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Winds of Change: Smallholder farmers explore culture-based solutions in upland Philippines

Environmental Science for Social Change (ESSC)

Winds of Change, a 16-minute video documentary produced by the Environmental Science for Social Change (ESSC), shares the stories of smallholder women and men farmers in Bukidnon in northern Mindanao, Philippines and their experiences in the corn industry that supplies animal feeds, laying bare the socio-economic vulnerabilities in their communities as a result of increasing costs of farming inputs and the damaging impacts on the landscape.

Their reflections reaffirm the transition potential of food systems towards agroecology through culture-based actions and posits a genuine challenge for broader society to learn from the integrity of Indigenous Peoples and their role as guardians of ecological services.

The contradiction of growth and poverty

Despite reported economic growth for the Philippines in the last decades, increasing poverty remains a major concern with a high proportion of the poor belonging to the agriculture sector. In the Philippine uplands, the substantial increase in yellow corn production is a response to a growing livestock sector whose demands are transforming the landscape that can scarcely support this type of crop. This shift in land use is having profound impacts on the socio-economic dynamics of upland communities.

And while corn is the second major agricultural crop in the Philippines posting sustained growth in production trends, the families engaged in corn production are among the poorest in the agriculture sector.

What attracts many smallholder upland farmers is the low maintenance of high-yielding genetically modified (GM) corn and the promise of high returns, despite many risks from changing climate patterns, pests, and other environmental factors that result to crop failures and eventually, an endless cycle of debt.

Systems failures

Indigenous upland farmers experience systems failure across several fronts. From the poor marketing of their agriculture products, there are the governance systems that have limited support in providing education, health care, and other basic services. There is the land tenure system that overlooks their rights as indigenous communities, as well as the displacement of entire indigenous communities due to conflict and land grabbing. And there are the environmental systems that fail to provide the ecosystem services needed for agricultural productivity and food security.

When these systems fail, even with a tiny margin of error or a slight variation, this can lead to crippling losses that make it difficult to recover when harvests fail. The traditional practice of working together and not paying cash for a service has long disappeared, and paying daily wages is now unavoidable. This shift in the practice in the uplands is attributed to the change in how traders operate and in people’s attitudes towards money and growing poverty.

Where the winds of culture-based change are happening

In addressing the failure of the current market-based system in the uplands, there is a need to look at the important role that the youth, women, and nature have in shifting towards a more culture-based system in the uplands.

The youth are seen as genuine and willing but need to be engaged, encouraged, and empowered to aspire beyond subsistence. Women are seen as essential in preparing for the future, and need to be involved in policy and business discussions to contribute to developing alternatives. Nature itself gives hope as it constantly regenerates and fights back, and that serves as a reminder that a new ecosystem or biome relationship is needed.

Working together to construct a caring economy and recognizing that we are all part of the forest, water, and land that should sustain and give hope for the environment are essential in forming culture-based solutions to climate adaptation.

Culture-based solutions in agroecology and climate action

Distinguished from nature-based solutions that are increasingly seen as attempts to greenwash climate change solutions and are not inclusive of indigenous worldviews, knowledge, practices, culture, and heritage, among others, culture-based solutions are seen as the true nature-based solutions. With their inherent relationship with nature, Indigenous Peoples have solutions and adaptation methods that can make climate action more inclusive and socially acceptable. These include carbon sequestration through forest management and assisted natural regeneration, massive forest fire mitigation through controlled burning, and regenerative traditional agricultural practices, among others. (Source: Cultural Survival)

National agencies and local governments are urged to support indigenous communities in upland areas in the adoption of culture-based livelihoods as alternatives to GM corn production. The shift to GM corn farming for animal feed has taken over land for other food crops, severely impoverished indigenous smallholder farmers, and caused ecological and health crises due to long-term fertilizer and pesticide use.

And with the expected onset of El Niño this year, culture-based systems can help farmers adapt to changing weather patterns. To mitigate the impacts of extreme weather, improving water management, transitioning to climate-resilient crops, and strengthening social safety nets need to be part of an integrated coherent agroecology and climate action policy, along with the appropriate resource allocation.

It is critical to work together to support indigenous farmers and enable them to move toward more sustainable farming practices to ensure the integrity of ecosystem services for all of us.

Winds of Change is a 2022 video production of ESSC, a Jesuit research and training organization in the Philippines, that aims to communicate the findings from a five-year participatory action research partnership with Jesuit universities in Belgium and the Philippines. The interdisciplinary team of researchers from the fields of economics, geomatics, philosophy, agriculture, and hydrogeomorphology tackled two research questions: What are the social, economic, and cultural factors that determine decisions to change agricultural practices, from traditional to genetically modified corn in the Philippine uplands? What are the consequences of such changes on human development and social justice?

The Winds of Change video highlights the stories of farming families of indigenous students of the Apu Palamguwan Cultural Education Center, a culture-based school serving the Upper Pulangi watershed in Bukidnon, Mindanao, Philippines, as they shift to culture-based solutions as a climate action response.

The poster Winds of Change: Upland farmers rediscovering culture-based solutions was presented by Pedro Walpole SJ, Ecojesuit Global Coordinator, at the Climate and Environmental Justice Conference on 27 April 2023 at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, USA.

Winds of Change can be accessed in ESSC and in YouTube.

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