Farmers Unite for Resilient Livelihoods in Compostela Valley

Story by Jan Dacumos

From the town proper, past a maze of narrow dirt roads crisscrossing banana plantations, a humble shed welcomes community members and visitors to the southeastern side Magcagong, a farming community in the landlocked town of Maragusan in Compostela Valley Province.

It may seem an ordinary farm structure but the simple shed has played a significant role in the lives of farmers in the village of 3,200. It has become a symbol of the residents’ solidarity as they work together towards their collective goal of community progress—this while addressing timely issues such as disaster risk and climate change.

The shed houses a combined corn and coffee mill. It also serves as an activity center for the Magcagong Farmers’ Corn Mill Association (MFCMA), an organization established through the ACCORD-assisted ‘Proud of my Purok’ (POMP) Project.

Pedrito Lascuña, chairperson of the MFCMA said that the idea of putting up a corn mill originated from the farmers themselves. This was after ACCORD conducted a series of consultations for the POMP Project, which sought to complement disaster preparedness training with disaster-resilient and climate-smart livelihood sources for the community.

Situated on a rolling terrain, Magcagong is considered a landslide-prone area. Government geologists who have assessed the place reported that the crumbly soil type renders the vulnerability of the community to the geological hazard. This problem is compounded by drastic changes in weather events such as strong typhoons and extreme monsoon rains, which the residents are not used to.

Pedrito shared that after the brunt of Typhoon Pablo (Bopha) in 2012, they have also experienced unprecedented incidents of heavy monsoon rains (Habagat), which he considers as equally damaging as typhoons.

“With Habagat, the rains may be light but are long and persistent,” Pedrito said. This causes saturated land masses to move. Likewise, rivers and creeks swell, flooding nearby farms and households.

Community mill benefits

Farmer Alejandro Sescon said that originally, their choice for the POMP Project was to purchase a vehicle but someone raised about the high maintenance costs, so they settled with establishing a corn mill.

For a community that consumes corn grits as a food staple in place of rice, the mill has provided great convenience to them. The village’s sloping and unirrigated lands are not suitable for rice cultivation.

The farmers in Magcagong used to bring their corn harvest to the town proper for milling. They had to pay for a forty-peso fare for the person carrying the products and another P2 for every kilogram of corn.

“With the road damaged especially during heavy rains, transporting our products was more expensive. Some grains even spill as we transport these from the town,” Alejandro said.

The farmer shared that with the new corn mill in their barangay, it is now more convenient for them to have their corn processed into “corn rice” particularly when they experience inclement weather.

“There were times when we couldn’t drive our habal-habal (motorcycles) to town. Our products would get damaged, too,” Alejandro said, adding that there were instances when their corn would spill onto the river, rendering these useless after being soaked in water.

Other farmers shared that they no longer experience these problems. Some of them would even just carry their sacks of corn to the mill. The households use savings from hauling cost in other expenses such as groceries and school needs.

“We pay the same price here for milling but we no longer have to endure the long lines. Sometimes, it would take two to three days—we need to go back and forth. Now, our harvest can be milled on the same day,” Alejandro said.

Before, the town only had two corn mills, both of which are far from the village. The mill now serves six to seven barangays, and it now processes an average of 8,000 kilograms of corn per month. The mill also caters to coffee farmers.

“I’m not bragging but the quality of milled grains is better than that from the commercial mills,” Pedrito said.

The group formed for the corn mill operations has eventually evolved into a formal organization—the MFCMA—and is working for its accreditation with the Department of Labor and Employment. With 57 active members, the MFCMA has spent its first year in establishing its structure and systems.

“Our target is within the year. We already have our operations policy, and constitution and by-laws. These were based on the ACCORD [template] but we added new policies from the inputs of our members,” Pedrito said.

Fostering stakeholder collaboration

Barangay Kagawad Leonisa Mabagod said that through the POMP Project, the cooperation between the barangay council and the farmers’ association has greatly improved.

Leonisa added that the MFCMA chairperson sits in the barangay development council as a representative of civil society organizations.

“Their chairperson provides reports—their performance, their problems—to the barangay council. We also attend their meetings to know their needs,” the councilor said.

Leonisa shared that all the activities were identified by the community including MFCMA members, hence they have a sense of ownership of these.

Through the Project, the barangay was likewise equipped to craft a good DRRM and contingency plans with MFCMA members participating.

“Before ACCORD came here, we had no decent DRRM Plan. But with their intervention, we were able to identify the gaps. We reviewed the plan with the community members,” Leonisa said.

The councilor is equally thankful for the equipment and trainings they had acquired through the POMP Project, which they now use to effectively execute their plans. Furthermore, with the mill now earning income, the MFCMA allots 1% of its revenues for the barangay’s emergency needs, including supplies during and after disasters.

“Had we solely relied on the barangay [budget], the plans would not have materialized,” Leonisa added.

Through the Project, the barangay council also passed an ordinance prohibiting the construction of houses within ten meters from the riverbank. Similarly, they issued an order on the cutting of trees near houses to avoid accidents, especially during typhoons.

The MFCMA meanwhile matched these local policies with tree-planting activities along the riverbank, the seedlings of which were sourced from native trees around the village. This ensures that the trees are well adapted to the area’s soil and climate types.

Additionally, being trained in sustainable agriculture, the association members now practice contour farming to manage soil erosion. And with the nearby mill, more farmers were encouraged to plant corn, hence diversifying the kinds of crops being planted—a more sustainable farming practice compared to mono-cropping, mainly of bananas.

With 12 puroks and sparsely distributed households, giving warning in times of disasters is still challenging, according to Leonisa. But it helped a lot that the residents were already adequately educated through the POMP Project. In fact, every family has its own go-bag, a must-have in times of disasters.

Moreover, the barangay may not have been able to conduct a disaster drill during the POMP Project implementation but with their training on disaster preparedness under the Project, they were able to run a drill—with outstanding ratings—under the provincial government’s DRRM program.

“The residents know what to do. They now have the initiative. Actually, they start to evacuate before we even tell them,” Kagawad Anania Manugas said. The councilor had served as a community facilitator for the Project before being elected into public office.

Engaging, empowering women

Complementing the leadership roles assumed by Leonisa and Anania at the barangay council is the active involvement of women in the MFCMA as well as in community-wide concerns.

Vilma Mabagod, from the Mansaka indigenous people group, shared that most of MCFMA’s members are women and it is through the association that the camaraderie among the community women has improved.

“There was aloofness among us at first, but eventually, we became close with each other,” the mother of five said.

In maintaining organizational life, women members are not limited to traditional roles. When other groups restrict some tasks to men or to the leadership, the MFCMA provides the space for all members to take part in substantive assignments, tapping and developing their potentials to the benefit of the group.

In pairs with fellow women or men members, the ladies take turns in tending to the daily operations of the mill. They call this duty, a task all members commit to as a support to the growth of the association.

While on duty, women do various tasks from cleaning the shed’s premises and cooking meals during meetings to record-keeping and collection of milling fees. With their training on financial management, the MFCMA was able to design a simple record-keeping system to track their cash flow and maintain transparency and accountability in their finances.

The participation of women also manifests well in the association’s leadership composition where four of the six officers are women. This means that decisions made in the organization reflect the views and perspectives of women.

Way forward

As a start-up enterprise, Pedrito recalled that the first year of operations was quite challenging but they have managed to pull through.

With sustained activities such as meetings, the farmers have developed closer relationships, which Pedrito considers as an indispensable element in their growth as an organization.

The association now plans to engage in buy-and-sell of agricultural produce, consolidating harvests and selling these in bulk to buyers.

Setting aside P10,000 as buying capital from their initial revenues, they have already started with selling some of the milled corn grits to a retailer at the town’s public market. They then wish to have a vehicle so they can expand their buy-and-sell enterprise.

“Once we have registered, we plan to get an accredited at the trading complex in Davao,” Pedrito said, explaining that one of their problems as farmers are middlemen. By being accredited by the trading complex, the farmer members can directly sell their products through the association.

If there would be a second phase of the Project, the barangay council, on the other hand, wants to review and update Magcagong’s contingency plan, implement additional mitigation measures and conduct community drills.

The evident enthusiasm of the barangay council to continuously improve their DRRM mechanisms indeed proves that they have already developed a deeper sense of ownership of the issue. This is complemented by the eagerness of the MCFMA to grow not only as a mere farmers’ association but a venue of empowerment and a potent partner of the barangay in facilitating stakeholder convergence in building a prosperous and disaster-resilient community.