To an IP tribe, hope to save their ancestral land started from squash

Published April 11, 2022, 12:05 AM

by Pinky Concha-Colmenares

How can a tribe protect its 100-hectare ancestral domain? It’s a dream too big to reach for a tribe whose members are small farmers, each struggling to provide daily sustenance to their families, with a few of them on the way to leaving the land to seek jobs in the big cities.

But hope – and a different path to a sustainable solution – comes in unlikely packages. For a Bukidnon IP (Indigenous People) tribe now living in upland San Carlos City, Negros Occidental, the unlikely package leading to a different path came from an abundant squash produce of a farmer who was preparing to go to the big city.

Merco, the farmer, with two of his squash produce.

The farmer, Merco, had just lost his possessions after a fire razed his house. Although he had not lost everything – at his farm, he had an abundant harvest of squash – he was waiting for buyers to provide enough cash for a bus ticket to the big city. The problem was, even with the low trader’s price Merco was offering, there was no buyer.

Ground breaking of the food processing plant.

But fate had another plan. A non-profit organization in search of a large volume of squash found Merco at the training center where he was temporarily housed, and changed the direction of a whole tribe for the future of their ancestral land. Significantly, that help came just as Merco was asked to pray for something to come up by a friend of the foundation whose help came as a socio-economic solution.

The organization –Negrense Volunteers for Change Foundation (NVC), a homegrown nonprofit organization –was looking for farm produce that would be the ingredients of its popular Mingo Meals.

“We first met members of the Bukidnon tribe in upland San Carlos, Negros Occidental when we were in search of a large volume of squash. We were linked by a friend who managed a project with the farmers. She introduced us to Merco who had lost his house through fire and was temporarily living in a training center. He had an oversupply of the crop and had no one to sell them to, even at a trader’s low disadvantaged price,” Millie Kilayko, NVC president, said.

My friend asked him to pray, and he did.” said Ms. Kilayko. “Merco prayed and my friend received our call for the crop at about the same time he was praying.”

NVC, which manufactures Mingo Meals, a nutritious complementary food for infants and toddlers, and for dried fruits and vegetables for Rise Against Hunger Philippines, one of its partners, purchased Merco’s squash at fair trade prices. That was the beginning of a new hope for Merco. Succeeding transactions for squash and other farm produce spread that hope to the other members of the IP tribe. He and his fellow farmers continued to supply NVC. Recently, Merco was able to build a house from the profits of his farm produce.

Farmers pose with donated equipment from balsam Hill, a USA-based company.

“Merco’s story fueled a dream and a vision,” Kilayko said. “If we built a facility that would allow them to process their crops, then their crops would leave their farm with value added, more jobs would be available in the community, and with economic progress, there will be demand even on the farm level, for young people of higher learning. Most of all, migration to the city will be halted because the farm would become ‘the city’ – the source of economic opportunities.”

Ms. Kilayko’s dream recently planted its seeds on a lot where a food processing plant for the farmers produce would be processed and gain added value.

NVC recently broke ground for a food processing plant designed by Base Bahay Foundation. The facility, which is FDA compliant, is designed using Base Bahay’s bamboo treatment and construction technology to be typhoon and earthquake resilient and insect resistant.

“We peddled this dream to so many potential takers for five years, but it was only last year when Sunlife Canada, through Sunlife Foundation, caught on the dream and provided us with funds for food processing equipment and a start-up building. We knew that the small structure wasn’t enough but in faith we began to pray that we receive resources to expand it along the way. But even before we began to build, Base Bahay offered to expand the structure. And now, while we train the women’s group to operate the plant, we have this beautiful structure in the pipeline,” Ms. Kilayko said.

The 60-member farmers group farm now only tills half of their 100-hectare ancestral domain. Kilayko is confident that the installation of food processing facilities will increase the demand for the farmers’ crops and expand their planting area. That will result in bigger profits, and hopefully, in a higher aspiration to keep the whole ancestral land for farming.

Ms. Kilayko said her biggest fear is that outsiders will be attracted to the progressive area and will offer to buy the farmers’ rights to the land with plans to develop it into charming resorts.
But when farming is viable and profitable, the IP’s will hold on to their property, she said.

“NVC is now looking at a source of technology for making sanitary napkins from banana plant waste. The possibilities are endless – from making more food to the manufacture of paper to boards to boxes. We hope more people catch our dreams but we only hope to attract those who dream the way we do – that ownership of industries that will emerge, would ultimately remain with the people, like their land.”