Sustainable agriculture as a way of life for Cordillera indigenous women

Leticia Bula, a rural villager in the Philippines, addressed the World Conference on Women in China last year. She put forward an argument to maintain her sustainable way of life, which clashes with the Philippine government policy to increase income through cash crops. The government plan of planting flowers for the export market by replacing local rice fields, will, she maintains, be resisted.

I am a peasant from the remote village of Dupag in the Cordillera area of the Northern Philippines. In my community of about 800 people, we are all subsistence peasants. Our agricultural system is a combination of rice farming in irrigated fields and in the swiddens; legume, vegetable and coffee production, as well as raising pigs and chickens. We produce these for our families and the community. Rice is planted in the terraced fields which our fore-parents developed decades and probably centuries ago. Constructing a rice field is a difficult task which entails months or even years of backbreaking stone walling, and filling in. That is why, it is only used for the prestigious rice that is planted there.

Trading rice for flowers
I read in the news about the plan of the Departments of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform to convert our rice terraces into cut-flower gardens, mango plantations and fishponds as part of the safety nets' adopted by the Philippine government to make our country competitive in the world market under the GATT. I saw my poor urban friends lining up in stores in order to buy rice, sometimes as long as 12 hours and still not getting anything until the next day. The Department of Agriculture has been frantically reassuring poor Filipinos like me and my city friends that the rice supply will be normalized when rice imports from India, Thailand and Vietnam come into the country. The cost of rice had almost doubled in the span of 2 months, in spite of the arrival of imported rice from Thailand. The lines are still there and getting longer.
    When I first read the news about the government plan for our rice terraces, my first reaction was: for whom is the plan? Is it for us, the poor, or for vested interests? Is the government helping us or are they just following the dictates of their foreign masters?

The chemical invasion
Farming is what we know. Since I  was born my parents brought me with them to the fields. At about the age of five my mother taught me how to weed and open the irrigation canal. As I grew older she taught me how to plant and harvest. She showed me how to bundle and tighten the tie of the rice straws. She and my father taught me what it is to be a farmer, including observing the necessary holidays and performing the rituals in order to ensure a good harvest. I also participated in labour exchange groups composed mostly of women. This is a common practice in our village. Here I learned more about farming through the exchange of ideas with my friends.
    When I got married at 16, I was already a fully-fledged farmer. The knowledge handed down to me helped me cope with life when I was widowed at the age of 23 with two children, one three years old and the other five months. Until now I practised the same principals which were taught me. We produce our rice and other crops, both in the rice fields and swiddens, without the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. But now I am afraid that some of my people will be convinced to use these in the future. We have heard stories from other women about how their skin, eyes and genitals have been affected by chemical pesticides and fertilisers. They are forced to use more and more of these because their soil is destroyed. They will not harvest anything if they stop using them. So they get more and more poisons in their bodies. I am thankful that we have not adopted these practices.
    With the late rains, there is no irrigation. Women in the lowlands have not even been able to plant the last two crops and because their soil is destroyed they cannot just plant any alternative crop. If they want, they can still use pesticides. But they are poor like me, so how can they buy the poisons? That is, why even when we had little rice harvest, we were able to plant legumes to add to our food. At the same time, we maintained our root crops. Although our farming methods are very tiring because they are manual, even the poor can produce their own food. So although we have no money, we have food, good simple foods on our tables.

Resistance to sustain life
This plan of  government to plant flowers in our rice fields will not prosper with us in our village, as it will not, I am sure, in many other villages. We will resist as we have resisted the World Bank funded Chipco river dam project in the 1970s.
    We have also experienced the effect of depending on cash crops for our needs. Coffee was introduced in our village during the early part of this century. Between the 1960s and 1970s, when the price of coffee was high, many of us, including my parents, cleared forests in order to plant coffee. We were able to make money out of our coffee production which went to improve our houses and send our children to school. Some even got rich and were able to buy land in the lowlands. However, in the mid-1980s the price of coffee dived to very low levels. Many of us who were dependent on this and who hired labour to farm their fields had a hard time adjusting. At the same time, we observed that our water sources had dried or were drying up. It was at this time that non-governmental organisation partners confirmed our observation that the coffee did not give water back to the land. Thus, our village decided to ban coffee planting in watershed areas and to abandon these areas. Everybody was encouraged to stop expanding their plantations. In the end, although we had good times with coffee, it did not insure that it would meet our needs.
    The poor are entitled to eat good food if they do not have money. They can only do this if they have control over their production-the resources, the land, the processes. We would oppose any plans to make us produce what we do not need. We will still farm to ensure that there is good food on our table and in our communities. This we can do by demanding that subsistence farmers who are the majority in our communities be given substantial support in order to ensure food security for the poor.
    Rice is the food that has sustained generations of our people. If we do not eat rice we feel weak. But it is not just any rice we want. We want the rice that is aromatic, delicious, the traditional varieties we have. Rice that is produced by our own hands and for which we are sure is safe to eat. With the rice crisis in my country, even if people have money, they cannot buy rice. As to government plans to increase our income through cash crops, we do not need cash. WE NEED FOOD!

Edited paper presented at the PAN AP Seminar on Women and Agriculture during the NGO Forum of the 4th World Conference on Women, Huairou, China, on September 5 1995 by Leticia Bula-at of the Philippines, Chair, Innabuyog, Kalinga-Apayao Chapter.

[This article first appeared in Pesticides News No. 33 as part of the Focus on Food supplement, September 1996, page 21]