Site icon Conservation news

For drought relief, Cordilleran women in the Philippines rely on seed saving

  • As El Niño and climate change bring drought to the northern Philippines, farmers say the value of local heirloom seeds shines through.
  • Farmers say these seeds, cultivated through generations, show greater resilience to drought and heat than commercial hybrid seeds promoted by the government.
  • A network of seed savers, spearheaded by rural women, is working to revitalize the traditional practices of saving seeds, combining traditional agricultural knowledge with modern documentation processes.

BENGUET, Philippines — Anita Sinakay grew up with her farmer parents saving seeds, a practice she continues now that she has her own farm.

Today, Sinakay heads the Benguet Association of Seed Savers (BASS), a group of organic farmers that was formed pre-pandemic to revive the dying practice of saving seeds among agricultural Indigenous groups in this province, including the Ibaloys and Kankanaeys.

Sinakay, who farms in the highland town of Tublay in Benguet province in the Cordillera region, says she takes particular pride in her heirloom bean seeds, which have been grown and saved for more than 50 years. She says these beans, passed down to her by her parents, are particularly resilient to drought and other adverse weather conditions.

Heirloom winged beans, grown from seeds cultivated and saved by Indigenous farmers for more than 50 years. Anita Sinakay's collection of heirloom seeds. Image courtesy of Anita Sinakay.
Heirloom winged beans, grown from seeds cultivated and saved by Cordilleran farmers for more than 50 years. Image courtesy of Anita Sinakay.

Many farmers have abandoned the time-consuming process of saving seeds, turning instead to high-input patented seeds promoted by the government and available from stores, agricultural offices and fellow farmers.

But when conditions get tough, seed savers say, the value of heirloom seeds shines through.

The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration reports that the Cordillera region is experiencing drought due to El Niño, which is intensified by human-caused climate change, resulting in significantly below-average rainfall from December 2023 to May 2024.

The region is well known for the ingenuity of its rice terraces, a sustainable system to harvest water from the mountaintops. However, many of its towns, including Tublay, still lack irrigation, leaving farming entirely dependent on rain. Farmers who saved seeds have access to seed varieties that have been locally adapted through either breeding or repeated planting, such as Sinakay’s drought-tolerant heirloom legumes, rather than being tied to commercial staple crops that require more water.

Image by Laurie Mae Gucilatar.
Pole beans grown from seeds saved by farmers remain healthy despite the drought. Image by Laurie Mae Gucilatar.

What makes it work

Despite the challenges of the local water supply, Sinakay has grown her seed collection from a few heirloom seeds to a wider range over the past years. She estimates that the monetary value of her collection, which consists mostly of beans, has grown to 20,000 pesos ($348) from her initial capital of 3,000 pesos ($52).

Sinakay’s 1.5-hectare (3.7 acre) farm, which she bought after working in Taiwan, is also bigger than most of her fellow BASS members’ 100-300 square meters (1,075-3,200 square feet). This means she has space to set up a greenhouse for isolated seed production, allowing her to maintain the stability of her open-pollinated seeds and to produce seeds even during the rainy season.

Pests, Sinakay says, are manageable if you’re around to tend to your plants. She uses compost and fermented plant juice for fertilizer, applying each twice during planting season.

This year, she also stored bottled seed collections in her refrigerator due to extreme heat, compared with last year when she simply added wood ashes to protect them from pests, a method handed down from her ancestors. “With the hot climate, legumes tend to yield to weevils,” Sinakay says.

Anita Sinakay's collection of heirloom seeds. Image courtesy of Anita Sinakay.
Anita Sinakay’s collection of heirloom seeds. Image courtesy of Anita Sinakay.

“Saving seeds makes sense,” according to Salvador Balbido, an organic practitioner in Sorsogon province in the Bicol region.  He says he believes it is not only practical but also helps to preserve traditional varieties, such as his collection of pigmented rice seeds.

Balbido says farmers can grow such varieties repeatedly without encountering unpredictable traits because they are open-pollinated, unlike commercial seeds, which are often hybridized and cannot be replanted because they are either sterile or do not breed true to type.

He adds that organic farming provides him with a reliable income, unlike small-scale conventional farmers who frequently fail to break even due to a number of factors, including the cost of hybrid seeds and expensive inputs such as synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides that can boost yields but also deplete soil nutrients and contaminate waterways over time.

Image by Laurie Mae Gucilatar.
Farmer Grael Bomowey’s notebook. Farmers’ records of their planting and seed saving practices help to establish the contributions made by small farmers to crop diversity in the Philippines. Image by Laurie Mae Gucilatar.

Pushing back

In the past, farmer seed savers relied on oral exchanges of agriculture knowledge. Today, members of groups like BASS augment this with written documentation of their seed varieties and planting methods.

Proper documentation of the name and sources of seeds and the dates they were planted and harvested benefits seed savers, says Elizabeth Martin, a BASS member who conducts field inspection for Global Seed Savers Philippines (GSSP), an NGO that help reinvigorate the practice of saving seeds in Tublay by forming BASS and collaborating with the town’s agriculture office to host the group’s seed library.

Martin visits farms 11 or 12 times in a year to check and validate the seed savers’ monitoring booklets. These records document farmers’ contribution to a crop’s development or resilience and demonstrate that small farmers can produce credible farming knowledge, both of which activists say are crucial as giant agribusiness conglomerates increasingly consolidate control over the global market for seeds.

Sinakay’s record notebook shows that she grows leafy vegetables three to four times a year; three times for legumes and once for perennial vegetables such as pigeon pea, wing bean, sponge gourd and squash.

Due to a lack of staff, the agriculture office was forced to close the seed library, where BASS members donate, swap and sell seeds, late in the pandemic. They are currently keeping their seed collections in their individual home libraries and continuing the work they began by collaborating with Sinakay and GSSP.

Grael Bomowey poses with a fruiting butternut squash grown by her neighbor after receiving a seed from her collection. Image by Laurie Mae Gucilatar.
Grael Bomowey poses with a fruiting butternut squash grown by her neighbor after receiving a seed from her collection. Image by Laurie Mae Gucilatar.

BASS now has nearly 30 members, up from fewer than 10 in 2016. This increase in membership helps to keep the program going as the group produces more seeds. Most of the members are women, a trend noted by leaders of seed saving groups across the country.

Since the Benguet group’s founding, GSSP has gone on to form another group of seed savers in Cebu and has hosted trainees from nearby provinces such as Mountain Province where the practice is also dwindling.

In one town in Mountain Province a group of women organic farmers known as the Bangaan-Fidelisan-Tanulong-Aguid-Madungo Farmers’ Association (BFTAMFA) intends to establish its own community seed production area to save seeds on a regular basis, just like their elders.

Grael Bomowey, a BFTAMFA member and single mother, is excited about this group project to improve seed accessibility, a lesson they learned during the pandemic.

As a trained organic farmer, she said she does not use synthetic inputs that can contaminate natural springs, which can harm wild animals such as hawks, eagles and lizards and serve as a source of water for rice terraces carved out of the slopes below her farm.

However, because tourism in nearby Sagada is back to normal, she is back to tour guiding as her main source of income, making her unable to document as much as she once did. Water supply is also a problem in their area.

Sinakay says older farmers also dislike documenting, preferring to focus their energy on planting.

Her sister, Joy, who returned to Tublay during the pandemic, has also joined BASS. Joy, too, says she finds the documentation difficult but the benefits, such as saving money when growing your own seeds, entice her to stick with it.

In addition, Joy says, there’s already a local marketplace established specifically for organic produce. “Some won’t buy it because organic is more expensive,” she says. “[If only] they knew what they’re feeding into their body.”

Sustainable livelihood offers a lifeline to Philippines’ dying rice terraces

Field reporting for this story was supported by Oxfam Philippines.

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.

Exit mobile version