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From conflict to crop-growing – communities plant seeds to a new life

Australia’s environmental conservation support helps farmers in conflict areas of Mindanao.

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Central to the success of the program is bringing together people and capitalising on social networks. Residents who participate in the program work in their community garden in Koronadal City, South Cotabato. Photo: Jeoffrey Maitem.

Mindanao is known as a ‘land of promise’ – with potentially one of the richest agricultural areas in South-East Asia owing to its warm temperatures, abundant rainfall and large areas of fertile soil.

But this potential has been hampered by conflict arising from a range of religious, cultural and political differences.

Conflict disrupts farming activities, reduces investment in farm infrastructure, breaks down social structures within communities, and makes it difficult for governments to provide much-needed extension services.

But a call from a community leader looking to help his people in the conflict-affected areas in Mindanao, prompted a group of Australian researchers to develop a program that provides a new approach to improving farmer livelihoods in the presence or threat of conflict.

Local focus, local solutions

For decades, Australia, through the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), has been supporting farmers in the Philippines using an environmental conservation approach – Landcare – that brings farmers together in groups where they can coordinate what they want to do, particularly in managing natural resources.

Dr Mary Johnson, an Australian Research Fellow from Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University, leads the implementation of the program in three conflict-affected sites across Mindanao: Zamboanga Sibugay, Maguindanao and South Cotabato. She works with local partners from the University of the Philippines (UP) Mindanao, UP Los Baños and Landcare Foundation of the Philippines, Inc.

“Previous programs have come from a position of ‘Here’s a problem; here’s a solution; this is what you do’ but this is not the approach we took at all,” says Dr Johnson.

Core to this work is building on social capital within communities. The team supported the development of local farmer groups who worked with facilitators to help them achieve what they wanted through their networks.

“It’s about shoring up existing or developing new networks between farmers, farmer groups and, for example, in the Philippines, local government units or non-government organizations (NGOs) that are operating in their area,” says Dr Johnson.

For example, in Maguindanao the farmers would grow a single crop year after year, with little knowledge of, or capacity to grow, other crops. The facilitators helped the farmers look at opportunities with vegetable production as a priority. Farmers were then linked to a local government program to access inputs such as seeds and get the advice they needed to start production. Now they are growing vegetables to eat and are growing enough to sell as well. In some cases, farmers’ annual incomes have increased by up to 80%.

Jury Alimonjanid is a farmer from Ampatuan, Maguindanao – the site of the infamous Maguindanao Massacre of 2009. Unrest remains and continues to threaten their lives and wellbeing.

As a result of the program, Alimojanid now grows rice, vegetables and fruits on top of his usual crop of corn and coconuts.

“The program helped us learn how to properly plant and manage these crops. This is a big help for us since we get our income for education and household needs from these.”

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Farmers like Ellen Emolaga from Ampatuan, Maguindanao, have diversified their crops, learned new skills and increased their incomes as a result of the program. Photo: Jeoffrey Maitem.

Through broad consultation and local engagement, visits to neighbouring farms and conversations began to take place that would not have otherwise occurred. This improved relationships among previously distant Muslim, Christian and Indigenous farmers and communities.

Scaling out

In South Cotabato, the impact of the program is also being felt by local government agencies. Helen Anaud, an officer of the Koronadal City Agriculture Office, South Cotabato, who works with the program team, says the program has changed the way her office implements its programs with farmers.

“Australia’s approach of working through local farmers and communities really changed the way we prioritise and identify beneficiaries and the areas to implement our programs,” Anaud says. “I think Australia’s model would be useful for other local government units because our farmer beneficiaries, at the end of the program, become empowered entrepreneurs.”

Since the pilots at the three sites, additional local government units and development agencies have expressed interest in adopting the program. Moreover, the Department of Science and Technology–Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development (DOST-PCAARRD) has provided PHP 30 million (AUD 878,500) over three years to expand and evaluate the use of the program in three other conflict-vulnerable sites.

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