Hannah Reyes Morales - Zarraga, Panay Island - Philippines - #2
Like many smallholder farmers around the world, the rice farmers from Zarraga on Panay Island in the Central Philippines, found themselves trapped in a cycle of using chemical fertilisers to grow their crops. What had been sold to them initially as a way to increase their yields, very quickly became a trap, leaving them with soils depleted of nutrients and unable to grow anything without more chemical inputs.
The cycle left these once self-sufficient farmers dependent on agrochemical companies who sold them not just the chemical fertilisers but the rice seed engineered to depend on it. Farmers were forced to sign contracts that obliged them to buy all their inputs from the same company (chemical pesticides, fertilisers and seeds) and over time, ended up costing them more than they could earn. ‘You pay, then you borrow again. The debt never runs out’ says Leticia Subong, photographed here.
For farmers, like Joby Arandela, Johnny Subong and Edgar Tono (also photographed) there seemed little way out until they learnt about SRI (System of Rice Intensification), a method of rice production which is used in 55 countries from India to Madagascar. SRI is a technique where rice seedlings are planted further apart and given less water, allowing the roots to take in more oxygen and grow better. This simple practice has been known to increase yields by up to four times in India.
Now, after four years, Johnny and his mother, Leticia are finally out of debt and have become fully organic. The high yields – almost double what they were before – have eliminated any need for chemicals and they are now able to replace the hybrid seeds with indigenous Panay varieties. Whereas the chemical fertilisers caused Leticia’s nails to turn black and her water buffaloes to develop gangrene on their hooves. Now, native fish like Puyo and Pantat have returned to the paddies and she and her buffalo are thriving.
Today, 40 farmers on the island have formed the ZIDOFA Association and are able to
share the abundance they have created by working with the land. They sell direct to their customers and earn far more for their hard work, skipping out the exploitative middlemen. Tests have also shown that in Joby’s soil, organic matter has doubled since he began SRI. ‘Before, the soil was hard and cracked easily during droughts’ says Leticia. ‘Now, the texture has changed, the soil is soft and when you step on it, your feet sink deep into the ground.’