4 women who are changing Philippine agriculture

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For Women’s Month, CNN Philippines Life celebrates the powerful role of women in agriculture, and highlights the work of some of its loudest advocates. From left: Charlene Tan, Angie Ipong, Berna Romulo-Puyat, and Zenaida Soriano. Illustrations by GICA TAM

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — While women appear to be closing the gender gap in several fields — such as education and political empowerment — they remain mostly invisible and undervalued in one of the Philippines’ basic industries: agriculture.

“In some communities, women are still considered as mere assistants or subordinates of their husbands and male family members, as their role in farming and fishing is considered as household chores and remain unpaid,” says agriculture undersecretary Berna Romulo-Puyat.

Data from the Philippine Statistics Authority do not reflect the role of women in agriculture, as their farming or fishing chores are considered family labor (mostly accomplished by women), and not hired labor (mostly accomplished by men).

The data also reveals a widening pay gap in agriculture, despite the extensive role women play in farming. In 2016 alone, male farmers were paid ₱17.45 more than women farmers. The trend is consistent: the pay gap reflects a difference of ₱20.58 in 2015, ₱13.9 in 2014, and ₱9.61 in 2013.

Aside from the gender disparity, agriculture itself faces long-standing challenges in the Philippines: the still-unfulfilled promise of comprehensive land reform, the economic and social costs of natural disasters laying waste to farms, the militarization of agricultural communities, the problem of pests destroying crops, the lack of appropriate equipment and technology, and the need to turn to organic and sustainable farming practices. Each specifically affects the gender and development agenda for women in agriculture, even as they make an impact on all farmers and peasant workers, regardless of gender and sexual orientation.

Yet to unlock the potential of women in agricultural leadership may be a crucial step to strengthening its various causes. “‘Di naman kayang ipagtagumpay lang ng mga lalaki ang usapin ng agrikultura,” says Zenaida Soriano, national chairperson for Amihan Women, a mass organization of women peasant farmers.

“It must be emphasized that women play a major role in food production and they also participate in the other stages of the value chain such as preparation of seeds, planting, harvesting, postharvest, processing, and marketing of their produce,” says Romulo-Puyat. “Women are also known as the keepers of traditional knowledge and techniques in preserving food production, as well as custodians of traditional or indigenous varieties of planting materials.”

“Noong unang panahon, ang magsasaka naman talaga ay babae,” says Soriano. “‘Noong … na-control na ang means of production, lalaki na ang mga tumampok, at ang mga babae, nasa gilid na lang.”

Rarely do we think of women as leaders in agriculture, or farming as a field associated with the feminine — in most cases, to produce food from the earth is viewed as “man’s work.”

It need not be. For International Women’s Month, CNN Philippines Life celebrates the powerful role of women in agriculture, and highlights the work of some of its loudest advocates.

Illustration by GICA TAM

                                      Angie Ipong of Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura

Angie Ipong is making the rounds all over the Philippines to promote “Bungkalan: Manwal sa Organikong Pagsasaka,” a book authored by the Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (UMA). In a talk in Baguio’s Mt. Cloud Bookshop, she asks one of the most crucial questions about agriculture: Why do we look down on farming?

“Hindi lang mahirap … ang buhay magsasaka ay ginawa, culturally, pinakamababang trabaho iyan,” she says. “‘Yung teacher ko … sa grade one, basta hindi maka-answer ‘yung bata, [sasabihin], ‘You better go home and plant kamote!’”

To change the perception of farming as a lowly job, reserved for those willing to engage in backbreaking labor in the absence of any other alternative, is first on the agenda for people like Ipong. As she promotes “Bungkalan,” she simultaneously calls for true land reform for underpaid and oppressed farmers, and for sustainable, organic farming that can be done right in people’s homes.

Ipong, borne of farmers herself, started her own farming journey inside jail, unlawfully detained in 2005 to 2011 for rebellion as she worked with peasant farmers to fight back against multinational corporations in Mindanao. To make herself productive, she organized her fellow inmates to set up their own urban gardens in incarceration — thus building her practical experience to contribute for “Bungkalan” and her advocacy in agroecology. She laughs that it was only in jail that most of her inmates did something concrete, and “it was only here that I ate salad everyday!”

Inasmuch as “Bungkalan” has been described as a book that rightly locates “the critical intersection of organic farming and healthy eating … and issues like land ownership and food sovereignty,” it may be argued that Ipong is one of the most visible personifications of that intersection, as she continues to espouse for food sovereignty and security through the combined effort of farmers standing up for their own. Hers is a story on the power of the collective. “Walang ibang aasahin natin, kahit sa ating gobyerno,” she says. “Tayo, dapat nagkakaisa tayo.”

Illustration by GICA TAM

                                                   Zenaida Soriano of Amihan Women

Zenaida Soriano has spent 20 years of her life in Amihan Women, a mass organization of peasant women and a federation of women’s rural organizations. But why organize a movement comprised of women? Aren’t mixed membership organizations effective?

“Kapag kasama kasi ang mga babae sa mixed, hindi nila maipakita ‘yung kanilang [opinion], ang hirap mag-empower,” says Soriano. “[‘The women will say,] ‘Sige kayo na lang, ganyan.’ Ang layunin din namin ay mahasa ‘yung mga kababaihan na maging lider.” To form a women’s organization also addresses issues such as jealousy, reflected in how some husbands prohibit their wives from joining mixed peasant groups. “Ayaw nilang pasalihin yung mga asawa nila sa organisasyon, ‘pag iyon ay may mga kasamang lalaki,” adds Soriano.

As part of a women peasant farmers organization, Soriano is keenly aware how certain issues, like militarization, specifically affect women. This March, she joined some farmers from Leyte and Eastern Samar as they camped out in front of the Department of Agriculture, appealing to the government for true land reform and seeking justice for human rights violations by soldiers in their communities. The farmers also seek agricultural aid from losses brought by successive typhoons and destructive pests.

“Nagkaroon na kami ng petition na isinampa sa CHR [Commission on Human Rights], na huwag hayaan ang militar na magkampo sa barrio,” Soriano says. Militarization makes women and children most vulnerable to abuse by soldiers. “Itatago na nila ‘yung mga asawa nila, kaya ang mga bata at babae ang humaharap sa mga military,” she adds. There are cases of soldiers taking advantage or otherwise disrespecting women in the community, aside from cases of unlawful arrests.

“Bukod doon sa militarisasyon, isa pang layunin ng pagpunta dito ay maningil sa ahensya ng gobyerno, kasi mula pa [noong] bagyong Yolanda, bagyong Ruby, at nitong huli, bagyong Urduja, hindi na sila nakabangon,” says Soriano. Aid supposedly meant for farmers are plundered —“kinakangkong,” in her terms — and the Emergency Service Allocation lowered to ₱5,000, as opposed to the original ₱30,000 promised to rebuild farmers’ homes and livelihood, she says.

“Ang babae ang nagseseguro na may pagkain sa pamilya. Pagkain ‘yan eh, na lilikhain ng babae para sa buong pamilya. Ba’t ang mga babae ‘di gaanong nakikita?” — Zenaida Soriano

Compounding the issues above are destructive pests in the countryside, and the lack of means to mitigate their effects. “Bukod pa sa kalamidad, ngayon ay may peste. Ang kanilang mga niyog ay kinakain ng mga insekto kaya ‘di na nagbubunga, namamatay ang mga puno. Ang mga abaca nila ay napeste rin, may mga insekto na sumisira.”

While demanding aid and accountability from the government, Amihan, through Soriano, also conducts various leadership trainings to empower its women members more. Like Ipong, she also supports collective efforts through bungkalan.

Amihan invests in the power of farmers to make things happen themselves, despite roadblocks in land reform and distribution. “Malaking tulong lalo na ‘yung mga lupain [na] sinaklaw nila. ‘Pag malakas ang samahan, igigiit nila iyan. Parang sila na ‘yung [nag-] land reform doon.”

But the core of Amihan and Soriano’s advocacy is to put women at the heart of agricultural issues. “Ang babae ang nagseseguro na may pagkain sa pamilya. Pagkain ‘yan eh, na lilikhain ng babae para sa buong pamilya. Ba’t ang mga babae ‘di gaanong nakikita?”

“Pag nag-su-survey sa bahay-bahay, sasabihin niya housewife, hindi niya sasabihin na farmer,” says Soriano. “Kaya iyon ‘yung gusto naming ipatanaw. Magiging invisible — eh makikita mo naman na maraming babae sa agrikultura na nagsasaka.”

Illustration by GICA TAM

                                                  Charlene Tan of the Good Food Community

If you ever want fresh and sustainable produce delivered to your home, Good Food Community — headed by Charlene Tan — has four options available for you: gulay pambahay (for large households), small tampipi (for small households), a salad pack, and a juicing pack.

The harvest delivered to your home is a product of community-shared agriculture (CSA): an alternative distribution system that secures the livelihood of smallholder organic farmers, through the prepaid subscription of local and seasonal vegetables. It ensures that farmers enjoy a stable demand, and that they are paid more for their produce than through conventional systems.

Tan, like other young organic farmers, advocates CSA for what it can do to uplift smallholder farmers. “We exist to bridge people with these smallholder farmers, for smallholder farmers to deliver their organic produce here,” she says. The idea is to put them at the forefront of healthy and environmentally-conscious living, as well as make farming a sustainable livelihood where consumers also have a stake.

Good Food Community is one of the many emerging groups behind a growing movement for slow food, and conscious, sustainable living in the heart of the city, empowering farmers by giving them what they are due. “Growing up in the city, I didn’t know anything about growing anything, and I had a romantic idea of what a farmer’s life [is], and I realized there are so many issues tied to it, so much hope in organic farming, especially for Filipino farmers,” says Tan.

To practice “going organic,” for example, is to extend its meaning beyond the buzzwords, and to integrate it into the concept of community-shared agriculture. “‘Organic’ is now a legally-controlled term … But at least for me, I hope they will point [it] to something more ethical, about being connected to nature,” says Tan. “When I use the term ‘organic,’ I hope people get that it’s not just about those minimum codes, but this whole movement of trying to live in such a way that’s in harmony with the environment. Eat in such a way, farm in such a way,” she says.

In Capas, Tarlac, for example, where one of the community’s farms is located, organic farming has provided a viable alternative to the livelihood of some rice and sugarcane farmers. “When you’re tied to those kinds of crops, you’re always in debt, and you’re exposed to chemical pesticides and fertilizer,” Tan says. “Well, maybe not as much with vegetables, but your whole mindset is based on debt and you’ll never be able to pay it off. So why would you want your kids to be farmers?”

“When I use the term ‘organic,’ I hope people get that it’s not just about those minimum codes, but this whole movement of trying to live in such a way that’s in harmony with the environment. Eat in such a way, farm in such a way.” — Charlene Tan

“So when we stepped in and invited them to plant for us, to grow a sideline of organic crops, with a steady demand, it became a lucrative sideline, especially for the women who were just based at home and could just head those small gardens,” she adds. “And we saw that with hard work and taking care of the land, we could earn a little bit each week, as compared to the economic and environmental vulnerability of rice farming.”

For farmers in La Trinidad, Benguet, organic farming also means putting a premium on health. For many Dumagat farmers in the community, who haven’t ventured into commercial farming, “it’s like discovering that there’s a market for the items they grow, or that this grows here din pala,” says Tan.

What’s most remarkable about Tan’s and other young farmers’ movement is its insistence to create an ecosystem that does not leave the farmers hungry and scrambling for a livelihood. Instead, there’s an appreciation for what farmers do to nourish a community, and a stubborn commitment to reimagine how agriculture can be at the center of society.

Illustration by GICA TAM

                                        Berna Romulo-Puyat of the Department of Agriculture

Berna Romulo-Puyat is the undersecretary for agribusiness, marketing, and regional engagement for the Department of Agriculture (DA), as well as its supervising secretary for organic agriculture and special sectors (such as women, youth in agribusiness, senior citizens, and the differently-abled). Her work — connecting farmers and producers to markets and building demand — has helped empower vulnerable sectors, such as women.

While women remain the minority in agriculture, at least as reflected by statistics (24.9 percent of the workforce, compared to men comprising 75.08 percent), their contribution cannot be underplayed. “Women have an important role in agriculture as they are also present in all the stages of the value chain,” says Romulo-Puyat. “Men’s participation in agriculture are only magnified since men do the heavy work which require greater physical strength that women do not naturally possess — for example, the maintenance of the irrigation system, carrying of heavy items, land preparation, operation of big and heavy farm equipment and machinery, etc.”

The DA, for its part, seeks to change this mindset by way of “gender-friendly” programs, says Romulo-Puyat. “In compliance with Republic Act 9710 or the Magna Carta of Women, we are allocating at least five percent of our budget to gender-responsive programs, projects, and activities, especially through our banner programs,” she says. “We have also issued a Special Order directing all DA units, bureaus, and attached agencies to make Gender and Development and integral part of their plan and budget.”

The DA has also pushed for the review of the Registry System on Basic Sectors in Agriculture (RSBSA) to include women in its database. “At present, the RSBSA includes the ‘actual tillers’ in the list, which includes women, and not just the ‘head of household,’ [who is] usually male; sometimes, beneficiaries are listed as ‘husband and wife,’” says Romulo-Puyat.

She adds that gender-friendly technology has been developed to respond to the specific needs of women in agriculture. “[These tools] may be easily used by women since they are compact, easy to operate, have low investment and maintenance cost, and have adjustable parts that are suitable for the physique and strength.”

But challenges, of course, remain. Linked to issues of land reform and food sovereignty are basic roadblocks women face at the outset. These include, says Romulo-Puyat, limited access and control over resources, and limited participation and representation in decision-making. Attempts to address these include the programs mentioned, as well as efforts to train women leaders by way of encouraging participation in consultative bodies such as Anti-Poverty Councils and Agriculture and Fishery Councils.

But there is still a long way to go when it comes to uplifting farmers, let alone uplifting women farmers, whose efforts have become invisible due to a mix of cultural and political factors.

“I have come to realize that even before ‘Gender and Development’ and ‘gender equality’ became popular concepts and buzzwords, rural women in the Philippines have been working as hard as their male counterparts in performing their respective tasks in food production,” says Romulo-Puyat. “This emphasizes the need to provide sufficient support to our rural women in order to make them more productive, and encourage them to continue produce quality and enough food for our people.”