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Grassroots women leaders practise community-based disaster management in the Philippines

Grassroots women leaders practise community-based disaster management in the Philippines

Chaya Go

What is a disaster? What are the root causes and material manifestations of vulnerability? What is well-being and what efforts do community leaders and civil society engage in as front-line responders to disasters? These are the questions that PhD doctoral candidate, Chaya Go asked in her doctoral dissertation on A Feminist Political Ecology of Disasters in the Philippines.

The research aims to prove that although the Philippines is vulnerable to various geophysical, meteorological, and climatological hazards, it is not only the physical climate-induced disasters which merit attention and response, but also ​daily, chronic and 'slow' forms of violence which constitute disaster experiences for marginalized communities in the country. Born and raised in the Philippines where she served as an emergency relief worker during the wake of Super Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, Go’s commitment to the revival of communities devastated by disasters has been fortified. (For more info, read her Critical Asian Studies article “I go home to do the work: A Filipina’s practice of activist scholarship in the wake of super typhoon Yolanda”). Combining critical human geography and cultural anthropology, she used feminist and decolonial methodologies to complete her interesting research that captures how disasters are more than just environmentally-damaging.

Relief efforts in the Philippines following a typhoon

Go’s research addresses the root-causes and manifestations of vulnerability in order to  understand how people define well-being in various communities around the Philippines. Through a feminist political ecology approach, her other research agenda include identifying the ways by which community leaders and civil society partners engage in as front-line workers. By looking at community-based disaster management through the perspective of grassroots women leaders, this allows her to uncover their gendered experiences when dealing with disasters, the vulnerability in communities, and the activism in response to disasters on an everyday level.

Using ‘slow’ research methods that include collaborating with community organizations, ethnographic field work, film-making, and focus-group interviews, Go worked in partnership with the Citizens’ Disaster Response Network and three of its regional centres to interview women from three villages around the Philippines: (1) an urban poor settlement in Barangay Bagumbayan, Taguig City; (2) a village of small-holder farmers in Barangay Malabago, Santa Cruz, Zambales, and (3) an island of small-scale fisherfolks in Barangay Gibitngil, Medellin, Cebu. Through collaboration and ethnographic fieldwork in these three villages, she collected and filmed her interviews and used kuwentuhan (group storytelling) for discussions with grassroots leaders, giving her a unique look into their everyday lives. Her research uncovered the politics of community-based disaster management as practiced by grassroots women leaders, their gendered experiences and understandings of disasters, the root causes and material manifestations of intersecting vulnerabilities, and their daily activisms in response to disasters.

Grassroots women leaders in The Philippines

The study’s findings through ‘slow’ disaster research brought forth the everyday violence that women in marginalized communities face as they try to achieve well-being and overall survival on a daily basis. The ethnographic research revealed that ‘well-being’ is defined as “the comfort found in securing shelter, livelihood and strong communal relationships”, enforcing how “daily community organizing practices for development work and social-ecological justice activism are critical disaster risk reduction and management efforts”. From her research, Go found out that ‘disasters’ are daily forms of violence, as understood through the perspectives of the grassroots women interviewed, who also define ‘vulnerability’ as a sense of powerlessness in the face of threats.

In her article on “Disasters are Everyday Like the Weather: Reflections on Violence in the ‘Philippine Anthropocene” published in the Journal of World Systems Research (2020), Go  offers sobering reflections on the everyday realities of what she writes as the “Philippine Anthropocene” -- defined not only by spectacular freak weather conditions but also shaped by normalized and state-sanctioned forms of abandonment and terror. Indeed, how can questions of surviving violent environments be de-naturalized and re-politicized in the present context of the ‘Philippine Anthropocene’? Written in the present political context of intensifying state attacks on civil society in the country, she recasts the light on anthropogenic forces of violence that endanger the lives of people at the front lines of daily disasters as more lethal than the strongest storm in the country’s recorded history.

A key piece to Go’s research is her short film series Barangay Magiting(Village Heroes co-directed by Grace Pimentel Simbulan and Relyn Angkuan Tan) as part of her dissertation. The three-part series shows the politics of community-based disaster management and illustrates the everyday lives of grassroots women leaders living in the communities and how they engage in community organizing, pre-disaster preparedness, post-disaster recovery, development work, and mobilizing for socio-ecological-climate justice activism. The research ultimately connects postcolonial feminism and community-based disaster management practices to re-politicize the discourse of disasters, proving that the intersection of vulnerabilities and activism in daily lived environments is important in communities in the Philippines.

Chaya Go is a PhD candidate in Geography at York's Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change. Her dissertation on the political ecology of disaster response in the Philippines is funded by the International Development Research Centre. She trained as a cultural anthropologist and holds a Master of Arts in Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice from the University of British Columbia. She has served in a multiple of community development projects advocating for Indigenous peoples’ rights in the Philippines and her work is a commitment to life (see her Pa-Hinga: Rest:Breathe – A Contemplation on Life Amidst Disasters, March 2021) and resurgence in ravaged ecologies-communities at the front lines of the climate crisis.