Reflection on the Seed School Teachers’ Training in Cebu

Reflection on the Seed School Teachers’ Training in Cebu

I am Elizabeth Martin. I am a seed saver and organic practitioner based here in Tawang, La Trinidad, Benguet. I am also the Field Coordinator of Global Seed Savers Philippines (GSSP).

Last August 24-26, 2022, my companions from BASS and I went to Cebu to attend a seminar on Seed School Teacher’s Training (SSTT).

 There were seven of us who attended the SSTT – three (3) were from the Benguet Association of Seed Savers (BASS) and four (4) from the Cebu Seed Savers (CSS). The SSTT was held at the office of the Communities for Alternative Food Ecosystem (CAFEi) in Guadalupe, Cebu.

This is the second SSTT conducted by GSSP. The first one was held in Batangas some time ago. The goal of the training was to prepare us to become future seed school trainers.

Prior to the SSTT, I attended the seed savers training as a participant. The topics during the seed school were focused on seed saving. It included a discussion on the history of seed saving, why we should save seeds, as well as the skills needed to preserve seeds. Meanwhile, the SSTT was focused on self-awareness and communication skills. The SSTT also included a short course on seed saving.

During SSTT, I learned to appreciate myself better. I have also learned how I can better appreciate seeds and other people in my daily life. The training made me realize that by being aware of myself, I can deal better with others because like a seed, each one of us is unique.

I have also realized that in this life, everything comes in phases. Learning should not only be confined inside the four walls of the school. Learning can also come through our daily experiences. I have learned that these lessons can be used to create a more peaceful and enjoyable tomorrow.

Being Healthy–What’s Community and Sovereignty Got To Do With It?

The question was at the heart of the GSS’s invitation to sit on the BINHI community advisory board (CAB) to explore this research question. 

For a long time, like most people, I thought health was solely a personal matter. Being healthy rested mainly on individual choice and a strong resolve, while poor health was often cast as a personal failure. Community meant creating a support system to keep us motivated, such as going to the gym with a friend or doing Meatless Mondays as family. And food sovereignty? It sounded a remote concern when it came to health–how does one begin to approach it?

Needless to say, I was intrigued. Working in community-supported agriculture, we saw how essential it was to unlearn old notions and offer alternative ways of looking at our food to begin the work of change.  

For instance, growing up in a family where diabetes began to afflict most adults in their late 30s and early 40s, we grew up thinking the path to health was paved with self-denial. The list of food don’ts was long. In my mid-30s, I subscribed to a Good Food CSA farm share as a form of “health insurance” on top of an HMO membership. (Full disclosure, I joined this CSA in 2020.

…community-supported agriculture is a solidarity model where consumers agree to share the risks, rewards, and responsibilities of food production with the farmers by subscribing to a season’s harvest.

And something shifted. Yes, eating more organic fruits and vegetables is indisputably good for us, and certainly, my weekly gulay (vegetable) supply contributed to my general well-being. But the change was deeper–and it came from meeting the farmers who grew the food I was eating and encountering a whole new dimension to the idea of community when it came to food and health. 

Briefly, community-supported agriculture is a solidarity model where consumers agree to share the risks, rewards, and responsibilities of food production with the farmers by subscribing to a season’s harvest. Assured of a market under CSA, farmers can grow food in the best possible way, and eaters are guaranteed a weekly basket of organically grown fruits and vegetables.

Such interdependence helps rebuild the relationship between farmers and eaters, and the farm trips I joined had been vital to repairing the connection, which had been severed by industrialized production and global food supply chains as diets modernized, the work behind food became invisible, and individual preferences and convenience became paramount. 

Meeting the farmers and helping with the farmwork on those visits, we saw firsthand the backbreaking labor that our farmers did daily to grow our food. I remember joining a rice planting activity in Capas, Tarlac, and swearing at the end of it never to take any grain of rice for granted ever again. We saw the farmers’ commitment to organic production despite it being labor intensive because they knew that reliance on pesticides would make them sick and trap them in a vicious cycle of debt. They have seen it happen many times to other farmers. We heard them talk about their work with a great sense of stewardship for nature and an awareness of their responsibility to serve safe and nutritious food not just to their families but equally to their customers in the city. Indeed, if food is meant to nourish, then it should not be grown with poison. 

And oh how we looked forward to harvesting fruits and vegetables that we would then cook and eat together! So diverse and full of flavor-–so unlike the giant perfect produce in the supermarket! We learned how much delicious diversity and nutrient density were tied to how the farmers cared for the soil and bred the best traits using organic open-pollinated seeds. These days whenever people say “hindi masarap ang gulay” [vegetables are not delicious] or “walang lasa ang gulay,”[vegetables taste bland] I think, “That’s because you haven’t tasted our farmers’ gulay.”

These days whenever people say “hindi masarap ang gulay” [vegetables are not delicious] or “walang lasa ang gulay,”[vegetables taste bland] I think, “That’s because you haven’t tasted our farmers’ gulay.”

Back in the city-–where individualism and competition are prized pathways to independence, where food is among the dominant signifiers of class differences, where one person’s daily latte budget is equivalent to another person’s daily wage—I was jolted into realizing how my ability to live a healthy life and reach my aspirations of well being do not rest solely on my tenacity or my willpower or my drive to “just do it.” 

In the fields of Capas, Bauko, Tublay, and Nueva Vizcaya, there are farmers who support our wellbeing–and it starts with their ability to support their own. Their diverse, organic farms meant food and nutrition security for their families first and foremost. Partaking of the same harvest through this farmer-eater friendship secures our food and health in the city as well. That other eaters were subscribing to CSA and altering their beliefs and habits around food also showed the necessity of interdependence to support this new way of living beyond oneself and one’s household but for a bigger community, for the whole of society even.

Understanding the intersections of food, health, and community, ushered by recognizing this interdependence, helped prepare me to expand the intersections further into food sovereignty. 

Listening to the various grassroots experiences of the different members of the BINHI community advisory board in their work with small farmers and indigenous peoples, I saw how food sovereignty was essential to a whole-of-society approach and how it is critical in this age of pandemic and climate crisis, which will affect how we can feed our nation in these times of emergency.  

This was a valuable exposure given how, admittedly in the past, I would often relegate the concept of food sovereignty to the sidelines even as I saw the importance of community and mutuality in the work of food justice. 

I thought food and nutrition insecurity needed to be “solved first” before introducing the more complicated concept that is food sovereignty–a way of thinking conditioned by linear, top-down, technocratic approaches to problem-solving. I had failed to realize that the problem of hunger, poverty and nutrition insecurity were closely intertwined with a people or a community’s ability to assert their rights and power over resources such as land, seeds, water, etc., to be able to feed themselves in an ecological, healthy, democratic, and culturally appropriate manner, i.e., food sovereignty.  

Food sovereignty shows the possibility of health for all because it challenges the dominant food system, crudely described above, that entrenches the systemic issues that make hunger, malnutrition, and disease run rampant in our society. 

 

For instance, the landlessness of the majority of Filipino farmers leaves them no choice but to enter into tenancy arrangements that keep them unable to shift to sustainable farming practices and buried in debt. They become hired laborers and daily wage earners in corporate mega-farms that grow monocrops and are reliant on pesticides to be able to efficiently feed the maws of the industrial food complex and churn out ultra-processed convenience foods that are high in fat, sugar, and salt, foods have been stripped not only of nutrients but of the necessary contexts that food should come with so that we can see their value beyond the fleeting dopamine hits that feed food addictions giving rise to chronic lifestyle diseases, obesity, and malnutrition, and leaving our farmers perpetually poor and hungry. 

Food sovereignty shows the possibility of health for all because it challenges the dominant food system, crudely described above, that entrenches the systemic issues that make hunger, malnutrition, and disease run rampant in our society. 

Are we truly healthy if others are not? Is it truly well-being if other people are exploited and the planet is destroyed in the process? 

Hearing about the work of the CAB members showed me how important it is to put food sovereignty in the center of conversations and actions if we want health not just for ourselves but for everyone, and that we should not be daunted by the challenges that the dream of food sovereignty opens up, and that it is the community that keeps us brave, the load easier to carry, and the dream possible. 

GSS Seed School Teacher Training  Goes To Lobo, Batangas, Finds New Partner in MABISA

GSS Seed School Teacher Training  Goes To Lobo, Batangas, Finds New Partner in MABISA

Last July 20-21, 2022, our team went to Lobo, Batangas to hold a seed school with a group called MABISA. Efren, our Philippines Program Manager, Elizabeth, our Benguet Field Coordinator, and Karen, our Philippines Executive Director facilitated the workshop. The workshop was attended by 20+ participants from the Mabilog na Bundok at Sawang Organic Producers Association (MABISA-OPA), and students and teachers from the Batangas State University.

Here are a few photos taken during the workshop: 

Why partner with MABISA Group?

Our connection with MABISA begins with our partnership with ABS-CBN Foundation. Back when Gina Lopez was still the director of ABS-CBN Foundation, they implemented some eco-tourism, and livelihood programs in Tublay (an example of this is the Tublay Organic Farming Practitioners Association or TOFPA, wherein some farmers from the Benguet Association of Seed Savers were also members). From that time on, we have been consistently communicating with ABS-CBN Foundation, and they have indicated their interest in bringing our signature workshop in Lobo, Batangas.

MABISA is a community-led organization which was initially organized by ABS-CBN Foundation. Its members belong to Barangays Mabilog and Sawang in Lobo. They currently run the MABISA Eco Farm where people come and visit to learn about various ways of doing agriculture and experience the farm life up close. 

Why is this partnership important to GSSP?

Our vision as an organization is to create “hunger-free and healthy communities with access to sustainable, farmer-produced seeds and food”. We also hope to establish community seed libraries in as many areas in the Philippines as possible.

Finding new partners who recognize the importance of saving native seeds and growing food in a sustainable way helps us grow our impact in the Philippines. Every new partner we find brings our communities a step closer towards food sovereignty.

Lobo is a good place to start spreading our advocacy in the CALABARZON region. The ABS-CBN Foundation has already done the legwork in organizing and empowering MABISA to become stewards of their land. Through our seed school, we hope to complement and enhance agricultural practices. 

Witnessing Regenerative Agriculture at Kuatro Marias Eco Farm in Mindoro

Witnessing Regenerative Agriculture at Kuatro Marias Eco Farm in Mindoro

It was late April of this year when I met Jon Sarmiento. If you read my previous post, then you would know that Farmer Jon served as our main speaker during a training on regenerative agriculture in Arapal Cebu. 

I was so enthused and curious by what he taught us during the training that I wanted to see for myself how Farmer Jon practiced the techniques he taught us. What was the difference between conventional agriculture and what Farmer Jon called the Integrated Diversified Organic Farming System (IDOFS)?

On May 26, 2022, Karen and I went to Victoria, Mindoro with two goals. First, we wanted to see for ourselves Farmer Jon’s farm to see a real-life model of regenerative agriculture. Second, we wanted to further discuss our continuing partnership with Farmer Jon, particularly the after-training support for the attendees of the participants in Cebu. I am happy to report that all our goals were met. 

The lush, robust landscape teeming with plants was hard to miss. This farm is clearly endowed. It was bordered by a river so it is abundant with clean water, a resource that is essential for a thriving farm. We had to cross a bamboo bridge to get to the farm’s entrance. 

On May 26, 2022, Karen and I went to Victoria, Mindoro with two goals. First, we wanted to see for ourselves Farmer Jon’s farm to see a real-life model of regenerative agriculture. Second, we wanted to further discuss our continuing partnership with Farmer Jon, particularly the after-training support for the attendees of the participants in Cebu. I am happy to report that all our goals were met. 

The lush, robust landscape teeming with plants was hard to miss. This farm is clearly endowed. It was bordered by a river so it is abundant with clean water, a resource that is essential for a thriving farm. We had to cross a bamboo bridge to get to the farm’s entrance.

As we entered Kuatro Marias Eco Farm, named after Jon’s four daughters, we already felt a refreshing forestry vibe. This, Jon explains, is the “microclimate”, technically defined as “an area in which the weather is usually different from the areas around it”.[1]https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/microclimate Inside the farm, it is noticeably cooler, thanks to the shade of the many trees and tall bushes growing. There was a huge diversity of plants and trees growing here. So many, in fact, that I could only identify a few of them. 

Inside the farm, there is not one tree or plant that dominates the place. Just like what Jon illustrates during the training, his farm is indeed a display of diversity. Jon soon explained to us that the trees and plants inside the farm were a sort of an intentional collection that he gathered from his travels. 

Whenever he goes to places of friends, and because he’s known as a native tree enthusiast, he’d be gifted with trees. If he learns of a crop variety or a tree with characteristics that he sees useful in his farm, he makes sure to bring home some. This, he says, is the demonstration of the core principles surrounding regenerative agriculture— being intentional and mindful of the future. 

Regenerative agriculture is a perspective that takes into account what is currently happening while planning for what is to come.

“While climate change is urgent,” he said, “the collection of plants and trees that you grow in your forest farm should take into account how these can impact the future.” Regenerative agriculture is a perspective that takes into account what is currently happening while planning for what is to come. 

I witnessed how this principle was applied at the Kuatro Marias Farm. The decision to shift to organic farming from the industrial model was borne out of Jon’s love for his daughters. He wanted to give the best quality, and most unadulterated produce to his children. He reminded us of his experience from childhood where his parents would sell their best produce leaving only the rejected ones for family consumption. He said that this was what he wanted to change now that he has four daughters.

 

 One last take away from this experience was learning that regenerative agriculture is founded on a core guide which is the conscious implementation of biodiversity. The variety of plants in Jon’s farm creates a balanced ecosystem and thus, allows it to thrive better. It is also more resilient to natural calamities.

Jon recalls, “Whenever a typhoon hits us, and sometimes it really hits us hard, you can see the damage for a couple of weeks, and then my farm starts to regenerate. This isn’t the same with my neighboring farms who are doing monocropping— farmers will take months or even years to recuperate.”

Seeds: The Key To Open Doors

Seeds: The Key To Open Doors

In an island close to our country’s capital is the community of the Tau-Buid, one of eight ethnolinguistic groups living on the island of Mindoro. In my short stay amidst the mountains of Mindoro, I have witnessed how people can live a life of generosity and abundance despite not having the conveniences offered by modern civilization.

Mindoro, for those who do not know, is one of the largest and most populous islands in the Philippines, but it also one of the most preserved, both ecologically, and culturally. In fact, a blog post written by Eben Diskin in 2018 refers to Mindoro Island as an “untouched paradise” because of its natural beauty and biodiversity.

It is then, no understatement for me to say that visiting Mindoro was nothing short of a blessing. Living for a few days amongst the rivers, the aged trees, plants unknown to me, the birds singing their enchanting music amidst the backdrop of majestic mountains and blue skies, I am grateful to be granted this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I am a visitor to this place, but for the Tau-Buid, this land is their home and their life. Here “connection” has a very different meaning. There is no WiFi here where people can Google when and how to do agriculture. The Tau-Buid knows it through the traditions passed on to them by their ancestors, and through their experience living amongst nature. They have no need for clocks and calendars to determine which plants will thrive in which season.

The simplicity of living among the Tau-Buid has taught me that there is nothing wrong with pausing in order to savor and appreciate what we have. It is okay to not always get what we want. It has also reminded me that losing a few days of internet does not make me miss out on life.

While some of us worry about what clothes to wear, and what cars to buy, the Tau-Buid remains proud to wear a sheet of cloth as they tread the forest barefoot. While some of us might think that this is because they have no choice, my experience living amongst them shows that this is a choice that they made –  to continue these traditions and sustain their culture.

And as most of society is preoccupied in seeking for “what’s in it for me”, community life here is different. The leaders of the Tau-Buid is preoccupied in search for what is good for their community. They spend their resources to ensure the safety of their family and their community, as well as to protect their cultural heritage, and their land.

It is here where the negative impacts of economic development and the quest for power is pronounced, and clearly the Tau-Buid has long been at the receiving end. In the process, they have learned to become wary of visitors and foreigners.

But I was in good company, and I am grateful to have the opportunity to dine and interact with some of them. I realize that the conversations I had with the Tau-Buid, and the unique process of discovery I experienced in their land was possible only because of seeds.

Enjoying the serenity of Mt. Iglit.

The simplicity of living among the Tau-Buid has taught me that there is nothing wrong with pausing in order to savor and appreciate what we have. It is okay to not always get what we want. It has also reminded me that losing a few days of internet does not make me miss out on life.

While some of us worry about what clothes to wear, and what cars to buy, the Tau-Buid remains proud to wear a sheet of cloth as they tread the forest barefoot. While some of us might think that this is because they have no choice, my experience living amongst them shows that this is a choice that they made –  to continue these traditions and sustain their culture.

And as most of society is preoccupied in seeking for “what’s in it for me”, community life here is different. The leaders of the Tau-Buid is preoccupied in search for what is good for their community. They spend their resources to ensure the safety of their family and their community, as well as to protect their cultural heritage, and their land.

It is here where the negative impacts of economic development and the quest for power is pronounced, and clearly the Tau-Buid has long been at the receiving end. In the process, they have learned to become wary of visitors and foreigners.

But I was in good company, and I am grateful to have the opportunity to dine and interact with some of them. I realize that the conversations I had with the Tau-Buid, and the unique process of discovery I experienced in their land was possible only because of seeds.

Reflecting On Our Visit To Cebu, Discovering Regenerative Agriculture

Reflecting On Our Visit To Cebu, Discovering Regenerative Agriculture

In late March of 2022, Karen and I went to visit our partner farmers to see how everything is going on the ground. I went there filled with excitement because this is the first time I will be meeting our field partners and farmers personally. 

You see, this trip has been postponed several times due to the recurring lockdowns and surges and COVID cases. This fact, plus the many stories of sorrows and triumphs amid the pandemic and the typhoons have further enhanced my eagerness to meet and engage in conversations with our partners. 

And since we were visiting Cebu just months after Typhoon Odette devastated the province, I came here expecting to hear stories of how this typhoon impacted the farms and the lives of our farmers. I thought it would be a heavy and sympathetic kind of conversation. [Odette made landfall in December 2021. You can read about our response here. You can also read Harry’s reflection on the relief efforts launched during Typhoon Odette.]

Of course in some conversations, farmers were lamenting the impact of the calamity, but I also heard stories of hope and saw first hand how some of them rose from the difficulties. What I expected to be difficult conversations turned inspirational. 

Take for example Gina, who was forced to make do with a small backyard garden after the government retracted ownership of the land she used to farm. Despite the small size of her garden, she is now growing several crops. As of our visit, some of these crops were already flowering and many were ready to grow seeds. 

And then there was Bevs, whose farm was thriving at the time of our visit. In fact, I thought that the typhoon spared her garden, but she told us that she was able to rehabilitate her farm pretty quickly. She says this was because used to run and manage a large farm in Bohol. 

Despite these inspiring stories, however, the evidence of Odette’s force was pretty clear to see. A group of farmers in Pestales, for example, had a difficult experience to tell. The typhoon had disrupted their production because they were unable to use a large portion of the beverage and produce processing area. The roof had been totally wrecked. During  our visit, we were unable to meet their leader, Rodelyn, since she and her team were busy seeking grants to help out in their rebuilding efforts. But just like most of our conversations, the farmers of Pestales were committed to rise back up on their feet. 

On March 23, during the latter part of our trip, we went to the north of Cebu where members of our Cebu Seed Savers, some GSSP staff, and the CAFEi team gathered for a training on regenerative agricultural practices at the Arapal Livelihood Center in Bogo City.

The training was given by Jon Sarmiento, a farmer with twenty years of experience using what he called the Integrated Diversified Organic Farming System (IDOFS). 

This system looks at climate change as an urgent situation. Farmer Jon highlighted that humanity has been overly exploiting and abusing the earth for a long period of time and because of this, the climate has drastically changed. This changing climate poses severe challenges to farmers. 

According to Farmer Jon, a farm design using IDOFS should therefore take into account the impacts of farming activities to the environment thus not only thinking of what is happening now but more importantly what activities in the present can impact the future. Underscored in Jon’s talk was the governing principle in his farming practice. 

 

“We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children.”

The underlying reason why one would choose to practice IDOFS is their love and commitment to their own family. He recounted his younger years when his farmer parents — both of whom were conventional farmers — would save up the best produce for selling to the market. The rejected produce are the ones left for their family’s table. 

Here, Jon emphasized that in IDOFS, a farmer will choose to apply the best, and most sustainable way of crop production, those that are not laced with chemicals for example, because the purpose for growing food is to feed the family. A farmer that loves his family will choose to grow the best produce by cultivating his farm in the most sustainable way. 

Listening to this, I recalled home. In Banaue where my parents grew up, there stood the majestic Banaue rice terraces, considered one of the wonders of the World. Unlike the other wonders of the world that were built by slavery, the Banaue rice terraces owes its magnificence to the love of our ancestors to their community. 

Our modern world would call the techniques used in the creation of the Banaue Rice Terraces as contour farming – a sustainable farming technique that prevents soil erosion and maintains soil moisture.

But for those of us who hail from Ifugao, this is the most concrete expression of our ancestors’ love and concern for the future generations. Through this example, I was able to understand what Farmer Jon meant by the “guiding principles” of IDOFS.