BASEY/MANILA Philippines (Reuters) - A year after one of the world’s most powerful storms smashed into the Philippines, a group of women are stitching their lives back together by weaving colorful reeds used in handicrafts sold by the world’s top retailers.
Their workshop is a far cry from the high-end shops selling their products such as handbags and homewares on 5th Avenue in New York.
Sitting in one of the caves dotting the seaside highway of Basey town in central Philippines, about a dozen women weave the reed plant, known as tikog, which is sold to sustain their families still struggling to make ends meet after Typhoon Haiyan left more than 7,000 dead or missing last Nov. 8.
“Weaving helps feed our families. But we haven’t really recovered, we still don’t earn enough,” said Marilyn Corpus, 46, from inside the cave whose cool temperature helps preserve the grass.
Amongst the despair and devastation wrought by Haiyan - the strongest storm ever recorded to hit land - hundreds of women weavers have emerged as the main breadwinners in their families.
Most of the weavers say they received relief and building materials for their homes from foreign and local NGOs and private groups, but none from the government, possibly because of their remote location.
But theirs is a rare story of hope in the region’s rural economy, which was mainly dependent on the coconut groves destroyed by the storm.
In a country where about one in four people lived below the poverty line at the beginning of last year, Haiyan drove another 1.5 million Filipinos into the extreme hardship of living on less than $1 a day.
The U.N.’s International Labor Organization (ILO) says nearly 6 million lost their jobs immediately after the typhoon - mostly retailers, service crew, coconut farmers, fishermen.
Most of those from the 44 worst-hit provinces in the center of the country decry the government’s relief effort.
Data from the U.N. humanitarian team working in the disaster areas shows that more than half of the 1.05 million houses damaged by Haiyan remained totally destroyed or unsafe as of July. The government estimates it needs almost 170 billion pesos ($3.8 billion) to rebuild all Haiyan-affected communities.
Some of the coconut farmers are now growing vegetables and have livestock, while some fishermen have returned to the seas, albeit only to shallow waters reachable by their unmotorized boats. But for most of the typhoon victims, a more sustainable livelihood is still far from sight.
“We’re seeing very good signs of recovery, but we’re not there yet,” said Michel Rooijackers, deputy director for Philippine operations of Save the Children, adding that recent studies show many of the poor survivors “are just meeting their survival level, so they are getting by, just getting by”.
Almost 25,000 people still live in tents, shelters and bunkhouses in the hardest hit regions in central Philippines, including Tacloban City, considered Haiyan’s ground zero as it accounted for almost half of the death toll.
A year later, Samar’s women weavers stand out as being among the most resilient and industrious workers.
Weeks after the typhoon, aid organizations identified the weavers as being critical in holding families together - both socially and as primary income earners. They were given training and funding to optimize their household standing.
Philippine fashion company Banago, whose bags and home accessories are made from mats produced by Basey weavers, has doubled its workforce since the storm to about 1,000 weavers. The Banago range is a top seller at high-end retail stores such J. Crew, Anthropologie, Nordstrom and Macy’s.
Haiyan washed away Banago’s entire production facilities in Basey, but the company’s founder Renee Patron and her partners decided to restart their business a few months after the disaster struck.
“The typhoon made the business more focused, and it also gave me the opportunity to learn much more about the women ... and how we can make their lives better,” said Patron.
“We had the women rebuild their homes and after that we just tried to get them back to work,” said the U.S.-based merchandiser and fashion designer.
Additional reporting by Manny Mogato in Manila and Thin Lei Win from Thomson Reuters Foundation in Basey; Writing by Rosemarie Francisco; Editing by Simon Webb and Jeremy Laurence