WHEN FARMERS HAVE TO FIGHT TO PROVIDE FOOD SECURITY
It all started when a friend called me two months ago and asked me if I could look into a donation of a toilet for the children of farmers and fisher-folks in Coron.
Realizing this was a chance for me to help in a small way, I made the effort to clear my schedule and to travel in August to Coron, literally at the tail end of a massive typhoon leaving the Philippines, and daringly, by boat — as that was the only way to have a ceramic toilet seat, as well as school supplies brought to the farmers. We endured 25 hours at sea feeling the aftermath of that powerful typhoon and was whipped about roughly, although the boat stayed its course and battled bravely forward, eventually sustaining a leaking dent to its hull (which was the cause of the delay, otherwise the trip would have been made in 17 hours).
Coron Busuanga itself is the major island and a beautiful one at that, especially when one compares and island-hops discovering the other neighboring islands all with a charm of their own. Entering Coron that day, and for the first time through the Port of Coron wasn’t anything to rave about. The Port itself really requires maintenance and upgrading especially in areas that posed a security issue considering there were exposed leaking water pipes and slight flooding — signs of drainage problem that require immediate attention and rectification. Tricycles were swerving dangerously close to each other, all trying to avoid one another and puddles of water in that narrow and main street, the only one leading from the Port to the main town of Coron, Busuanga.
The farmers, all 380 of them from the Lead Chapter, SAMBICO (Sandigan ng Mag-Bubukid ng Bintuan, Coron) and the representative Chapter of the Federation at that, had expected me the day we were supposed to officially arrive, that is, 8 hours earlier, but the delay from the damage to the boat’s hull took us another day, and from the moment we were able to drop our bags and quickly change, we were immediately whisked away by tricycle straight to their Activity Center, 18 kilometers away from the town center on the fairly direct and well paved Coron-Busuanga Road.
Arriving at Sitio Centro Barangay, I saw a structure made of bamboo, wood planks, and cogon grass which the farmers fashioned and put together as a meeting hall, and which served as their weekly Activity Center and meeting site where they could connect and exchange updates on their situation, and that of their members.
The farmers depended on themselves and each other and mostly practiced a “DIY” — do-it-yourself — system utilizing what material they could source from around them, with their added physical effort. It was a wonderful study of “Bayanihan” — the Filipino’s spirit of communal unity and cooperation.
The members included, surprisingly, the extremely shy Indigenous People (often mentioned as IPs) from neighboring islands who made it a point to travel by boat to attend the meetings. I found out that it was not easy for the IPs to obtain basic education for their children since they had to travel by boat to bring their children to school, or in this case, the Day Care Center, as they were extremely shy — the psychological-profile of the natives of Coron being one of acute sensitivity normally expected from people who are island inhabitants — they veered away from public schools, always fearful of being jeered or ridiculed for their isolation and refusal to modernize.
The Chairman of the Lead Chapter, SAMBICO (which stands for Sandigan ng Mag-Bubukid ng Bintuan, Coron), Rodolfo R. Cadampog, Sr., who is also the Founder and President of the Federation of Coron-Busuanga Palawan Farmers and Fisherfolks Association, Inc. (FCBPFAI), — composing 18 Chapters and 3,300 members in Coron — explained how he and his Council Members had to patiently and persistently persuaded the IPs to regularly attend their meetings and to become members of their Chapter and the Federation. They had wanted the IPs to benefit from the knowledge exchange especially since they had affinity with Coron, and were extremely pleased and appreciative when the IPs eventually made the effort to attend.
That first trip to Coron, at the invitation of the Federation to be their Resource Speaker, where I gave my first lecture then, and spoke of the importance of Cash Crop Farming, and Food Security, gave me the opportunity to explain and implant in the minds of the members that whatever plans any of them undertook, they had to take into consideration the next six to seven generation of farmers and fisher-folks. This would help the Federation members realize how important it would be for them all to practice conservation and preservation of land and sea resources as well as the careful management of their abundant and rich territory.
Out of natural curiosity and in an effort to understand their situation, I asked the history of their chapter and the Federation, and they, in turn, relayed the challenges and difficulties they faced, especially with prices of food escalating and agriculture land coveted by land-grabbers intent on capitalizing on the tourism boom of Coron.
I was told of how they had to fight to defend their land from land-grabbers who were mainly made up of rich corrupt government officials or major established commercial entities, and how they had to face armed groups of mercenaries from military/police background sent in periodically from the mainland to terrorize them. It was a story that enraged me.
Tell me, who sends armalite-armed mercenaries against helpless farmers responsible for tilling the lands in hard labor so we can be provided with the food we eat — and all of us mostly oblivious to the danger and the persecution these farmers face for delivering our daily sustenance to our tables and catering to our insatiable appetites! All the harassment and criminalizing of the farmers for just their given right to protect and make productive farm lands that must be used for food production considering the number of poor and hungry in the cities and towns of the Philippines unable to access food!
The battle fought by the farmers against land developers was a long one. The dream of establishing a Federation for Farmers was conceptualized in May 2001, and only realized with the incorporation of the Federation in December 2013, twelve long years later.
Should it really take that long for farmers to battle for the right to grow food to feed us? Let me ask you all that. How many of us are aware of the farmers’ situation and how have we failed to help and alleviate their problem? How ridiculous is it that farmers are divested of their right to own lands, when they break their backs under the hot sun making those land yield the food that fill our bellies and that of our children?
Those land-grabbing selfish, narrow-minded, profit seeking individuals or corporations fail to realize that food will be scarce with population boom especially if they are intent on developing properties commercially and having more people live in Coron. With population boom and insufficient food produce, how will the population be fed? Life and living isn’t just about money, how to make it quick and illegally, and what money can buy. Everyone should take stock of the sad story of Boracay and how we should learn about the hazards of rapid development without consideration of the ecology and sustainability factor. Let alone, proper water and waste management.
Can we afford to see yet another degradation of one of the Philippines beautiful islands? I had to hear it first hand from four young French visitors I encountered on one of Coron’s white sand beaches. We talked about the work I was doing for the Federation, and one of them, Maylis J. told me when I asked her to compare Boracay to Coron and what difference did she noticed, that they had visited Boracay earlier … and, not surprising to me, she had hated Boracay … Coron, in comparison, was paradise to them.
Déjà-vu, I remember those very descriptive words uttered by European tourists I sent to Boracay in 1980 when I was with tourism and in affiliation with the Hong Kong Tourist Association assigned the handling of the BENELUX region (Belgium, Netherland and Luxembourg).
My heart sank and my fear grew at that remark. How can we preserve paradise?
Tourism is a Janus with a future perspective that can be pitiful if not checked and controlled.
Truly, the only way is Education … and we need to move fast on that one.
We need to all realize that Farmers and Fisher-folks are vital and must be valued by us, considering we are predominantly an agricultural country. We need to educate them in the right way. If we do not take care of the people who grow and breed what we intake as food, we will surely face an alarming problem with Food Scarcity. If we lose our farmers, what will become of us considering we are a nation that enjoys eating, and eating well like the French, Italian and the Chinese!
This article gives a warning of what can soon be a reality for everyone: the “Philippines Is Running Out of Farmers” — the challenge we face now is how can we inspire the next generation of children to become farmers as well, and how can we motivate others to become farmers, considering most Filipinos view farmers and farming poorly. My friends Isabel Rivas of Paradise Farm and Rachel Harrison of Julyan’s Pine Beach Farm would surely set them right about their impression.
Now, it’s not just the same traditional type of Filipino farmer I speak of, but a new breed of motivated, creative Farmers, one that is far more knowledgeable, commercially-oriented, innovative, and aware of not only Agriculture, but Agribusiness. That is Key. Business is hinged to Profit and Loss, wise business management will lead to Profit. We need to educate our farmers in a win-win situation where we win from the security of knowing that we will not go hungry as there will always be food available, and the farmers win through the support, appreciation and benefits that come from profitable farming and from inspiring the next generation.
For me, it started with helping the Federation of Farmers and Fisher-folks of Coron, the FCBPFAI and its 3,300 members. In my lectures to them, I opened up by mentally conditioning them, and by telling them all … “This is AGRO-AQUABUSINESS … if you are not interested in Business, please leave.” And why Business? I needed them all to understand that farming land and sea should be approached with an entrepreneurial fighting spirit.
After battling for 12 years for the right to manage farm lands (the current status of the farmers is still one of “Petitioners” for the lands under FCBPFAI, whereas SAMBICO’s lands are secured, and isn’t it incredible to realize how their cause can be dragged for so long!), their work now is to start preparing the land, all 2,000 hectares allocated to SAMBICO as the Lead Chapter by the Philippine government, for the cultivation and propagation of the necessary agri and aqua programmes — and to bring down the price of food so it will be affordable to all.
Tourism is escalating, and with it comes the usual food outlets and demand for the supply of vegetable, fruits, meat and seafood. If this is not properly addressed, mitigated against scarcity, and managed now, Coron will face a serious problem, first with its native residents unable to afford imported food crops coming from neighboring islands, or worse, from abroad, and next, the fight for diminishing food resources.
We need to attend to the needs of this Federation and to use it as a pilot scheme in sustainable resources. We will also need to address the motivation, encouragement, and support of the next generation on Agro-AquaBusiness.
Before my trip to Coron, I was in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where I was able to meet an Australian farmer working with us then on Halal Livestock export from Australia to Malaysia, and who was proudly announcing to us all that he was able to trace his family history through six generations of farming families. Would he ever consider giving farming up, I asked him. No, was the emphatic answer. His family is currently well off, and all thanks to farming. He now focuses on exporting lifestock from Australia to countries around the world in addition to dabbling as a venture capitalist in multimedia technology startups in Sweden, of all places.
I recalled when I visited Sydney, two decades ago, one place of interest on my itinerary was an overnight in a bed and breakfast farm lot. I had the time of my life there. A stay over in a cosy room overlooking a simple field, having the most scrumptious meals put together from fresh picks from the garden and field … I cannot for the life of me remember what was growing in that field from beyond my window, but what is retained in memory is the bliss of being able to see cows and sheep, land producing crops, the taste of amazing dishes fresh from the ground, cooked and beautifully presented by farmers. For someone like me brought up in the city, the thought that you can just go out a backyard and pick what you’ll be having for breakfast, lunch and dinner, instead of going through a supermarket and buying processed food is amazing!
After years of growing up in Hong Kong, living in Europe, and always in capital cities in those places, back in the Philippines, I’m finally able to realize that the Philippines is an extremely fertile country able to grow almost anything under the sun.
The fight to grow food in lands meant for food production should end — give to the Farmers and Fisher-folks the land and sea they need, and may we support their education, and their humble dignity.
After all, we are what we eat … so let’s always remember … what are we eating and who provides it? As the saying goes, let’s not “bite the hand that feeds you”.