Deep in the rural heart of Oriental Mindoro, the barangay of Paitan in the municipality of Naujan is slowly waking up. The area is the ancestral home of the Mangyans, an indigenous Filipino tribe living in the region, a peaceful enclave scattered with lush groves and farm plots where the tranquil hush of a nearby river sounds out a soothing soundtrack. In the distance, the wind tickles the mountains, a gentle abrasion never seen but always felt.
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In the early morning light, farmers with faces checked with the bristles of five o’clock shadows tug their carabaos along the road, lugging freshly harvested bamboo to be used for whatever purposes they see fit: as goods to be sold in the local market, as firewood for the hearths that cook their meals, as lumber for the homes they have erected all along the foothills of the mountains that loom over the quiet community. Women busy themselves sweeping their yards clean of errant leaves that blanket the ground. Fresh faced children peek out from the woven slats of bamboo windows, smiling a greeting for everyone that passes by.
Ironically, the serenity of the place belies the unfortunate fact that the entire community has been pinpointed as one that is currently living in extreme poverty, belonging to the approximately 12 million Filipinos who earn less than the amount it takes to buy a movie ticket. Living in such a state means that the families would miss at least two suppers in a week. They have no access to potable water and sanitary toilets. The families forgo sending their children to school. Instead, they opt to pool their meager resources for rice and other basic necessities.
Corazon Rebulay has lived this way for as long as she can remember, building a life for herself along with her husband and three children. It is a simple subsistence; their harsh reality forces them to make do with what they have: planting meager crops in small, carved out plots on the mountain side and foraging the rest from their surroundings. Daily, they eat bulanglang, a simple dish of sliced vegetables in boiling water flavored artlessly with salt. “Minsan, linalagyan din naming ng niyog na kinuha naming sa bundok,” shares Corazon. “Pag merong pambili, inuulam naming ang bagoong na kasama ng gulay.”
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In this far-removed corner of the province, hope has proven to spring eternal, where conduits to a fresh start have enabled them to reap what they have sown. “Nabuhayan kami ng loob,” she exclaims, her weathered face framing eyes that twinkle with delight as she gestures towards her recently harvested vegetables. She points to what would be the literal and proverbial fruits of her six-month training program for 80 Mangyan families spearheaded by Zero Extreme Poverty PH 2030 in partnership with East West Seeds Inc. The project was part of efforts to help extremely impoverished communities achieve food security through sustainable agriculture.
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Originally, the idea seemed too implausible for the Mangyan community and was met with skepticism. “Dito sa amin, basta may lupang pwedeng taniman, magtatanim at magtatanim kami. Kaso, itong lupang ito, walang nabubuhay na tanim,” Corazon reveals, pointing to the expanse of land neatly divided into several farm plots filled with a profusion of various fruits and vegetables. “Marami nang sumubok. Wala talagang nabubuhay o namumungang tanim sa lupang ito.” It was not surprising that there were a lot of disparaging remarks by naysayers. “Noong umpisa, medyo nagdududa yung mga iba. Sabi nila, ‘Sa kalokohan ninyo, nagsasayang lang kayo ng panahon,’” she recalls.
Yet, Aling Corazon and her contemporaries doggedly pursued the program, carefully observing and practicing the lessons that were taught and demonstrated. “Layunin nung programa ay turuan kami ng pagsasaka para sa araw-araw na pang kain namin. Marami kaming ibang training na tinanggap pero hindi katulad nito,” she reveals, her voice taking on a more fervent tone as she goes on to describe the different farming techniques she learned including land preparation techniques, vermiculture and composting, seedling production, crop management, and post-harvest crop handling. She holds up bottles housing amber colored liquid in various hues. “Ito pong lahat ng ito ay pandilig,” she relates, saying that the formulas were fermented before they prepared the soil beds for sowing. Leaves of plants and cut grass are mixed with molasses and water, with the juice from the mixture extracted and fermented for a certain number of days. When ready, the formula is used on the crops on specific intervals with certain applications. “Kapag namulaklak na yung tanim ito na po ang gagamitin pang spray para yung bulaklak niya’y maging matibay,” explains Corazon, pointing to PET bottles containing the aforementioned substances, “Ito naman pong isa, pangpakinis. Kung lumabas na po yung bunga, ito naman pong isa ang gagamitin pero hindi din pang spray kundi pandilig.”
Tedious as it may sound, the results were undeniable. “Matapos ang ilang araw na pagpunla, nakita namin sa aktuwal na pagtanim,” Corazon exclaims in wonder. She goes on to describe how such occurrences were unprecedented in her farming experience. “Magaling talaga! Lumalaki ng lumalaki ang mga punla na tinanim namin! Sa amin, walang ganyan. Hindi sila tumutubo ng ganun.”
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The sun has finally set, heralding a night sky punctuated by the light of lazy fireflies and twinkling stars in the distance. A few stragglers huddle in groups, assuaging a hard day’s work with the masticatory respite of chewing betel nut, locally known as nganga, as they recount the highlights of the day over laughter and conversation. While the community settles in to rest, Corazon ruminates about her six-month experience with the sustainable agriculture program. She relays how much her family’s life is about to change and how the entire community was given new hope, seeing the success of the program. “Pagsisikapan namin na palawakin ito,” she promises. “Kung ngayon ay pangkain lang, sa susunod pangarap naming ay palaguin itong proyekto na ito para may pang benta rin kami para sa iba pang gastusin namin.”
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Photographs by the author