Ivy Marie Mangadlao

Published: May 21, 2024

MACO, Philippines — Jessibel Raganate’s family gathered inside their evacuation tent for dinner, with only the dim light of a small solar lamp illuminating the cramped space, a far cry from the cozy dinners they once shared in their home in Maco, Davao de Oro.

But for Raganate, the memory of their last dinner there is seared into her memory as the most terrifying experience of her life.

“It was like a big explosion. I had to grab my children and hold them tight… I’m just entrusting our lives to God at that time,” Raganate said, her voice vivid with emotion as she relived the night of February 6, 2024, when a deadly landslide struck their village in Masara.

While Raganate’s immediate family was fortunate to seek refuge in their sari-sari store during the landslide, the toll on their family was devastating. Thirteen members of their clan were engulfed by mud and debris as it cascaded downhill.

Her relatives were buried along with 80 other residents, 55 houses, a barangay hall, and two buses belonging to the Apex Mining Corporation.

Now, Masara’s Zone 1 and Zone 2 resemble ghost villages, as residents are prohibited from returning.

While efforts are underway to establish a permanent relocation site, many currently reside in tent cities, uncertain about what the future holds for them.

Challenges in tent cities

An evacuee opens the entrance of her family’s tent at a temporary shelter camp to allow air circulation due to the heat. (Ivy Marie Mangadlao)

Evacuees are presently housed in Kampo Uno in Barangay Elizalde, where 89 tents were provided and turned over on March 13.

Another tent city, Kampo Dos, was established in Barangay Malamodao, accommodating 111 families since April 15.

However, some families remain in evacuation centers set up in schools or stay with relatives.

Though thankful her family was spared, Raganate finds the challenges of life in the tent city deepen the trauma of that tragic night. 

“It’s really difficult living here. It’s a whole different experience from being in your own home. We don’t even know when we’ll leave here,” she said.

The intense heat, particularly at noon, makes life challenging for the evacuees. The scarcity of water adds to their difficulties, requiring them to fetch it from a water hose. 

For Isabelita Allena, a 74-year-old survivor who suffers from high blood pressure, the hot environment is unsuitable for her well-being. Having lost her house in Zone 1, she has no choice but to endure it.

While the government provides some assistance for her daily meals, Allena grapples with the loss of her income source. 

“In Masara, I had sufficient income from my small grocery store because my customers were mostly miners who bought cigarettes, drinks, and food, daily. It was a substantial income for me. Here, I might end up being the one to consume my goods for sale,” Allena said.

Heavy rains, human activity

Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) Chief Geologist Beverly Brebante attributed the landslide to a natural disaster, citing several key factors: persistent rains occurring in the province since late January, terrain slope, fault lines, and soil composition.

However, scientists emphasized that human factors, such as land use and a weak warning system, increased the risk of landslides, particularly with increasing rainfall.

A rapid analysis by climate scientists from the World Weather Attribution revealed that heavy rainfall events in Mindanao are now dumping 50% more rain. Although February’s rainfall was unusually heavy, it was not considered extreme. 

The analysis highlighted the influence of policies and management of land use and cover on flood risk, citing activities like logging and mining since the 1950s.

Deforestation negatively impacts natural water cycles and soil stability, which can increase surface runoff, ultimately aggravating the risk of landslides and floods,” scientists said.

The report also criticized the lack of progress in policies, laws, and funding for disaster management, prioritizing post-disaster response over prevention for decades. 

“Despite automated sensors for rainfall and stream levels in the region, data recording has ceased since at least 2022,” the study said.

The University of the Philippines Resilience Institute (UPRI) suggested that the multiple landslides indicate a need for relocating households and ensuring safer construction, aligned with disaster risk reduction measures in land use and development plans.

Complex issues

An evacuee walks towards the water station installed in the tent city to fetch water and wash their sleeping mat. (Ivy Marie Mangadlao)

During a March hearing by the House committee on disaster resilience investigating the Masara landslide, Zamboanga Sibugay Representative Wilter Palma criticized Maco Mayor Arthur Carlos Voltaire Rimando for allowing residents to return to the  landslide-prone area, despite it being designated a no-build zone by the MGB following a similar tragedy in 2008.

Bur Rimando said that after the 2008 incident, they had passed a resolution encouraging residents to permanently relocate to safer areas. 

However, subsequent events unfolded, including a resolution by the barangay council of Masara urging the local government to allow residents to return, following a petition signed by those affected by the landslide. Nevertheless, the town mayor stressed the municipal council did not act on this matter.

Rimando added that enforcing a no-build zone presents complex legal issues.

“The enforcement of a no-build  zone does not only include police power since the result of such a measure will permanently deprive people of their property. This is not just restriction, but includes the taking of private property which under the constitution requires just compensation,” he said.

He also pointed out that the area falls under the ancestral domain granted to the Mansaka tribe, governed Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act of 1997, which recognizes ancestral domains as private but communal property of indigenous peoples, thus prohibiting their sale, disposal, or destruction.

“We did everything within the powers  vested on us by law to protect and secure the lives of our constituents. Regardless of this effort, we feel sad that this tragedy happened,” Rimando said. 

Despite the 2008 landslide, Raganate’s family returned to the area due to a false sense of security. The slope where the landslide had happened appeared stabilized with more trees and vegetation

Raganate’s family did not own the land where their house was built, but its proximity to the Apex mine was crucial.

“My husband works [there]  as a miner. I also earn from my sari-sari store there,” she said. 

Moving forward

According to the Maco Municipal Disaster Risk Reduction Management Office (MDRRMO), the process of assessing potential permanent relocation sites is ongoing, pending approval from the MGB.

In early May, a site in Barangay Calabcab passed the MGB’s assessment. The local government will continue clearing the area, finalizing the development plan, and addressing other resettlement program requirements mandated by the environment department to ensure the safety of relocated individuals from these calamity-prone areas.

In the continuation of the house committee hearing on May 14, Apex Mining presented the initiatives they have undertaken in collaboration with the local government of Maco as “evidence-based solutions to the climate change challenge.” These include a tenement-wide geohazard assessment by the Geosciences Foundation, Inc., which is based at the National Institute of Geological Sciences in University of the Philippines Diliman.

“This is a four-month undertaking that will end in July. Using satellite and other available data, the geologists have already delineated the old and recent landslides for the entire tenement, including the nearby communities,” said Luis Sarmiento, president and chief executive officer of Apex Mining.

Sarmiento added that Apex Mining is completing safety improvements to prevent landslides, like adding alarms, lights, and stronger walls around the affected area. 

Rep. Zia Alonto Adiong (Lanao del Sur 1st district), who serves as the vice-chairperson of the committee, stressed there was negligence on the part of the local government and concerned agencies and that policy gaps need to be addressed. 

“The Masara incident is an opportunity to work together in identifying policy gaps and recommending solutions that mitigate the effects of such incidents and prevent them from happening again or repeating incidents that caused loss of lives,” Adiong said.