EcoWEB: Helping Mindanao farmers rise from conflict

(This article is also posted on Rappler.)

To the general public, Mindanao is known for many things – but not its farmers.

People perceive the region as a hotbed of endless conflict. At best, it’s the cradle for the Philippines’ vibrant Muslim community and its rich culture.

Somewhere underneath all the noise are Mindanao’s farmers who share the same problems with other farmers all over the country. The difference is, their plight is compounded by conflict. In places where lives are ended by misunderstanding, they struggle to grow life from the soil.

Far from the country’s capital and divided into peace and war zones, the people of Mindanao see no other choice but to help themselves. One group that has taken the initiative is the Ecosystems Work for Essential Benefits (EcoWEB).

A social enterprise founded by Nanette Antequisa, EcoWEB produces natural fertilizers, plant growth enhancers, and pest repellant as alternatives to chemical farming. As a business with social good as its main agenda, it strives to address the problems of poverty, environmental degradation, conflict, and lack of good governance as holistically as they can. They believe one problem won’t disappear if the others remain rampant.

But how does one confront poor governance with fertilizer? Or, for that matter, how do you battle vulnerability to conflict with pest repellant? For EcoWEB, it’s a matter of creating and improving livelihoods.

REAPING THE BENEFITS. A lanzones farm in Subanen where fruit is finally growing after 4 years of difficulty, thanks to using EcoWEB products. Photo from the EcoWEB Facebook page

 

EcoWEB teaches communities the innovative technology needed to manufacture its EcoOrganic products such as liquid fertilizer and natural microorganisms. Staying true to their fight against environmental degradation, they encourage them to add in more organic materials found in their area so they can return them to the soil instead of just throwing them away or worse, burning them. EcoWEB then sells these products to farmers and cooperatives, sharing a big part of the profit with the communities who did the work.

In turn, the farmers who switch to EcoWEB’s organic products harvest more and more produce from land that they once thought was rendered hopeless by years of chemical farming. Seeing this improvement, local government units (LGUs) in Mindanao have started to become interested in EcoWEB and the overall productivity it brings to areas whose progress is interrupted by conflict.

‘Short’ and ‘failure’

It’s a simplified way to illustrate a huge operation involving 5 main parts of Northern Mindanao: Misamis Oriental, Iligan City, Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga del Norte, and Lanao del Norte. A better way to see how it works is to look at what EcoWEB has achieved on the ground.

Mostly tenants of land owned by others, the farmers do what they can with what they have.

After years of farming with the aid of chemicals, the land isn’t what it used to be – it’s harder to coax a good harvest of vegetables and even harder to harvest more than once a year.

Antequisa says the farmers have learned the English words “short” and “failure,” all in reference to their struggling livelihood. But lacking knowledge and guidance, Antequisa adds the farmers stay with what they know despite instances of misusing chemicals and endangering themselves by using them without protective gear.

After a harvest, the vicious cycle goes on. Whatever profit they make becomes payment for the debt they incurred to borrow the chemicals. If there’s not much profit to speak of, they end up paying with their bread and butter – sacks of rice or vegetables. To keep on planting, they borrow more money for more chemicals. And the land becomes even more ravaged. The whole enterprise exists with an environmental and financial deadline hanging over its head.

A group of farmers who are slowly escaping from debt trap of chemical farming is the Digklaan Womens Farmers Organization in Iligan city. Arlene Navarro, the leader of the organization takes pride in her harvest of different produce because since switching to EcoOrganic products, she’s been able to harvest more than twice the usual amount for less input, ending up with more income. Farming has transformed into a life-giving, confidence-building endeavor that have driven people like Arlene to do things that once seemed impossible, like run for kagawad (village councilor) and win.

Antequisa says what hounds the women of Digklaan now is how to sell all their produce. Selling their produce at the market makes them sell it at a price lower than what organic produce goes for. What’s more, the label ‘organic’ steals the show at the market, lessening the business going to other farmers. It’s a problem EcoWEB feels will be solved with a little help and coordination from the LGUs.

Their ideal model of farmer-LGU commitment is found in Nunungan.

Farming for peace

Nunungan in Lanao Del Norte is a municipality that has lived conflict.

In April 2013, then Mayor Abdulmalik Manamparan was ambushed in a convoy, killing at least 13 people, including his daughter and granddaughter. Explaining it to the media, he called it “a family feud,” referring to the deadly clan wars in the area. Now a vice mayor, Manamparan tells Antequisa people are afraid of their own place. It’s a dilemma shared by other conflict-ridden areas, demanding they look inward rather than outward for help.

WORKING TOGETHER. Individuals from the civil society of Nunungan gather to participate and discuss the government’s poverty reduction program. Photo from the EcoWEB Facebook page

In a model EcoWEB hopes to replicate in other parts of Mindanao, the local government has already committed to finance a farmers’ cooperative in Nunungan, enabling them to purchase different EcoWEB products. In turn, the cooperative intends to give them to the farmers free of charge so they can switch to organic farming. All of these efforts stem from the need and desire to come up with a product special to Nunungan that will promote them as a productive, peaceful community: upland rice. Working together, EcoWEB comes in not just to supply the products but also to train them to use it and to teach them to market the rice they’ll eventually harvest.

One of the farming aids Nunungan will be purchasing from EcoWEB is the EcoOrganic granulated organic fertilizer, another product made with sustaining peace in mind.

FARMING FOR PEACE. An EcoWEB gathering with various peace stakeholders in Lanao, celebrating peace gains. Photo from the EcoWEB Facebook page

Produced by the Lanao Comrades Multi-Purpose Cooperative, the fertilizer is made with the hands of former rebels from Kolambungan, Lanao del Norte. What started out as simple volunteering for some of the rebels turned into a profitable way of giving back once they realized EcoWEB’s products were effective. The former rebels are now entrepreneurs who use coco coir and coco peat not just to make plant food but also to encourage other former rebels to join the movement.

The bottom line

In March 2015, EcoWEB won first prize at the Developmental Social Enterprise Awards held by the Benita & Catalino Yap Foundation (BCYF) and PwC Philippines. Besting social enterprises all over the country, EcoWEB is to receive a P250,000 cash grant and a year of free consultancy from BCYF and PwC Philippines.

It’s a win that leads them closer to their ultimate vision for Mindanao farmers – that they be resilient, peaceful, and empowered.

In its 9 years, what EcoWEB has managed to achieve is pooling resources and people in the region. Everything already existed, EcoWEB and the technology they introduced simply wove together what Mindanao had to offer. By giving farmers new roles as suppliers and producers, the organization has formed a web of productivity that ensures camaraderie, environmental sustainability, and a future they can look forward to.

As a social enterprise, EcoWEB says its true profit comes in empowering communities to put development in their own hands, or more specifically, in their soil.

WINNER. Nanette Antequisa receives the first prize award at the DSEA Awards on behalf of EcoWEB. Photo from the EcoWEB Facebook page

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