Sunrise in the Bukindnon uplands on the Philippine island of Mindanao. Courtesy of the Salumayag Youth Collective for Forests

Sharing is caring: How seed saving can restore food sovereignty

Indigenous youth are bringing traditional farming back to Mindanao

By Gloria Amor Paredes, 2023 Forest Restoration Steward and co-founder, Salumayag Youth Collective for Forests

In the uplands of Bukidnon on the Philippine island of Mindanao, the views of majestic mountain ranges stretch as far as the eye can see. But the beauty of this landlocked province isn’t limited to its landscape, which attracts visitors from other parts of the archipelago every summer. It also lies in the diversity of Indigenous cultures it cradles.

Among Bukidnon’s Indigenous Peoples are the Manobo-Kulamanun – the people of the Kulaman River, located in the south of the province.

Community consultation with Manobo farmers about seed banking
A community consultation with Manobo farmers about seed banking.

For generations, the Manobo-Kulamanun people have viewed farming as a celebration of their cultural identity. They traditionally practiced hunglos, a system of collective cultivation of staple crops that brought communities together to work in farm areas and share harvests.

There was no expectation of compensation – only that when farmers came together for hunglos, they would prepare simple but nutritious meals to be enjoyed by all. 

Most commonly cultivated crops in Bukidnon uplands

But in the 1970s, the logging industry arrived and completely reshaped the landscape. Lush forests were cut down, and Indigenous communities were displaced. In recent years, multinational corporations have built large plantations and expansive monocropping, creating a dependence on chemical-based fertilizers and other agricultural inputs. This has forced small-scale farmers to conform with market demands – even if doing so leaves them in a vicious cycle of debt. 

Hunglos and other traditional Indigenous farming practices entered a sharp decline as once diverse family farms became dominated by cash crops, which often require chemical herbicides and fertilizers to maximize yields. These chemicals have caused extensive damage to the health of the region’s soil, waters and people.

The price upland farmers pay for seeds

Every planting cycle, a typical upland farmer spends roughly PHP 5,500 (USD 100) on seeds alone. These seeds are only available in the city center, which is two hours away by motorcycle on rough roads and crossing several rivers, costing an additional PHP 1,000 (USD 18) in fuel roundtrip.

To afford seeds, farmers take out loans at agritech supplies stores in the city, usually through a middleman. They also borrow money to buy basic agricultural inputs such as herbicides and fertilizers, at an average interest rate of 10 percent.

Job’s tears
Olivun (Adlay millet or Job’s tears), one of the most cultivated crops in the Bukidnon uplands.

As the climate crisis leads to more frequent crop failures, our food producers are left with no food on their own tables, robbed of the freedom that they once had when they could rely on one another as they farmed to ensure that no one in their communities went hungry.

Instead, we now have an extractive system of large-scale mainstream agriculture that prioritizes individual wealth accumulation over the spirit of togetherness that truly sustains peoples and communities.

Manobo elders identifying rice varieties
Elders of a Manobo community in the Tangkulan range identifying varieties of Kamad-an or upland rice.

Seed saving as youth-led resistance 

Before seeds came in cans and pockets at high price tags for upland Indigenous communities, they were stored in a lukung (tree bark container) or a liyang (weaved basket) and placed in a small hut atop a tree.

This practice was called Salupungan nu lalapung – setting aside seeds for collective use to secure the supply of grains for the next planting cycle and to serve as backup in case of rice shortages. But as farming became individualistic, so did seed saving.

That’s why young Manobo-Kulamanun leaders have launched a community-based seed banking effort to preserve their heirloom grains, tubers and seeds – and the deep cultural, nutritional and medicinal value they contain. For these youth, this initiative is their first step in weaning themselves off a dependence on mass-produced seeds and building food sovereignty. 

The author with farmers during a community consultation
The author (front left) with farmers during a community consultation.

The Bukidnon Seed Stewards Project is a flagship project of the Salumayag Youth Collective for Forests, an Indigenous youth and women-led initiative that works with upland communities to steward their ancestral lands through regenerative practices and narratives and future-proof their food security through seed banking.

The project will consist of four phases: dialogue, which includes community consultations; training, involving an in-service training course on seed banking in the context of upland Bukidnon; management, where the seed stewards and graduates from the training program will operationalize the community seed bank; and education, where a field guide will be shared broadly to inspire others to start seed banking in their own communities.

Young Bukidnon seed steward
A young Bukidnon seed steward.

Tradition as innovation

Our approach is deeply rooted in the culture’s traditional practices. For example, community consultations are carried out in the context of panumbaluy –  a Manobo tradition of visiting family members or relatives who live in distant or remote communities, usually in a forest, to check on their well-being and to share important life updates. 

In keeping with this practice, our team traversed the forest of the Tangkulan range to reach remote communities and carry out focus group discussions with the farmers and analyze local crop diversity.

Bukidnon Seed Stewards field team
The Bukidnon Seed Stewards field team, composed of Manobo-Kulamanen women and youth, crossing the Kumudi River in the Tangkulan range during a panumbaluy.

Indigenous cultural practices help sustain diversity in food and agriculture – which is why this project aims to bring back collective seed banking to help farmers reclaim their control of what they plant and what they eat.

And in the broader picture, as the Indigenous youth of the Bukidnon uplands work to address the adverse impacts of land use change through regenerative agriculture, they will be guided by their belief that food sovereignty can only be built by taking care of the most fundamental symbol of life: seeds.

Bukidnon Seed Stewards field team
The field team stops for a rest during their trek.

All images courtesy of the Salumayag Youth Collective for Forests. Follow them on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

Article tags

farmingfoodforestsindigenous peoplesseeds

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