of survival. Its tough, slightly sloping roof, its unshakable stone foundation, its braces — if Filipinos could adopt these elements as a way of building, annual deaths from the weather could decrease. She earned a Ford Foundation grant to study historic preservation at Clemson University. Its location in South Carolina, near a bay, reminded her of Basco, and she was inspired by Charleston’s preservation codes.
When Valiente returned to Basco, she preached to her neighbors about the importance of keeping the integrity of the remaining limestone structures. The crumbling homes needed a relatively simple process for preserving: mortar repointing and cement reinforcement.
But Valiente could usually read indifference in the body language of her home-owning audience. They were amused by her passion, and would humor her politely. The limestone homes were important, but they were expensive to maintain, prone to dampness, and their cogon roofs were difficult to repair and easily set aflame. They had also taken an environmental toll on the islands: To prepare limestone for building, it must be heated, and the burning of trees had led to deforestation. Mining limestone from the landscape had made roads susceptible to landslides and degraded nearby coral reefs. It was more possible for residents to build new homes with cheaper materials imported from Manila: thin galvanized iron roofs, mixed lumber, and concrete.
Valiente agreed with her fellow residents when they outlined the challenges of modern preservation. But she would politely protest, trying to share her own knowledge. It was possible to build around the limestone structures remaining, at least, and take advantage of the aesthetic and architectural benefit the Ivatans of past generations had left behind. It was possible to plan new, cement-based structures with the plans and dimensions their ancestors used, minus the limestone. Basco is already building with methods more Manileño than Ivatan; drab, cement-block structures rise three or four stories, and many ancestral homes are already crumbling.
But Valiente feels her neighbors are hardly listening. And while a heritage preservation code exists, no current government office enforces it to prevent the destruction of heritage sites. “It breaks my heart,” Valiente says one rainy evening in December 2013, under the eaves of her sister’s modern concrete house. “It’s like trampling on your self-respect.”
She then motorbiked down a road in Basco. The night was darkening fast, but she parked at the regal skeleton of a traditional stone house, scheduled to be demolished soon. Valiente set her open palm against one wall.
“When I saw Yolanda,” she said, using the local name for Typhoon Haiyan, “I said a quiet thanks to my ancestors. For teaching us to build.”
Valiente contents herself now with archiving the traditional structures soon to be destroyed. She photographs them, takes note of their windproof dimensions, and winces internally. She’s thinking of Batanes students and residents in 50 years; they might want to know what they had lost. Without financial support — either from the government, or from a relative earning higher wages abroad — it is impossible for most Ivatans to afford the structurally sound, historic preservation their homes might require.
Alex Ibay still spends every day watching out for the water buffalo that signals the arrival of a storm. He is sea-worn and rough-palmed. He never plans to leave Batanes again, though he bears the lifelong marks of his international work; he spent 21 years away from home, laboring as a merchant seaman. He has an easy smile that makes him comfortable company, and to save on gasoline in his hometown, Uyugan, he wheels around on a small blue secondhand bicycle, painted with daisies and branded “Sweetie.”
The wood floors of his home have been worn smooth and blond from decades of bare feet. On a day in January, the windows are open to good, warm weather, and the sea sounds a constant shush. Motorcycles cough. Fishing boats rumble. The wind, gentle now, plays through the Odette-ravaged coconut trees. There is the small pop of airsoft guns as Ivatan boys play at rebels vs. military.
Ibay smiles at the thought of his own children, who are not well-versed in their ancestral preparation for typhoons. “My son is more interested in computers,” he says. “My two daughters, when they visit here, sometimes they come with me on the boat to fish. But they like Manila.”
This is a common story across the region — elderly and middle-age fishers and farmers know how to read the environment’s messages for them, and stay loyal to the land. But their children and grandchildren are increasingly looking beyond the hardy archipelago. It is difficult to convince young people to stay, when their main effort would be to eke out a life of survival with the same hundreds of friends and family they grew up with.
Between his fishing trips in the Pacific, Ibay lives in his ancestral home and prepares for storms alone; his wife and three adult children make their lives as students and professionals in Manila. His quiet separation from his family serves as an example of one of the greatest threats to Batanes: the departure of its population, and the subsequent cultural loss.
William Nanud had been away for five years; his visit home to Batanes in 2013 was his first time back in between jobs abroad. His parents, in their seventies, have accepted his migration as a matter of course, as thousands of Batanes families do. Nanud did not want to take advantage of their work and small wages as farmers and city councillors; he wanted to build a bank account and an independent life of his own.
In his parents’ home in Uyugan at Christmas, William Nanud held his son Caleb’s tiny hands. It was the boy’s one-month birthday, and the newest Ivatan was restless, waving his newborn fists in the air. “Boxing, yeah,” Nanud encouraged Caleb, directing his fists. “Pow, pow!” Jhing rested in a room nearby, tired from nursing. Behind Nanud’s head, an American flag hung on the wall of his room, a gift from his American Marine co-workers in Afghanistan.
For a little over $1,000 USD per month, Nanud managed the cleaning of toilets and other facilities on an American military base. He received no days off, not for weekends or holidays, and when rockets whistled overhead, he scrambled to the bomb shelter. But he did not gripe about the long hours he was forced to work, which would have been illegal in America. He loved befriending the Americans, he was an often praised and industrious worker, and he was glad to be earning 14 times more than what he could have earned as a freelance government employee in Batanes.
Nanud decided to leave Afghanistan when the base’s operations moved to Iraq. Jhing said it was too dangerous to follow the Americans; he reluctantly agreed. They returned together to Batanes to see if Jhing could find work as a nurse at the provincial hospital. There were no openings, so they would be forced to leave again after Christmas, looking for work at Manila call centers catering to foreign customers. Nanud does not necessarily want to leave Batanes, but it is impossible for him to support his family on a local salary.
“My favorite place in Batanes is home,” he says as he holds Caleb. “Here, with my parents. They’re cool parents. Very strong.”
Congresswoman Dina Abad says that Batanes’ main gift is its resilience, but that its greatest challenge is to become economically sustainable for its people — to disincentivize this migration away. “We have managed to be significant because we can teach something to the Filipino people on how the province has managed to maintain its natural beauty,” Abad says. “On how they’ve managed to really survive. They’ve carved their own lifestyle. How, now, do we expand the economic opportunities?”
Storm preparation techniques are not easy to monetize or evangelize. They remain composed, mainly, of cultural attitudes specific to the Ivatans’ remote landscape, not marketable techniques that could help fund the needs of Batanes.
The prospect of development is inextricable from the risk of losing the Ivatan value of respecting the environment. It is a risk that presents itself often: Batanes is forever receiving offers from Taiwanese and Chinese companies who want to develop an island as an extravagant playground for their businessmen. One company made a particularly thorough plan: It proposed to build a private casino on Ivuhos, an uninhabited island behind Sabtang, close to where explorer William Dampier’s ship first became unmoored by strong winds centuries ago.
In the company’s proposal to the Abads and the Ivatan communities, it emphasized the profit; Batanes could earn 150 million pesos per year — more than $11 million USD — from the casino’s taxes, twice its current share from government revenues. The steady local employment could keep Ivatans like William Nanud home, instead of forcing them to migrate. There would also be reliable electricity and a private airstrip.
There are regions of the Philippines where local communities, or their leaders, have agreed to such arrangements. The profit is undeniable. But such developments signal the end of the region’s indigenous character. When the businesses are built, many Filipinos are forced into positions of subservience, donning uniforms and obligatory smiles for moneyed outsiders who can demand whatever they like. A human-trafficking industry inevitably curdles to meet customers’ baser demands. One need only look at the former U.S. Air Force bases of Clark and Subic south of Manila, and the island of Boracay, for this tortured dynamic: ostentatious economic development in exchange for the Philippines’ natural landscape. A casino would mean the end of Batanes as the Ivatans have preserved it, a slow degradation of the cultural knowledge that had saved their lives from an incalculable number of storms.
Though he stays up late worrying about his job prospects and his dwindling savings, Nanud bristles at the thought of outsiders buying off Batanes. His answer, in 2014, joins the chorus of all Ivatans who heard the casino proposal in the late 1990s: No. Absolutely not. There was more to value in Batanes than money.
More storms will arrive, along with more temptations to alter Batanes’ landscape. It remains to be seen if the Ivatan resistance to such encroachments will survive; if Caleb will make the same strong decision as his father when he learns of his Ivatan heritage.
But when he has enough money, William Nanud wants to bring his young family home to Batanes permanently. He’ll teach Caleb how to fish with a line, Uyugan-style, how to plant cabbage and sweet potatoes, how to speak Ivatan with his grandparents. He wants the boy to be strong, connected to the land where he was born. He dreams of constructing a home like the traditionally minded, storm-resistant structure the Abad family have built for themselves: overlooking the seas, near fields to till. For now, Nanud feels he has to leave Batanes in order to earn his way back.
It’s a paradoxical relationship to a difficult, beautiful landscape; you love it, you are connected to it, you are shaped by it, but sometimes, the danger of its storm and famine requires you to leave it. We will confront similar dilemmas: to migrate to other shores, to set ourselves against each other in competition for resources, or to preserve our homes and to work in cooperation with one another against the trials of our new and terrible seasons. We, too, will be shaped the storm. An Ivatan proverb offers the hint of hope and resilience, but it also warns us of the wind and water yet to come: Arava u ryes an ab u su vinyedi. There is no current that does not return.