The Last Mile – and beyond

NOTES FROM THE EU DELEGATION - Luc Véron - The Philippine Star

A few days ago, I visited Siargao, eight months into the island’s recovery from the immense damage caused by Typhoon Odette (Rai). My primary purpose was to monitor the European Union’s humanitarian and development initiatives on the ground and see for myself their impact on the recovery from the destruction brought by the super typhoon. This visit took place on World Humanitarian Day, dedicated to highlight the thousands of volunteers, professionals and crisis-affected people who deliver urgent health care, shelter, food, protection, water and more. As the world celebrated humanitarian work, it filled me with pride to see the European Union play an important part in helping Siargao’s communities rebuild.

With humanitarian partners, I had the pleasure of launching a photo exhibition, The Last Mile. The exhibition is a powerful account and reminder of our humanitarian obligation to save lives and help communities recover from natural disasters like Odette.

In the parlance of humanitarians, the “last mile” is the final stage of the humanitarian relief chain, in which we make sure that we reach those most vulnerable wherever they are. True to the essence of leaving no one behind, the EU and partners Oxfam, Save the Children, Humanity and Inclusion, CARE, Action Against Hunger, Plan International, ACCORD, SIKAT, Community Multiversity and the UN World Food Program have endeavored to provide the most comprehensive, timely and adequate response. We lost no time in ensuring that lives were saved and the basic needs of the communities were adequately and urgently addressed. Our Team Europe (the EU and its member states) have delivered more than P920.4 million worth of humanitarian assistance to the communities affected by Typhoon Odette.

After the initial rescue and relief operations came the work to ensure people could start leading normal lives.  This work is still ongoing, but I could see a very specific example of what is currently being done during my visit to Caridad Elementary School in Pilar. It was heart-warming to witness schoolchildren preparing for D-day, the opening of classes on Aug. 22. Children swarming around me and my wife Nicole was an authentic tug at one’s heartstrings. We enjoyed listening to their discussion with their teacher, Elmark Espinile Espejon, on the importance of nutrition, eating fresh vegetables which could be grown and harvested from their homemade pots.

Next, Nicole and I planted some mung beans together with the schoolchildren. What a better symbol than planting seedlings of hope with these children and for those whose future lies with us all? I am thankful that the European Union has an impact in ensuring that children continue to receive basic education in the aftermath of Typhoon Odette.

Our next stop was at the “Solar Community-Based Island Tourism and Livelihood Energizer Platform (SMILE),” where we were greeted with a spectacular dance by the little Anajawan island community. Barangay captain Rosebelt Lim expressed how grateful his barangay was for the EU’s rural and solar electrification project, which will benefit altogether around 500 households.

For barangay captain Lim, having 24/7 electricity was the realization of a life-long dream. This is indeed a life-changing process for his island: with solar power the noise and smoke of diesel generators will become a thing of the past, and a host of other economic development opportunities will open up.

I led a ceremony to jumpstart the solar-powered platforms with the project implementer, World Wide Fund. We left Anajawan with much hope and smiles in our hearts as we headed to a seaweed farming community spearheaded by the strong and empowered women of San Benito. We saw first-hand how seaweed is cultivated and harvested. Through the efforts of our partner, Sentro Para sa Ikauunlad ng Katutubong Agham at Teknolohiya, the EU is able to provide livelihood opportunities in 34 coastal barangays of Siargao Island protected landscape and seascape.

During the visit in Maribojoc, Jechelle Empenido narrated how the project has led to economic, social and political empowerment for women like her. We all became teary-eyed listening to the song Marefe Caterman and Rhea Jama rendered. They were able to stand back on their feet through their hard work and participation in the project’s self-help livelihood venture. Such stories show that our support does count, and remind us to stay on course. Thank you San Benito!

The transition to a green economy, adaptation to climate change and biodiversity protection are priorities that the EU shares with the Philippines. I was glad that the local officials of Pilar, San Benito, Del Carmen, General Luna and the province of Surigao del Norte, whom I met, are equally committed to these goals.

During my visit, I had the chance to meet with actress, singer and environment activist Nadine Lustre. She is my guest for this month’s “EU You Talk,” my social media segment on Facebook. Nadine shared how she became enamored with campaigning for the protection of Siargao Island and passionately spoke of how we can all do our share to care for the environment through proper waste management and a sustainable lifestyle in our homes. A call to action for everybody!

Siargao Island is “magical” not just because of its pristine beaches and shoreline but because of the energy, persistence, warmth and hospitality of its people. I am happy that the EU and our humanitarian and development partners are still working to help create sustainable and inclusive development in Siargao. We and they have gone to the last mile and beyond, which in our beloved host country of 7,700 islands is often a nautical mile!

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Luc Veron is Ambassador of the European Union to the Philippines.

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