Lyn Baban

Lyn Baban, 32, shows off organic cauliflowers harvested by members of the Samahan ng Organikong Magsasaka (SOMA) in Titulok village, Bagumbayan, Sultan Kudarat. The produce were were to be sold at the Harvest Festival, which aims to promote SOMA’s produce to the local community and provide a venue for El Niño-affected farmers to sell their fruits and vegetables. (Airah Cadiogan/Oxfam)

After El Niño Crisis, Cautious Organic Growers in Sultan Kudarat Get Ready for ‘Harvest Festival’

Words and Photos by Airah Cadiogan

It has been over six months since the effects of the 2015-2016 El Niño gripped the province of Sultan Kudarat. This week, after what seemed like an endless struggle to put food on the table, farmers in Titulok village in Bagumbayan municipality could finally harvest their organically grown vegetables in time to stage a ‘Harvest Festival.’ However, having skipped the last two planting seasons and taking on more debt to cover their needs, families are not ready to celebrate just yet.

The scenic village of Titulok is located around 1,200 meters above sea level and enjoys a relatively temperate climate year-round. This area is conducive for planting high-value vegetables like cauliflower and bell peppers, along with fruit trees like durian and marang.  

Together with partners from Community Organizers Multiversity (COM), a local NGO, we visited the village to talk to farmers who were about to harvest their first batch of produce since the intense drought caused by the strong 2015-2016 El Niño sparked a humanitarian crisis in north and central Mindanao, southern Philippines. 
After a steep drive up the mountain, we met farmers from the Samahan ng Organikong Magsasaka or Organic Farmers Association (SOMA), who were preparing to harvest radish, eggplants, cauliflowers, Chinese cabbage and bell peppers. 

They were set to hold their Harvest Festival the next day, an activity that aims to promote the association’s organic produce to the local community, as well as provide a venue for them to sell their fruits and vegetables.

“This will be our first harvest since the rains stopped in December 2015,” said Lyn Baban, 32, SOMA’s vice-president, as she prepared to help her fellow farmers gather radish. “It’s a relief, and we’re happy our plants survived this time.”

However, the farmers, who are still reeling from the impacts of the El Niño crisis, remain concerned that the erratic weather will hinder them from fully recovering.
“We are used to having rains at regular intervals and to planting and harvesting vegetables from our backyard gardens weekly. But for the past years, we’ve been having long dry periods followed by long wet periods. We’re not used to it and it’s difficult to grow anything in these conditions,” Lyn explained.

Arlene Rosales, 44, a member of SOMA, shared: “I wish it rained more. They say El Niño is over and we are in the rainy season now, but I don’t feel it yet. I’m worried that the rains will stop coming again anytime soon.”

Impacts of El Niño
Arlene’s concern comes from her experience coping with the impacts of the recent El Niño. A mother of seven children below 16 years old, she and her husband had to work extra hard to make sure their family had something to eat throughout the months-long drought.

After their main source of water dried up in January 2016, Arlene had to walk 200 meters farther to the lake to collect water, while her husband took on odd jobs in the main town to earn some money. 

“We had no choice but to find a way. We persevered, and it was not easy. Because we did not have enough vegetables to sell, we had to sell some of our chickens, which we keep for our own consumption and for emergencies like this. We also had to borrow money so we could afford to buy rice in the market. I told my children: we can only eat rice once a day now. The older ones understood, but the younger ones complained,” shared Arlene.

Like Arlene, Lyn and her family of four had to adjust their diet and household budgets during the peak of the El Niño crisis.

“We would have a full meal of rice and meat every other day. In between, we would eat some rice only or with some vegetables. We borrowed some money to make sure the children could keep going to school,” Lyn recalled. 

Support Needed to Adapt to a Changing Climate
Lyn and Arlene believe that without the lessons on Diversified Integrated Farming Systems (DIFS), which they learned in the Farmers Field School supported by Oxfam and COM, they and other farmers would have been worse off after the El Niño crisis. 

“As part of the field school, I learned that I had to reserve a portion of my backyard garden to meet my family’s needs. I kept livestock so we had something to sell to earn additional income, as well as something to eat in case our crops failed, which is what happened during El Niño,” said Lyn.   

When asked what could be improved in their village to make sure they could withstand another El Niño, both women talked about the need to build better infrastructures to efficiently store water and transport their goods to the market.  

 “We are lucky because at least we could get water from the lake to keep some of our plants alive,” said Arlene. “Other farmers who lived farther from the lake had an even more difficult time, more so those farmers who live downstream and had no water at all.”

 “Water was not a problem when the rains came regularly,” Lyn said. “But these days, it’s becoming a real concern. Our village would benefit from a better irrigation system that would bring water to our farms and [water] storage facilities so we have a reserve source for the next drought. These have been proposed through the government’s BUB [Bottom-Up Budgeting] program  years ago, but we still don’t know what the status is.”

“We also need support to help us continue practicing organic farming,” said Arlene. “At the moment the government only provides free synthetic fertilizers and hybrid seeds. We try to make our own organic concoctions, which we learned to do in the Field School, but it’s difficult especially when we have droughts.”
As the farmers prepared to transport their produce down the mountain to Purok 3, where a new stall was built for the Harvest Festival, Lyn expressed hope that things will improve under the new government. 

“We are really hoping that the administration of President Duterte will see how important it is to support small-scale growers like us, especially because we are facing climate change. We feed our families and our communities, and we support each other so we could practice organic farming. Improving our irrigation system, providing organic fertilizers and building better farm-to-market roads would help us a lot,” said Lyn. ##

This week, the University of the Philippines’ Center for Local and Regional Governance (UP CLRG), in partnership with Oxfam, released a report outlining five recommendations for the government based on lessons learned from the 2015-2015 El Niño response. Among the long-term recommendations is the increase in investment in local climate change adaptation programs and building of climate-resilient infrastructures like water storage facilities to enable communities to better prepare for extreme weather events like droughts caused by El Niño.

The recommendations have been presented to officials from the Department of Agriculture and the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA), which heads the national El Niño Task Force formed last August 2015. According to NEDA Director Mercedita Sombilla, the recommendations show that the government indeed needs to review and strengthen its coordination mechanisms to effectively respond to slow onset emergencies like El Niño.