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.

ANG PAGTANOM UG BINHI | The Planting of Seed

ANG PAGTANOM UG BINHI | The Planting of Seed

Exploring the health implications of food sovereignty movements in the Philippines.

We are honored to have launched this collective project that has been many years in the making! The focus of this dynamic collaborative research project is to gather community stories of how connections to food, land, and seeds help individuals heal from historical trauma and build truly sovereign communities with strong health outcomes. Health in the broadest sense including: physical, mental, social, emotional, cultural, the health of the land, etc. 


Dr. Antonia Alvarez is a longtime friend and supporter of GSS and through her vision and leadership for this research, our collective work is underway. Guided by our local Design Team including Karen, our Philippines Executive Director, and Teresa the Executive Director of our partner NGO in Cebu CAFEi, we have been meeting for the last year to organize our vision for this work. Last month we launched the Community Advisory Board composed of 10 dynamic Filipino leaders in the food justice and seed sovereignty movement throughout the country. 

The CAB is made up of food advocates, NGO leaders, professors, doctors, indigenous people, and more. We will be conducting community interviews in the coming months and working with each of these partners to compile the interviews and stories unearthed. We look forward to sharing more as this project progresses. 

This collaboration with Global Seed Savers and CAFEi is a dream come true! For me, this project team centers on the ethic of community care, cultural healing/well-being, and food, which are three of my most beloved things! Each project partner brings with their deep commitment to the work, expertise related to food, health, and healing, and will help to make this project an amazing success. On a personal level, being able to do work back in my ancestral homelands of the Philippines with dear friends and colleagues is an incredibly moving, humbling experience, and especially as we are figuring out how to do this during the complicated times that we are in!

Dr. Antonia Alvarez, Portland State University, Graduate School of Social Work

Visiting Kai Farms and Connecting with our Growing Seed Family

The thick humidity and warm air always fill me with a rush of excitement and intensity upon arrival to Metro Manila! My landing on Thursday afternoon was no different. It is a familiar intensity that I look forward to each time I return to my second home of the Philippines. After a quick night in Manila complete with a delicious veggie Kare-Kareng (Peanut Stew) at one of my “safe places” in Manila, Corner Tree Café and a lovely breakfast at Wildflour with our Program Manager Karen who met me in Manila on Thursday, we were off to our partners at Kai Farms.

Kai Farms is a 20-hectare farm in Silang, Cavite about two hours south of Manila. We connected with them last year and are so thankful for our partnership with these fellow seed savers and seed stewards. The farm is privately owned and they employ nearly 30 local community members and are actively organically farming, saving and selling seeds, and building our collective healed and whole earth! The vision of this sacred land is held and created by Karla and Amena the dynamic duo of soul earth sisters making Kai Farms a reality!

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L-R- Karla of Kai Farms, Sherry GSS, Amena Kai Farms, and Karen GSS. Pose for a photo after a great tour of the farm on Friday.

This last June we held a one-day Seed School with their farmers and other community members. This was the first seed school that two of our core farmers from the Benguet Association of Seed Savers (BASS) facilitated and our meetings last weekend were to brainstorm and make plans for our collective work restoring seed saving, organic sustainable agriculture, and ensuring that all people have access to healthy and sustainably produced food and seeds!

On Friday we toured the farm and got to visit with the Earth Worker/Earth Leaders (what they call their farmers) and tour the beautiful grounds. Each Earth Worker tends their own garden at the farm complete with beautiful names such as Gratitude, Kapayapaan (Peace), and Freedom. Each garden has a multitude of crops and they are practicing permaculture and each garden is also saving seeds. In addition to the tour and a lovely farm lunch Karen ended up giving an impromptu germination test lesson to the farmers and staff!

 

On Saturday, Kai Farms was kind enough to organize a beautiful community lunch for members of the Silang community, friends from Metro Manila, local restaurant owners, University Professors, and even the Vice Mayor and Municipal Agriculture Officer from Silang joined. We shared delicious organic food, our seed stories, and held a community discussion about our work and how we might continue to partner with Kai Farms and the greater Silang Community to continue to share our knowledge of seed saving and work together to ensure all communities have access to affordable and locally sustainably produced food and seeds.

It was inspiring to be with so many like-minded people all committed to a similar vision. I was particularly impressed with the young and dynamic Vice Mayor of Silang. He is probably no older than 35 and shared a compelling message of the great work Silang is doing to preserve their agriculture traditions and ensure the next generation of farmers stays engaged in these practices. They have declared themselves an agricultural Municipality and have also opened the first Agricultural High School in the Philippines. In addition the Local Government Unit (LGU) offers scholarships to deserving students that want to attend college to study agriculture. Each of these steps are innovative and will ensure that the next generation of farmers see the value in farming as opposed to turning away from this critically important livelihood.

 

 

 

We are very excited to partner with the LGU of Silang and Kai Farms to bring another Seed School to this community in 2018. We are also continuing to brainstorm ways Kai and Global Seed Savers can raise awareness about our shared work in 2018, likely starting with hosting a screening of SEED: The Untold Story in Metro Manila to raise awareness and funds about this movement and engage the urban support of Manila. We are so thankful for our growing collaborations with Kai Farms and look forward to seeing how our paths and work continue to grow together.