Sowing seeds to save culture, the countryside

In Photo: A guest planting trees with the Aetas

ON assignment from London, I came to Manila to write about this booming city and its people.

As a foreign business journalist, I was welcomed into high-rise buildings, exclusive lounges and fancy dinners in the cities of Makati and Taguig. It was here where I met influential businessmen and politicians—the very people tasked to lead the growth of the city. I was told at length about the National Capital Region’s evolving business practices, the work ethic and determination of the Filipino, as well as the bright outlook of the country.

Yangil Chieftain Erese

While the suits and skylines spoke for themselves, it was only once I grounded myself in the communities of Gawad Kalinga (GK) that I discovered a hopeful future in which no one is left behind.

My one-year journey to GK communities back in 2013 also introduced me to social enterprises for the first time. In the years since, I am fortunate to have discovered examples of pro-poor and pro-environment enterprises across the country, including many outside the GK network.

One such business plan that impressed me most was that of the Aetas of San Felipe, Zambales.

This group of 38 indigenous families lives in a little village called Yangil. Their homes and sources of livelihood were completely destroyed by the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991, while lack of income has forced the tribe to burn down what remained of their forests to sell the wood as charcoal.

Despite having thousands of hectares of ancestral land, the Aetas are still struggling with food security, protection from climate change and sustainable livelihoods. They are also, however, beaming examples of the values explained to me by some of the most inspiring social entrepreneurs I have met in Manila.

Thanks to a partnership between Make A Difference (MAD) Travel and Hineleban Foundation Inc., the tribe’s leaders were brought to a thriving forest community in Bukidnon province in Mindanao. It was there that they learned about forestry and agriculture for livelihood. The visit inspired the Aetas to not give up on their land, denuded as it may be. They looked at the tall trees, tasted the fresh produce and wondered why they could not achieve a similar change for themselves back home.

Upon arriving in Yangil, the tribal leaders and the rest of the village got to work on their own forest and agriculture-development plan. They were quick to learn and apply the lessons from Bukidnon to their own land and resources. Their plan has three big goals: the reforestation of 3,000 hectares of rainforest to help with protection from climate change, the planting of a 100-hectare food forest to help with food security and livelihood and the establishment of a 1-hectare medical forest to support the health of the community.

The Aetas of Yangil have since become one of MAD Travel’s primary partner communities. We work closely with the tribe and their leaders to help enable their plans through our tours and programs. When we asked the tribe what they needed the most to take their plans off the ground, I expected them to say money. This, after all, was my western mind-set kicking in.

Instead, the tribe’s Chieftain Erese responded with one simple answer: seeds. Lack of seeds is the one thing that is keeping Yangil from living off their ancestral land the way they should. Listening to the community, we came up with Need For Seed: A Table-to-Farm Movement.

Need For Seed’s simple goal is to take seeds that would otherwise be trash in the city, and bring them to Yangil for the tribe to plant in their land. More than the usual tree-planting initiative, Need For Seed aims to preserve not just Philippine forests, but Filipino culture, as well. Giving the Aeta tribe seeds to reforest their land will once again allow them to connect with the environment that inspires their cultural songs and dances—cultural practices that, over the past two decades, have had to take a backseat to mere survival.

What escaped me in my meetings with big companies in the metropolis was the Filipino spirit that I had previously heard so much of. Many Filipinos seem to put Metro Manila forward as the best representation of the country, noting how much it has adapted to and embodied international practices. What they seem to forget is that Filipinos and foreigners alike have plenty to learn from the countryside. It is here, where the indigenous people still live closely to nature, that the heart of the Philippines really shines through.

I highly encourage everyone to take a break from making Manila global, and instead reconnecting with what makes the Philippines local. We must keep in mind that development for us city dwellers does not always translate to development for the Philippines’s indigenous people. It is often the reverse and the latter gets left behind.

The communities have thousands of hectares of ancestral land, but are unable to regularly eat healthy meals. They also lack sustainable livelihoods and steady sources of income. On top of this, they face the constant threat of floods and heat waves. Luckily, all of these problems can be solved by one thing: reforestation. Planting more trees in and around these communities’ lands will put food on their tables, money in their pockets and protection around their houses.

Need For Seed is in its early stages of development. To learn more about the cause and how to participate, visit the Need For Seed Facebook page. Individuals and organizations interested in doing more than donating seeds can join the Aetas and plant the seeds themselves by participating in a MAD Travel “Tribes and Trek” regular tour, in partnership with the local government of San Felipe, Zambales.

Graham is a public speaker, social entrepreneur, author of The Genius of the Poor and host of In Good Company podcast. For comments and suggestions, contact [email protected] or visit www.madtravel.org.