Sunday, May 09

Keeping the lifeblood of a farming town flowing

September 23, 2018 | Jonas Trinidad

Years of farming have turned hills, once lush with trees, into farmlands. Tzu Chi volunteers are worried that the lack of trees will eventually result in landslides in the future. However, for the locals, their livelihood is tied to farming. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】

Story Highlights

  • Continuing with their post-disaster survey, Tzu Chi volunteers noticed the trend of hillside farming in the town of Baggao, Cagayan. Whereas the volunteers saw a potential for greater disaster stemming from such a trend, local farmers have to do everything to be able to get by in difficult times.


Over the course of two days, Tzu Chi volunteers are welcomed by a remarkable sight as they enter the town of Baggao.

The farming town at the base of the Sierra Madre Mountains makes the most out of the fertile space within its borders. Every square inch of arable land is dedicated to growing rice and corn, two of the region’s major crops. Flatlands, riverbanks, and even the steep slopes of Baggao’s rolling hills.

When Typhoon Ompong (Mangkhut) made landfall on Baggao on September 15, not a single stalk of corn was left standing. The growth of the locals’ prized crops has been stopped, forcing them to sell their corn as they are.

The family of 27-year-old Jennifer Gamata normally make a gross income of around Php 20,000 from their half-hectare of corn. Minus the expenses, they earn Php 15,000 come harvest time. After Ompong, however, they’ll be lucky if they can make a gross income of Php 15,000 from the premature harvest.

Family expenses aside, she also worries her debt to the traders. Local farming involves borrowing capital and paying it back with the harvest.

“Now, it’s difficult because our income in selling corn is severely reduced,” said Gamata.

Meanwhile, the family of 36-year-old Angelina Garrino can take heart at her landlord’s kindness. They may still sell their harvest but for a lower price because of the typhoon.

“Our boss might still buy our harvest, and we’re hoping to make up for the losses with other crops,” said Garrino.

Both families maintain farms by the hillsides, which Cagayan governor Manuel Mamba describes as once thriving with trees. Logging activity years ago, he said, had all but stripped the hills bare. And now, farmers are taking advantage of the slopes to grow their livelihood, something the governor wants stopped. 

“It will destroy our mountains, our topsoil, and also our river channels. This should be reconverted back to forest land,” Mamba said.


Running the risk

According to the Cagayan Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, close to 160 hectares of farmland fell victim to Ompong. Over 90 percent of the farmland grows rice and corn. Overall damage is estimated to be close to Php 4.7 billion, making the typhoon one of, if not, the most destructive since Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) in 2013.

Tzu Chi’s survey team on September 22 flew to Tuguegarao City to learn more about the extent of Ompong’s onslaught. During their two-day survey in Baggao, they took note of the trend of hillside farming and conveyed it to Gov. Mamba. Already, they’re sharing a grim outlook in the coming years should the mountains continue to lose its trees.

“The Cagayan River is an outlet for other waterways in the region, including those of the Cordilleras, the Sierra Madre and Caraballo Mountains. All the water from the provinces [in these places] will flow to Cagayan. I’ve been warning people that they can expect a flood that will kill a lot of people in Cagayan,” Mamba explained.

Among the survey team, Tzu Chi volunteer Ferdinand Dy understands the pressing need for the families to farm, especially in these difficult times. However, he hopes to show other ways without harming the environment.

“I hope we can educate them and introduce to them other means of livelihood. If they learn that they can make a living in other ways, they won’t have to be too dependent on farming. There’s a chance that the mountains can be reforested. This is, I believe, the most important thing we can do right now,” said Dy.

For the Garrino family, however, the slopes are the only viable place to farm. The flatland next to their home, which belongs to Angelina’s brother, is filled with narra. These trees are protected under environmental law and cannot be cut down.

The Gamata family, meanwhile, has to keep farming to survive in these difficult times.

“We’re aware of the consequences [of turning hillsides into farmlands]. But for us, our lives are tied to farming,” said Gamata.

  • Tzu Chi's survey team on September 23 meet with Cagayan governor Manuel Mamba (far left) to discuss their initial findings. He, too, expressed concern about the trend of hillside farming. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】

  • Remembering Tzu Chi's assistance in the past, Governor Mamba (right) extended his support for the Buddhist organization. Tzu Chi volunteer James Chua (left) humbly accepts his generosity. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】

  • As a gift, the governor receives a copy of Jing Si Aphorisms. This book contains over 100 aphorisms written and taught by Dharma Master Cheng Yen about leading life down the right path. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】

  • The family of Angelina Garrino (right) owns a corn farm in the mountains. Although aware of the eventual effects of hillside farming, she sees the slopes as the only available land to support her family. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】

  • Tzu Chi volunteer Ferdinand Dy (left) asks a local farmer how important his work is to him. Many families in Cagayan, not just Baggao, rely on farming to help them get through rough times. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】

  • Jennifer Gamata explains that this corn won't grow any bigger, now that the plant has died. Like many farming families, hers is forced to harvest the corn before it can fully grow. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】

  • A close-up of the premature corn. Gamata says the kernels are still too small. This, in turn, will affect its dry weight and value in the market. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】

  • A fully-grown corn stalk stands at around two meters, twice the height of an average person. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】


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