I donned all the relics and charms I had for a safe travel. I have never been to Zamboanga, the side of Mindanao close to a so-called red zone and so St. Christopher, sacred geometry and Lapiz Lazuli stones chaperoned me on that trip. I was to land in Ozamiz and then arrange for a 2-hour ride to Dumingag. I was one of 24 wide-eyed, green as grass, eager souls from Southeast Asia, braving a trip to a small landlocked town in Zamboanga so I could “acquire skill in leading the organic movement where I lived.”
Touchdown Ozamiz and my phone rings. A voice on the other line: “Paula?” “Yes, who’s this please?” I replied.
“It’s Mayor Jun. You can ride with me to Dumingag. I had to drop a friend at the airport too.” He tells me in Filipino.
I respond with a hurried “yes” and then promptly message our coordinator if this was a hoax, or if out here there really was a mayor who offers rides to strangers.
I seek out his car, looking around for a sleek SUV, an entourage of sorts, and a driver clothed in Barong. A car pulls up: “Paula, Mayor Jun.” I glanced inside, my eyes on the backseat. There was no one there. There was no sleek SUV, no entourage, and no driver in colored barong. There was a simple man in a white t-shirt driving his pick up truck. And this honorable man was driving me to his town. I then knew, this ride was the beginning of an extraordinary adventure.
I wonder why I have never heard of Dumingag. Here I was with little hope for my country, complaining on and off, often resigned and in apathy. And I am in the Organic Movement. How could I have overlooked this organic farming community of 50,000 people in Mindanao? Rice paddies are farmed organically. They have a seed bank, a school for farmers, and a political agenda anchored on sustainable agriculture. The crime rate is close to zero. No one’s spending the fruits of his labor on the numbers game or cockfighting. No one’s poisoning the air with cigarette smoke. It’s the stuff of legends, almost unreal, hidden by the mists. They even have their own King Arthur. Every day I saw him gather his men in a round table, holding court, in a t-shirt and tsinelas.I imagined it was a fairy tale, made-up to look good on paper. Sound bites, like those posters they put up on every waiting shed. But the car ride made it through the mists. And this Camelot was real.
It wasn’t only because the paddy fields had ducks waddling or fishes swimming, or that the municipal hall was encircled with raised beds, or that they knew how to culture worms, make fermented fish waste and their own foliar sprays. Or even that during a morning walk most houses and huts had a patch of edible greens in bamboos and recycled tires. What captivated me was a sense that something wonderful had been sown and taken root in this town, and that it has burst forth into fruit and blossom.
I have grown cynical, disenchanted, and distrustful of politics. Bit by bit, shame overtakes pride. And there’s nothing else to do but make fun of the Philippines. And so I expected the customary welcome with a head-splitting ceremony. Be entertained by a parade of shrill voices, scantily clad gyrating women dancing to the latest craze. Offered a welcome drink of sugary Iced Tea or Tang, feast on: pancit, pig cooked 100 ways, fried chicken and a Red Ribbon cake. I had even stashed Arabica coffee from Manila, expecting to be served 3 in 1 Instant Coffee for breakfast.
I didn’t find it there. Coffee was made of corn or an original blend. Iced teas were homemade pandan, ginger, turmeric and avocado with muscovado sugar. I didn’t see a Coke bottle all week. Or a Red Ribbon cake. Instead we had squash, banana, sweet potato and cassava cakes. Chicken was never fried, always native. The eggs were brown. We had a banquet of just harvested vegetables, everyday. No iceberg lettuces or chemical-laden plum tomatoes. None of those. Locally grown, freshly picked from the garden. As closest from the farm to the table as you can get.
And every night, they serenaded us with traditional, folk and local love songs. There was no gyrating, no high-pitched hosts wowing the crowd with slapstick and obscenity, and when I asked, no rock and roll. Instead they tapped and clapped, swayed and jiggled their shoulders to the rhythm of drums, ethnic beats and folk songs. And they told us the story of their tribe and my country through song and dance.
This town took me by surprise. It was as though they revered tradition, and deeply felt the story of our ancestors running through their veins. A people transformed. And pride. You saw it everywhere. Pride in their rice paddies and that they have now banked 55 organic seeds. Empowerment. Empowered that they do not need rice imports, magic formulas to make their fields thrive or green bucks they have to pay twice over. Proud that they measure progress not in Jollibee outlets or malls, but that every one gets to sow and reap, and put food they grow on the table.
Seven years ago, 90% of Dumingag’s residents lived below the poverty line. The rice farmers were destitute, in the red with lenders and traders, and barely able to make ends meet. There was hardly any food on the table. And you ask why when they have fertile soil where anything can grow. (Except, this is the story of our farmers everywhere.)
It is seven years after and the municipality has bested a hundred nominees worldwide to win the IFOAM* One World Award**. The farms that cultivate with sustainable agriculture methods have increased tenfold. They have a seed bank, a transformative school, and clinics following integrative medicine.
“What they did in Dumingag serves as a lighthouse. I hope this experience inspires mayors worldwide,” said Bernward Geier, former IFOAM President.
It’s as though the town brought back fertility to its soil, and thus to its people. Allowing good things to take root, bud and blossom, thrive and grow. In this town of 44 villages, sustainable agriculture has broken ground. It was the bedrock from which rural development sprang. Mayor Jun, his knights of the roundtable, and his farmers, learned to save seeds, remembered the indigenous ways of their forefathers, and then worked on the land so it truly bore fruit. As Vandana Shiva declared: “Organic agriculture is not just a method of farming. It is a way of life.”
I discarded my relics for a safe travel. There was no need for it anymore. This naive, city farmer thought she knew it all, and discovered there were acres and hectares to learn from the country farmers. Forty four villages, 50,000 people, and the landlocked town in the middle of Zamboanga, gave me a wealth of wisdom to take home.
Touch down Manila. It’s now time to put on my city farmer’s boots, break ground, and plant a seed where I live.
If you want to view paradise
Simply look around and view it
Anything you want to, do it
You want to change the world
There’s nothing to it.
* IFOAM is the only international umbrella organization of the organic world. Since 1972, IFOAM unites, leads and assist the organic movement – all IFOAM Affiliates – in its full diversity, while providing a common voice on relevant organic issues. To date IFOAM represents close to 800 affiliates in 117 countries.
**The One World Award The OWA award that is endowed with a total prize money of 35,000 Euro honors people, projects and innovative ideas with ecologic, economic and social impact that make the world a better place and promote justice. The OWA was initiated in 2008 by organic food pioneer Joseph Wilhelm, founder and Managing Director of Rapunzel Naturkost.