Building Resilient Small Island Communities: The Case of Gigantes Islands, Carles, Iloilo


The University of the Philippines Visayas (UPV), through its non-government arm, the UPV Foundation, Inc., responded to the disaster wrought by Typhoon Yolanda in 2013. The locus of humanitarian action were the four barangays of the Gigantes Islands in the Municipality of Carles, a second-class municipality and the northernmost town of Iloilo Province. Gigantes is the farthest cluster of inhabited islands and one of the poorest in the municipality and in the province.

Gigantes has two main islands (Gigantes Norte and Gigantes Sur) and twelve islets. It is composed of four barangays: Asluman, Gabi, Granada and Lantangan. The combined population in 2015 stood at 13,114 individuals (6,839 males and 6275 females) across 2,666 households and 2,718 families. Prior to Typhoon Yolanda, these communities endured numerous challenges that were largely unaddressed because service provision and community development efforts were deemed risky or costly by virtue of the island’s distance and detached location. Poverty, poor access and control over resources, cultural bias, isolation from services and high exposure to natural and anthropogenic hazards combine to create a humanitarian exigency unique to small islands that demand response and attention.

The humanitarian action in Gigantes intersected with the mandate and vision of UPV to become a leader in fisheries education, research and development. Besides, its Tacloban City Campus was also ravaged by the Typhoon, making it axiomatic for the university administration to respond to the crisis to recover, protect and rehabilitate in-house assets and resources, and that of its immediate community.

UPV undertook rapid relief, early recovery and rehabilitation programs for Gigantes Islands with various partners. The Philippines-Australia Community Assistance Program (PACAP) financed the repair of the communication tower to maintain the links of the four barangays with the mainland LGU. The Canada Fund for Local Initiatives (CFLI) trained and equipped the Barangay Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Committees (BDRRMC). The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), through its Strategic Response Plan (SRP), supported the child-centered DRRM capacity building for schools that integrated DRRM into School Improvement Plans (SIP).

Christian Aid (CA), an international humanitarian organization, channeled comprehensive support from rapid relief and early recovery up to rehabilitation of the four communities. Rapid relief provided food and non-food assistance to affected households while shelter and livelihood repair modality helped survivors mend their homes and fishing boats to restart fishing activities. CA’s past engagements with small island communities in other areas of the Philippines inspired UPV’s small island resilience work in Gigantes, a work encapsulated in the project entitled RISE (Bangon) Gigantes Project: Rehabilitation for Island Sustainability and Empowerment or RISE. CA generously set aside sixteen million pesos for the two-year project which closed in 2016.

RISE restored normalcy and affirmed the dignity of the affected population to regain assets and functions. It linked small island realities with broader development contexts and agendas and utilized this as a platform to pursue a rehabilitation program grounded on the principles of participation and inclusivity, integral to efforts of promoting sustainable development and people’s empowerment.

The project had six major components: (a) participatory risk assessment; (2) capacity building; (3) resource management; (4) addressing isolation; (5) community education; and, (6) mainstreaming of disaster risk reduction and resilience into local development plans and programs. Community organizing was used as a core strategy with community-based DRRM as entry point.

Participatory risk assessment tools (disaster timeline, Venn diagram, seasonal calendar, asset and issue pentagon, power and hazard mapping) were combined with technical and scientific tools (GIS, Barangay Management Information System or BMIS) to enhance understanding of local conditions including hazards, vulnerabilities, capacities and assets. The top three hazards identified were storm surge, typhoon and drought. Issues and concerns that informed the design of subsequent activities were unearthed, guaranteeing relevance and grounding.

Capacity building strengthened participatory local governance structures including Barangay Development Councils (BDC), BDRRMCs, and local protection councils for children. It democratized access to power, decision-making and budget, and ensured that resource allocations for DRRM, women, children, PWD and the elderly are appropriately targeted and utilized. The Island Sustainable Development Alliance (ISDA) for Gigantes was created to serve as an overarching structure that converges representation and voice of the four barangays. ISDA unified the four barangays, synchronized efforts for island-wide development and expanded leverage in discussions and negotiations for resource management, tourism development, and disaster and climate resilience.

With ISDA at the helm, issues and concerns that were heretofore unaddressed gained the attention of the mainland local government from the province down to the municipal level. It sought the support of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) for natural resource protection and conservation. Mangrove and beach forest rehabilitation was initiated and management plans to protect the island’s natural heritage assets, both terrestrial and marine, were crafted.

Given its off-grid location, technology solutions to isolation were set up to locally generate weather forecast and warning information. This proved vital in monitoring local meteorological anomalies that were not readily forecasted by the weather bureau. PAG-ASA set up the Automated Weather Station (AWS) in Gigantes, organized the School Hydro-Meteorological Information Network (SHINe) and trained students on weather forecasting. Information is disseminated across the four barangays using transceiver radios through the duplex communication system set up by the regional office of the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC).

Local knowledge about risk reduction and community adaptation was disseminated and expanded through advocacy campaigns involving local schools and community partners. Students served as bearers of conservation, disaster preparedness and climate resilience messages in school or community activities including religious celebrations. ISDA initiated environmental fairs and actively supported the celebration of scallops and hammer shell festivals to underscore the importance of conserving and protecting critical and endemic natural capital of the island.

Within UPV, conferences, panel discussions and policy dialogues on inclusive and community-based DRR were carried out to broaden the constituency of support for small island communities. Calls for the use of maritime and archipelagic lens in planning were issued to mitigate the prevailing land-based practice and bias in planning. The small islands agenda reached national conversations surrounding the review of the national legislation on DRRM.

The imperatives of disaster preparedness and climate resilience were considered in community planning and programming. The organizational structure of BDRRMCs and the preparedness and contingency plans of the four barangays were used as template by the mainland LGU in organizing local DRRM groups and in DRRM planning in other barangays in Carles. Annual Investment Programs (AIP) were suffused with principles of disaster risk reduction, climate resilience and inclusion. Clear guidance on the disposition of DRRM funds was provided and budget officers were coached in tagging their climate change and gender-related programs. Annual budgetary allocations for schools, children, PWD and the elderly were likewise clearly identified. And as manifestation of local commitment to sustain inter-barangay cooperation and convergence, the four barangays in Gigantes agreed to co-fund the operations of ISDA annually. Before RISE closed, ISDA earned accreditation from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and was recognized, through an Executive Order, as a development partner of the municipal and barangay LGUs.


RISE demonstrated the value of partnership in carrying out activities that were co-designed and co-created with local leaders and local stakeholders. Community organizing functioned as a core strategy instrumental in unearthing immediate and strategic needs and the corresponding courses of action. In particular, it shed light on the unique layers of marginalisation experienced by small islands that defined the character and trajectory of engagements even beyond the two-year time frame of the project. During the relief phase, through participatory processes, community leaders were able to influence the type, content and even timing of distribution of food and non-food items considering the locally expressed needs (e.g., they prioritized coffee over bleaching agent in the relief packs) of target beneficiaries and the prevailing conditions within the islands. Shelter and livelihood repair kits were designed with direct inputs from the ground. The timing and system of distribution (crowd control, sequence and queuing), considered tidal movements (i.e., best to deliver goods during high tide so that packs reach the shore) and local weather conditions. Information databases were vetted not only by community leaders but by barangay volunteers including barangay health workers who have direct handle and disposition of socio-economic and ecological data within the four barangays. Project activities were not implemented without direct community support and participation. Community organizing allowed for the set-up and training of community-based groups and structures for community safety (BDRRMCs), security (local protection councils for children) and participatory governance (barangay development councils with sectoral representation from women, elderly, motorcycle drivers and the education sector). Along the way, it democratized access to power, decision-making and even budget. Capacity building initiatives for basic life support, water search and rescue, evacuation center management, bottom-up budgeting, alternative food development and natural resource protection and rehabilitation were carried out. Close mentoring and guidance to improve community governance systems were done consistently and continuously to develop robust local capacities given their isolated and detached location. Competency and proficiency of local leaders and sectoral groups were desired ends given the detachment and isolation of the four barangays. The Island Sustainable Development Alliance (ISDA) for Gigantes, an overarching group that converges representation and voices of the four barangays was created out of the desire to strengthen claims for development and mainland support. ISDA is an intermediary group that draws membership from the four barangays. The alliance unified and synchronized efforts for island-wide development, giving them greater leverage at the negotiating table. It is where policy and plans are designed for implementation across the four barangays. It formulated a two-year development plan, supported by convergence partners that highlight five important aspects of island-wide development: natural resource protection and biodiversity conservation, tourism development, community disaster resilience, healthy communities and sustainable livelihoods. ISDA as a co-governance platform put Gigantes on the map that led to recognition and consideration of small island issues and concerns and the subsequent flow development assistance from the mainland LGU and from government agencies. ISDA’s operation has been ensured through financial contributions from the four barangays. Every year, they set aside at least one percent of their internal revenue shares to support planning and policy-making initiatives as well as internal administration and management.
Marginalized and at-risk groups were not only included in the design of DRM activities — they were given priority. To facilitate this, a mapping and databasing of these groups were done. Accordingly, their needs were identified and fed into local DRRM plans and programs. This information is readily accessible through hazard maps posted in conspicuous places all over the islands. The maps indicate locations of households vulnerable to storm surges (identified to be the number one threat in the island). These households have been briefed on where to go during emergency situations. The process of evacuation has been simulated several times in the community. Areas, households or families that are more exposed to hazards have been identified and given priority during evacuation. At risk groups - small children, PWD, the elderly and individuals with chronic illnesses - were included in the priority list. This system was tested in preparation for Typhoon Ruby in 2014 that resulted to preemptive evacuation of the at-risk groups identified. Organized Barangay DRRM Committees involved representatives from different sectoral groups and sections of the community. Given the size and geographic spread of settlements, it became necessary for local leaders to set up cells of leadership involving clusters of households or houses (locally known as sitio). During critical times, this facilitated the dissemination of vital information relayed by local leaders through transceiver radio and further disseminated on foot per household by a designated community volunteer, usually a Barangay Tanod. DRM initiatives have been carried out with direct involvement of the education sector. Given the shortage of evacuation centers and safe spaces, schools in the Gigantes have been identified as evacuation sites. Evacuation spaces have been planned out with school authorities, specifying number of classrooms to be used and number of families per classroom. Teachers and health workers have been designated to monitor conditions of evacuees. In cases where classrooms fall short, private homes were identified and agreement with homeowners were secured. Close community ties and kinship oftentimes ease the process of securing agreements. In various instances, particularly in Asluman, Gabi and Granada, caves have been identified and used as evacuation centers. In Gabi, local officials conducted a survey of caves to determine appropriateness and safety for temporary shelter. A number of evacuees and families were assigned per cave. Caves were cleared and fitted with bamboo floors to make them comfier for evacuees. Children in Gigantes were given the unique privilege to lead in generating and disseminating weather forecast and warning information. A School Hydro-Meteorological Information Network (SHINE) was set up in Granada National High School Ballesteros Extension by PAG-ASA to facilitate weather monitoring in the island. SHINE was part of RISE’s initiative dubbed as CARE for Gignates or Children’s Advocacy for Resilience and Environmental Protection Advocacy that underscored the value of integrating children’s rights to DRRM including their rights to survival, protection, participation and sustainable development. The children’s plan of action has been adopted by ISDA and integrated in its community disaster resilience agenda.
With Gigantes’s insular character, it was important for RISE to develop community-based capacities to address not just exposure to hazards and risks but broader vulnerabilities and development issues that affect local capacities. This was best reflected in ISDA’s strategic development plan which focused on natural resource protection and biodiversity conservation, tourism development, healthy communities and sustainable livelihoods other than purely community disaster resilience. Advocacy messages derived the Sendai Framework for DRR found their way into Gigantes resulting in the push to focus on everyday risks and not just on big events. This resonated well given small island contexts where everyday realities can be a struggle given the depth of poverty and deprivation. And as the islands are getting more and more exposed to the outside world due to the booming tourism industry, the need for local leaders to think proactively and strategically is becoming more evident as new challenges and issues emerge daily. The annual influx of tourists resulted in the surging need for local transport and rapid pace of tourism infrastructure development. This brought in new norms, new modes of behavior and greater demand for dynamism and brisk response from local leaders. Big commercial interests have started to take notice of the island’s investment potentials, requiring critical and more discerning response from decision-makers so that local interests and environmental integrity are not compromised. ISDA is working hard to stay on top of all this as it initiated an elaborate structure and working committees dedicated to focus on each strategic plan component. It meets monthly to design appropriate courses of action - by way of policy, plan or lobby aimed at protecting island inhabitants and resources. UPV continues to provide ISDA with technical assistance and guidance, together with counterparts from the education sector in the island.


In the realm of community organizing, three important outcomes emerged from the RISE’s experience in Gigantes Islands. 1. Securing links with mainland governments is vital. Regular communication with the mainland eases isolation as it enhances the feeling of inclusion. This gives island communities the opportunity to be heard and be recognised. 2. Expanding knowledge on small island vulnerabilities and risks is basic to inclusion. Plans and programs of the government have been blind about the realities of small islands due to poor information and lack of assessment tools that seek to highlight their unique characteristics. Participatory assessments, as demonstrated by the RISE Project, uncovered the layers of marginalization experienced by small island communities that guided responses and interventions from convergence partners. Without adequate information and knowledge, there is likelihood that small island issues and concerns would remain unacknowledged or glossed over. 3. Convergence of the four barangays to gain stronger representation and voice. The union of the four barangays through ISDA allowed for better interaction with the mainland LGU and authorities. It provided platform for the four barangays to work with each other, rather than separately, and in the process, gained bigger voice and better leverage during negotiations and decision-making. Resources brought in by convergence partners were construed as outcomes of the voice of small island communities. One evidence of the commitment to sustain the initiatives can be seen in the Annual Investment Programs (AIP) of the four barangays where the utilization of available barangay funds was shown in detail. The revitalization of community structures and organization of people’s organizations were part and parcel of social preparation to facilitate program phase out and turn over to local stakeholders who are expected to eventually assume project responsibilities. The potential to replicate the initiatives in Gigantes was recognized first and foremost by the LGU of Carles. The Municipal Mayor, Siegfredo Betita, signed Executive Order Number 58 recognizing convergence of the four barangays as a strategy for small island resilience that can be applied in other island barangays in Carles. Civil society organizations have recognized the value of the lessons learned from the Gigantes experience and have made efforts to have them shared in their respective areas of work. Efforts to scale up the experience were taken through the Scaling Up Resilience in Governance (SURGE) Project. The consortium that implemented SURGE, led by Oxfam, brought their partners to Gigantes to dialogue with barangay officials and other stakeholders and to generate lessons from their experience in resilience building. The Gigantes experience was featured in numerous SURGE activities. Important insights were drawn from the experience that made inroads into the Sunset Review of RA 10121.
The RISE Project introduced participatory and community-based mechanisms that facilitated the recovery and rehabilitation of more than 2,666 households in the Gigantes Islands. It strengthened governance mechanisms and local capacities to address prevailing and emerging risks emanating from problems associated with environmental resource degradation, poverty and isolation. Presently, UPV continues its engagement with the four Gigantes communities focusing on issues that directly impinged on community wellbeing and resilience. With support from the Foundation for the Philippine Environment, UPV argues that: 1. An overarching policy and planning framework is needed to sustain the natural resources vis-à-vis demands for survival and to manage the growing tourism industry. The prevalence of destructive activities and entry of commercial fishing exact a heavy toll on fisheries resources. Unregulated tourism activities put the carrying capacity of tourist sites at risk. Fisheries and environmental policies are available but enforcement remains problematic. Concerted efforts of the four barangays are needed so that management/regulation becomes consistent throughout the island. 2. Widespread poverty means resource users would oftentimes resort to destructive and extractive practices to maximize productive effort, unmindful of long-term consequences to environmental integrity. Sectors and groups that access and use existing resources are unorganized and unrecognized. Until recently, they have no representation in barangay development councils. Feudal arrangements feature heavily in their daily transactions with the amo (fishlords). This in turn develops dependency that binds them tighter into an uneven set-up that subsequently allows fishlords to unilaterally control decisions and even dictate choices. Many poor and vulnerable residents are left with narrow options that make uneven relations with the landlord as the only alternative. 3. Damaging and destructive actions have been tolerated and perpetuated for generations. The local population appears unmindful of their productive and tourism assets largely because of deficient advocacy and public education efforts. Many do not get the importance of resource protection and biodiversity conservation. A utilitarian view of the environment is pervasive where nature is interpreted as an instrument to fulfill people’s needs for survival. Convergence, community organizing and community education must be supported continuously to address these concerns.


Small island engagements in Gigantes can be replicated by making sure that: 1. There is an available intermediary and facilitating agent such as NGOs, actors from the academe and inter-island/inter-barangay alliances. 2. Communication and isolation problems are resolved using technology solutions. 3. There is structural and policy support from concerned government agencies. 4. Science-based understanding of biophysical, social, political and economic conditions is promoted. 5. Interventions are sensitive to small-island contexts.