Days after the COVID-19 lockdown commenced, something happened in Purok Magarwak that had not happened before. In an area devoid of much happenings, villagers came together and agreed to make a community garden.

Overnight, an empty field became a spontaneous meeting ground for twenty-six families interested in the idea of creating many smaller gardens within a one garden, each small part unique to the family’s style in fertilization techniques, companion planting, heat protection, and so on. In this socio-ecologial experiment, the one rule was there are no mistakes or errors. Everyone is free to create an expression of growth and hope.

A garden brought forth the villagers’ chance to bond with each other. Throughout the day, toddlers and teenagers, mothers and fathers can be found flowing in an organized chaos of play and work. As they water, mulch and till, they connect in song and story, sharing a rare bond previously intangible throughout the history of this place.

Home to an admixture of migrant and indigenous people, Magarwak is located on the outer edges of development, where scant livelihood is centered on weaving low-cost Banigs (traditional mats) from pandan, a wild plant which in recent years is becoming increasingly difficult to come by.

“What are the reasons the village suddenly comes together now,” we asked Purok President Ramil Eleazar.

He ponders, “there had always been this passion, this wanting, this need to grow food in the village, but there was never the time, the resources or even the land to use freely. It was only now, when there was suddenly time and the space. The landowner generously offered the use of a sizable property next to the Magarwak river. Locked down, there was nothing else to do but to grow vegetables. We took a vote and decided we all wanted to do it. Even distant villagers walk from far away to participate.”

Magarwak land is not traditionally agriculture-ready. Its hilly topography maintains mostly secondary forest timber. Much of Magarwak’s large tracts of land have long fenced out its indigenous inhabitants, displaced in lieu of converting their forest habitats for future urban development.

Where people have little access to land, water, seeds and other resources, the steps to sustainability are normally few and far apart. During this COVID-19 period, we meditate on how community-driven projects now unleash potentials for bottom-up approaches to rural development.

In tribal societies, a common vision can organize participatory processes with little planning and the need for trainings or meetings. A Native Philippines still rests on its residual oral traditions. With little budget or bureaucracy, people can easily enact sustainable nation-building, one garden at a time.

Our Philippine National Anthem dreams of our simple sovereignty in just two words: “Lupang Hinirang” literally translates as “Chosen Land.”

Across the country, people are returning to the soil, choosing once more to relate more deeply with the earth. In our national context, the process of remembrance is timely. This next week, the Philippines will be the country to have undergone strict national lockdown measures for the longest time.

To appreciate why such an Extended Community Quarantine holds purpose, we look at what March 16, 2020 signifies. The first day of the ECQ in the Philippines is exactly a year preceding the half-millennium anniversary of the colonization of the Philippines.

The Portugese sailor, Ferdinand Magellan and his Spanish companions landed in the Philippine Islands on March 16, 1521. This means that millions of Filipinos are symbolically given 365 days pause to realize, in the figurative and the literal, what it means to once again, “choose the land.”

What can happen in a year of rest and change?

For one, a grieving process is at work. An unfamiliar undercurrent of depression and emotional stress is felt in the populace, as Puerto Princesa City officials are urged to deal with psychological problems reported in communities dealing with the invisible effects of the lockdown.

Yet, as many are forced to release our long-held habits, mental patterns and emotions, a positive newness emerges alongside Magarwak’s symbolic productivity.

Even as we now shift much of our modernized orientations towards organic and traditional lifestyles, we realize that the “new normal” in post-colonial Philippines, is also the “old natural.”

When “what is new is what is old,” our most natural lifestyles by default undergo a process of normalization.

A decade past, a good friend shared a powerful documentary called The Power of Community when I visited her ecovillage in Nueva Ecija. The movie effectively describes Energy Resource Depletion, which used Cuba’s Special Period to explain how our access to fossil fuels eventually undergo a terminal decline, as developing nations like China and India strive to raise their standards of industrialization and consumerism. The movie effectively substantiates our urgent need to reduce consumption levels, in view that globalization’s entropic effects bring about disruptive recessions in our planet’s extractable fuel, clean water, breathable air and arable soil supply.

When Cuba was forced to undergo an extended economic depression spawned by the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a financial crisis choked Cuba’s fossil fuel supply chain, from which Cuba’s food production chiefly hinged on. Food stocks dwindled as the Cuban peso shrank exponentially. The country was forced to face alarming cases of malnutrition and as consequence, depression and disease.

Eventually, Cuban agriculture underwent shifts from chemical-based farming towards organic food production. From their dependence on automobiles, urban and rural inhabitants alike shifted to the bicycle, as healthy habits and diets became the sudden norm. Idle land was redistributed to productive communities. Social and Earth scientists have often presented Cuba as the model that fairly foreshadows future global events.

Purok Magarwak in the last month, acts as our mini-Cuba, as do many other communities around the planet. Across Palawan, artists, advocates and farmers conduct simple dialogues that signify the future visages of a post-pandemic universe. Visitors and residents sit in distance yet in solidarity, listening to the sound of the old anthems being sung in very new ways.