“Kumusta kayo? Nasaan na kayo ngayon?” are the most common questions we ask our team leaders in the field through text, call or FB messenger. Not getting a response immediately has been a common sign that their team is covering a difficult area and we understand.
We’re halfway through in covering the areas for Year 1 of the Expanded National Nutrition Survey (eNNS). The new survey design of the eNNS, with the sample size quadrupled compared to the previous NNSs necessitated our teams to stay longer in one province or highly urbanized city (HUC). Thus, they are covering more households and more areas previously not included in the past surveys.
They have a lot of stories to share with the on-going field collection, especially in the difficulty of reaching the geographically isolated and disadvantaged areas (GIDAs) that are included in the survey. GIDAs are defined by the Department of Health (DOH) as communities with marginalized population, physically and socio-economically separated from the mainstream society. It can be due to physical factors such as distance, weather condition, transportation difficulties (island, upland, lowland, landlocked, hardto-reach, and unserved and underserved communities), or socio-economic factors like high poverty incidence, presence of vulnerable factors or communities in or recovering from situation of crisis or armed conflict.
Photos they posts are just but a glimpse of what they have gone through and one can already tell that the area is isolated and/ or disadvantaged. One time I commented on a photo of one of our sub-teams that the area looked eerie. And when I ask them “kumusta kayo dun”, the details are even more compelling. Mikil, the team leader who covered a landlocked, upland barangay in Silvino Lobos, Northern Samar said it was one, if not the most difficult area he has gone to, comparing it with other areas in the past surveys he has been to that I know are already hard-to-reach.
“Mas mahirap pa sa JAS?” (Is the place harder than JAS?) I asked him, which was one of the difficult areas we both have been to. “Opo. Apat na oras naming nilakad, tatlong bundok dinaanan namin papunta dun. Tapos yung ilog sa picture, binabantayan kami ng mga sundalo na naka-detach dun sa area kasi na-snipe dun yung isang kasama nila. Nung pauwi, iba na dinaanan namin, mas malayo, umabot na ng 7 hours kasi limang bundok ang dinaanan namin tapos dun may nakasabay kami na “pulang araw”.
“Pero hindi naman kami ginalaw kasi may kasama kami na barangay official doon. Wala kami madaming pictures kasi iniwan namin sa baba yung mga gadgets namin. Kinukuha daw kasi ng “pulang araw” pag alam na may GPS yung gadget,” he narrated. (We walked for four hours and crossed three mountains to reach it. The soldiers who escorted us closely guarded us in the river because one of their companions was shot by a sniper in that area. When we were done with the data collection, we passed by a different trail where we encountered rebels but they did not harm us because we were accompanied by a barangay official in that community. We did not have a lot of photos because we left our gadgets at the municipal center because locals say rebels take them away if they learn that it has GPS function). “Eh kumusta yung mga tao dun?” I asked further. “Sobrang hospitable pa din po sila, nagkatay pa sila ng manok kasi bihira nga daw may bisita dun,” he said. (People there are very hospitable. They even killed a chicken for us to eat because they rarely get visitors.)
Reaching these GIDAs has become even more challenging now that monsoon rains have been torrentially pouring these past few weeks. Team leaders in other areas express their concerns through group chats in FB messenger. Teams covering the Mountain Province have seen some landslides in the Cordilleras. Those covering the Visayas are concerned of gale warning as they transfer to their next island areas.
“Bakit kaya dun pa nila piniling tumira? Ang layo-layo. May siyudad naman,” one of our researchers one time asked. (Why do these people choose to live in these areas? It is so remote.) “Siguro kasi andun yung pangkabuhayan nila.
“May mga tanim sila dun tulad ng niyog. Maraming mga problema din naman sa siyudad dahil sa dami ng tao,” I replied. (Maybe because it is where their livelihood is. They have crops like coconut. There are also a lot of problems in the city.)
Sometimes, you can’t help but wonder if it is possible that they will balance out someday – that these areas will be more accessible and that basic services will be delivered more appropriately and timely so that those who are hoping to get out of rural poverty do not necessarily need to take their chance living in crowded cities. But maybe, that is just for the socio-economic factors.
The physical factors are something we can only do so much. The islands and mountains in our country and the worsening weather conditions are barriers we don’t have control off. Having reliable transport system, health and education facilities and manpower, and reduced security concern in these areas will definitely make things better in these areas.
As for our teams, that they will always be safe as they cover these areas and that their passion for work to reach these areas, learn about them and be moved by their realizations remain.