File photo of Sunlight Food Corp. chief operations officer and owner Crispin Muyrong training local indigenous farmers in Bataraza and Brooke's Point in Palawan on ube farming techniques. (Photo courtesy of USAID Protect Wildlife)

A year after planting the seedlings of their first ube crops, partner-farmers in lowland and upland communities in two barangays in Bataraza and Brooke’s Point are ready to harvest them next week to make profits.

Supported by their municipal governments, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Protect Wildlife project and other stakeholders in livelihood assistance, partner-farmers belonging to upland farming associations in Kusor, Barangay Inugbong, Bataraza, and Barangay Saraza, Brooke’s Point will already reap the fruits of their labor on January 20-22, 2020.

Lawrence San Diego, communications manager of the USAID’s Protect Wildlife, said the activities will be composed of a ritual ceremony by the Pala’wan indigenous peoples (IP) in Saraza before the ube harvesting in their upland and lowland communities on January 21.

The same will be done on January 22 by the Kusor Upland Farmers Association (KUFA) and the Bulalacao farmers’ group in Bataraza.

“Ang activities po will be ‘yong pag-harvest ng tanim na ube ng beneficiary farmers and signing of the marketing agreement with Sunlight Foods, ‘yong nag-train sa kanila and buyer na ng kanilang ube,” he said.

Ube project beneficiary Henry Rilla, president of the IP group Panglima, Samahan ng mga Katutubong Nagpapahalaga sa Kagubatan ng Saraza. (Photo courtesy of USAID Protect Wildlife)

For three days, participants, farmers, and guests will experience ube-harvesting during the project milestone. The activities will include farm visits, interviews, photoshoots, and a ceremonial agreement signing between Sunlight Foods Corp. (SFC) and KUFA for the supply and purchase that is in line with prior partnership arrangements.

The agreement will be signed with SFC chief operations officer and owner Crispin Muyrong to support their livelihood and enterprises from farm planning to conservation-friendly economic activities.

SFC supports 147 farmers in southern Palawan in partnership with USAID Protect Wildlife by enabling them to grow ube and other high-value crops with better opportunities to earn more through upland farming, diverting their efforts away from getting forest resources which results to forest degradation and decline of species biodiversity.

The partnership goes beyond giving the farmers a reliable market for their produce. From the demonstration plots, Protect Wildlife and SFC are actively teaching the farmers sustainable farming principles and techniques and how these can help conserve their natural environment and protect biodiversity.

Timoteo Gulbin, farmer and president of the Bulacao Community-Based Wildlife Protection Association. (Photo courtesy of USAID Protect Wildlife)

“In Palawan, we observed that our ube farmers there are easier to work with because Protect Wildlife guides them and trains them well on upland farming and biodiversity conservation, which makes them understand the concept of sustainability better,” said Muyrong.

The ube farms in the areas are provided with seedlings by SFC. After every harvest, the farmers set aside planting materials for the next cropping season.

Muyrong said using science and nutrition techniques, SFC’s ube plants perform better because they have a shortened dormancy period, which means that farmers have less downtime and can earn continuously.

“We share all our innovations to our farmers, we teach them new things, more harvest means more benefits for everyone,” he said.

“These farmers have no working capital, they have nothing. You have to pay them in cash and you have to get their products regularly. They won’t survive if you buy from them once a month, or intermittently. It has to be a continuous process,” Muyrong added.

In southern Palawan, the effort is part of Protect Wildlife’s and its partners’ work with LGUs to conserve the 120,457-hectare forests of Mt. Mantalingahan Protected Landscape (MMPL) which serves as the headwater of 33 watersheds and dwelling place to endangered wildlife.

The mountain range encompasses not only the municipalities of Brooke’s Point and Bataraza but also Rizal, Quezon, and Sofronio Española.

Protect Wildlife said that within these municipalities and bordering the protected area are 140,184 hectares of forest lands that provide various ecosystem goods and services that benefit local and indigenous communities and serve as an additional buffer zone for the protected landscape.

These have an estimated total economic value of USD5.5 billion, including water supply, food, medicine, scenic places, fertile soils, and wildlife habitats.

San Diego said their project’s activities in the areas are designed to institutionalize management plans and zoning regimes and to incentivize compliance. These are strengthening on-site law enforcement, promoting the protection of flagship species, behavior change communication campaigns, and livelihood support.

He said demonstration farms for ube, cassava, vegetables, and other high-value crops were established to help the partner-farmers.

Protect Wildlife and SFC provided the planting materials, tools, and training on conservation-friendly agriculture, while the LGU and partners provided the land and manpower for the farms.

The Lutheran World Relief (LWR) and ECLOF Philippines, on the other hand, provided the financing opportunities to the farmers.

Among the partner-farmers in ube is Henry Rilla, president of the IP group Panglima, Samahan ng mga Katutubong Nagpapahalaga sa Kagubatan ng Saraza (PSKTKS).

Rilla said Protect Wildlife has taught them that everyone is connected to nature and if the forests suffer from the destructive process of slash-and-burn (kaingin) farming, resources will not last.

“Protect Wildlife has taught us that we are connected to nature, instead of doing kaingin in large areas, we have now reduced our kaingin areas and stopped getting too many trees and resources from the forest, especially now that we have ube and fast crops like vegetables as our source of livelihood. We are also taught how to plant fruit trees.

Rilla said his dream is for his family to do well in ube farming, believing it will pave the way for them to have a steady source of income.

“We can’t even send our kids to school because we lack the money, but with Protect Wildlife’s help and if we work hard, there is so much hope,” he said.

Timoteo Gulbin, farmer and president of the Bulacao Community-Based Wildlife Protection Association (BCBWPA), said the ube project has given them hope in terms of having income for their families.

With SFC as sure buyer of their ube crops, he said the forest can rest and recover from the activities of the IPs who subsist and depend on them.

“This new ube project is good because we really need support from a steady market so we can let the forest rest and recover. We have seen the effects of climate change in our farms, our water supply is now low and some lakes have already dried up, so it’s really time to save our forests. Ube farming is a way to get income without over-using our forest, although we still plant crops in the forest, we do it by intercropping with forest trees,” Gulbin said.