ZAMBOANGA DEL SUR—For the last five years, leaders of Dumingag, a quiet rice-producing town in Zamboanga del Sur, have enlisted earthworms in a historic fight against poverty perpetuated by the costly chemical-dependent farming that kills the lowly organisms.
Earthworms are natural agents of soil fertility; their presence indicates a healthy farm and its eventual produce.
By helping restore conditions for the crawlers to thrive, municipal leaders expect to increase income from farming, on which most of the 50,000 residents depend.
Recently, the world has taken notice of this trailblazing effort.
Dumingag is among the five winners of the One World Award given by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (Ifoam) for its organic farming program. The grand prize will be given in September.
Ifoam is a leading world grouping on sustainable agriculture, mainly composed of civil society organizations and social movements. Dumingag is its only local government member.
Started in 2008, the One World Award runs every two years to recognize organic farming initiatives that have made a difference.
The five winners for 2012 emerged from over a hundred nominees worldwide. Others vying for the grand plum are initiatives of groups in India, Cuba, Turkey and Nicaragua.
“What they did in Dumingag serves as a lighthouse. I hope this experience inspires mayors worldwide,” said German community journalist Bernward Geier, the nonvoting chair of the five-member award jury and former Ifoam president.
Geier visited Dumingag to validate the achievements of its program.
Bringing back the natural fertility of the farms and putting premium on maintaining soil health are central goals of Dumingag’s organic agriculture program.
Long years of agrichemical use had tied farm productivity to the application of costly fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides that, in turn, killed earthworms and degraded soil fertility.
The high cost of farming and declining farm production resulted in poor income for tillers. People could barely meet basic necessities, such as food, and pay for services, such as education and health, Mayor Nacianceno Pacalioga said.
Pacalioga said the municipality’s aggressive push for organic farming was the bedrock of a bigger program to bring socioeconomic uplift to the residents.
To win converts, technicians were deployed to train and assist farmers.
In partnership with the Philippine Agrarian Reform Fund and the Assisi Foundation, it also promoted rice-duck farming to bolster the natural fertilization of paddies.
Initially, those who shifted to organic farming grappled with a steep reduction in yield, although this was cushioned by the radical decrease in cost. Several croppings later, as natural soil fertility improved, output went up.
For rice, yield per hectare was at par with farms still applying agrichemicals at 95 65-kilo bags during the dry season, and 70 to 80 bags during the wet season.
But net earnings are higher with organic farming because cost has been reduced by at least a third.
From only 20 in 2007, the number of organic farmers rose to about 500 by 2011, increasing by tenfold the size of farmlands cultivated along sustainable agriculture methods—from close to hundred hectares before to some 1,000 hectares.
In upland villages, organic farming is gaining adherents among vegetable cultivators and livestock raisers.
Today, rice farmers have produced 55 local organic varieties that ensure a stable seed bank.
The story of Dumingag’s success began with a simple tale of conversion.
After a life as a Maoist rebel leader in the 1980s, Pacalioga tilled a family-owned upland farm. In 1995, former comrades introduced him to organic farming, but he was unconvinced.
A seminar on sustainable agriculture in 2000 led to a change of mind-set. Pacalioga was impressed by the natural fertility of the soil in the farms of his former comrades in Calinan, Davao City.
Minus inorganic inputs, the farms produce crops free from pass-on toxicity, he said.
Positive result from his own practice drove Pacalioga to advocate organic agriculture to other farmers, finding kindred spirits among local leaders of the Catholic Church.
“We realized early on that local policy is a key enabler for widespread adoption of the technology,” he recalled.
After he was elected mayor in 2007, Pacalioga aggressively promoted organic farming, helped by the passage of a local ordinance.
By then, entrenched roadblocks unravel. Still doubtful of its viability, municipal agriculture officials took almost a year to be convinced of the merits of organic farming.
Soon, Dumingag leaders were up against the national policy architecture that promoted instead the use of chemical fertilizers and the cultivation of genetically modified crops.
One time, Pacalioga had to turn down P2 million worth of chemical fertilizers offered by regional officials of the Department of Agriculture (DA) for dispersal to the farmers.
Another time, he rejected free genetically modified rice seeds for distribution.
“It was a tough task defending our ground and protecting the program. Had those seeds been planted, local varieties would have perished and we have become captive market for seeds to be grown for the next planting season,” he said.
The policy environment changed when organic farmer Proceso Alcala took the helm of the DA.
Earlier, Alcala said the national government’s emphasis on organic farming “rests on our thrust to surmount dependency on imported agricultural chemicals which not only drain our foreign exchange reserves, but also contribute to environmental and land degradation.”
He stressed that adopting sustainable agriculture systems to restore productivity of farmlands and generate rural livelihood “provides long-term economic benefits in the light of climatic and economic uncertainties.”
Today, Pacalioga is confident that the organic farmers themselves will defend their ground amid policy changes that come with the vagaries of the political weather.
Apart from increasing the span of farmlands where organic farming is practiced, the mayor stressed the equal importance of seizing opportunities in the food market so that their surplus production would pitch favorable prices.
Related to this is the need to improve the system of guarantee that crops sold are grown using organic farming methods.
A local survey in 2010 showed that some 90 percent of the townsfolk earn only P3,000 monthly, which is below the rural poverty line. “This proves that there is still an unfinished task for the program,” he said.