Story and photos by Elmer V. Recuerdo / Correspondent
VILLA Conzoilo, an upland village 7 kilometers from the poblacion of Jaro, is a budding farm-tourism destination in Leyte that has attracted both foreign and local visitors since it opened in May last year.
In its first six months of business as a tourist site, it attracted over 500 visitors, earning for the community P26,000 in entrance fees; over P100,000 in sales of their local products; steady income to residents trained by the Department of Tourism who act as tour guides; and a heavy amount of promotion from visitors who are awed by what they learned from this farming community.
Leyte Gov. Leopoldo Dominico L. Petilla said the village has been designated as a learning site and school for practical and organic agriculture by the Agriculture Training Institute.
Villa Conzoilo, the farthest village of Jaro at the foot of Mount Amandaweng, was once a hotbed of insurgency like all its neighboring communities. When martial law was imposed in 1972 up until the mid-2000s, the village experienced countless evacuations as residents feared being caught in a crossfire in the battle between the New People’s Army (NPA) and government soldiers.
“The residents here never had stability. We cannot plant because just before we harvest, our crops get destroyed again by the conflict. Our children cannot go to school and there was hardly a teacher who agreed to teach at the primary school,” resident Alex Aborita said.
In the early part of 2000 government soldiers set up a military camp in the barangay, slowly driving away rebels from the area. In 2009 the youthful barangay captain Aborita, together with 18 residents, organized Villaconzoilo Community Association with a start-up capital of P1,800 from the members’ contribution of P100 each.
Capitalizing on its vast idle and fertile lands, the association asked the provincial government in 2011 to bring Leyte Techno Demo and Training Farm high-value vegetable production to them.
With the support of a seed company, the farmers underwent a 14-week training on land preparation and field layout, organic farming, latest farming technologies and post-harvest handling and marketing.
One farmer who planted cucumber now delivers twice or thrice a week to markets in Jaro and nearby towns earning him P1,000 per delivery. He is also earning much from other crops, like tomatoes and sweet pepper. But his biggest income came from his P600 investment for watermelon seeds, which gave him a net income of P110,000, enabling him to buy a vehicle to market their products and a bigger house for his family.
The association transformed the once cogonal war zone of rebellion into thriving gardens planted with high-value crops, such as lettuce, broccoli, carrots, cauliflowers, rambutan, radish, asparagus, grapes and strawberries, which are sold in groceries and hotels in the region.
It now has over P20 million in assets, including a 20-hectare farmland the association is cultivating and P4-million cash in the bank. It also has an existing contract with the Energy Development Corp., through their Binhi Program and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, through their National Greening Program for reforestation, forest-trees seedling production all geared to conserve and protect their forests.
War zones no more
THE experience of Villa Conzoilo is now being replicated in at least 130 communities in different towns of Leyte—most of these communities were stronghold of insurgents for over three decades—under the Leyte EconoMICS Program of the provincial government.
Leyte EconoMICS is a poverty-reduction agenda focusing on “total human and economic development starting in poor barangays with the More Income in Countryside [MIC] compact farming for high-value vegetable and fruit crops,” Petilla said.
“The primary goal is to reduce poverty from 23.6 percent in 2015 to 15 percent or even lower by 2022,” the governor told the BusinessMirror.
Petilla said Leyte EconoMICS is the implementation of the Marshall Plan of the province drawn after the devastation of Supertyphoon Yolanda.
Farmer-beneficiaries were grouped into associations that underwent a 16-week season-long training on high-value vegetable production as the initial step. This was followed by various interventions in livestock, fisheries, nonagri-skills training to empower them to become active members of the community.
The program adopts a holistic and community-based approach to alleviate poverty, making these poor farmer-beneficiaries productive and skilled in agriculture mainstreamed with social services, disaster-risk reduction, environment and solid-waste management and infrastructure-support facilities.
Petilla added the communities were chosen through a study of poverty incidence after Yolanda. Coincidentally, the identified areas for implementation happened to be the hotbed of insurgency in the last few decades.
“It happened that where insurgency was present, the poverty incident was also high,” Petilla said. “Insurgency solving now becomes a collateral in the fight against poverty.”
The governor added that while there is no new poverty-incidence data yet, there are already visible indicators of the program’s success in combating poverty.
“Many families can now afford to have concrete houses or materials of sturdy quality,” he said. “Around 65 percent of houses in Villa Conzoilo are now made of heavy or semi-heavy materials, compared to around 15 percent of houses in areas where we are just starting.”
He said there are also more young people now who go to college in communities, where the program was implemented, than in villages that just started the implementation.
Ka Leroy, a former farmer leader turned communist rebel in 1990s, is one member of an association in the town of Burauen, also a former hot spot of insurgency. But since a road to his village was constructed during the last decade, he went back to full-time farming.
“We were drawn to rebellion because of poverty. We felt the government abandoned us and there was no more available alternative left to us, but to take up arms,” he said to explain why he joined the NPA. “But now we already have many options. We can now plant in peace, harvest and sell them in town without much trouble.”
“Those were our war zones where we fought the government,” Ka Leroy pointed to a forested hill. “I dreamed to see that vast area turned into farms. Yes, they are gardens now where we plant lettuce and cabbages.”
Image credits: Elmer V. Recuerdo