'Soil gives life': Philippine islanders adapt to survive in Palawan paradise as new climate reality hits
EL NIDO, Philippines: Ann Pansinsoy is a daughter of a fisherman. When she was young, life was simple but enriched by the abundance of the sea. Fish were everywhere – tonnes and tonnes of them, she said, from the shore where the island kids would dangle bait above the sea floor to catch their dinner.
“If we could catch one and I didn’t like it, then I’d throw it back to the sea and catch fish that I wanted for my dinner, just like that,” said Ann, now 38. Her tan face lit up with a bright smile at the thought of those old days.
“It’s a good childhood memory,” she added. “My kids don’t have the experience I had before.”
The idea of food security is in the distant past for many residents of El Nido in Palawan – a coastal municipality on the Philippines’ remote western border. Fish catches are in decline. Crops struggle to grow. Their lands are dry and barren from years of slash-and-burn farming and prolonged drought.
Dry spells are a big problem, especially for residents on islands with limited freshwater resources. Three years ago, Ann experienced the worst drought she can remember.
“Oh my goodness,” she said. “In my kitchen, we had to take water from the sea for the first and second rinses, and then used fresh water for the last. Even the toilets, we converted them into salt water but then it depleted the soil.”
That year, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported about 102,000 farmers in the Philippines had suffered from dry spells. Their farmlands of 194,000 hectares bore the brunt of the extreme weather – one-third of which had no chance of recovery.
The Philippines is among the most vulnerable in the world to climate hazards. According to the Global Peace Index of 2019, which analyses the potential impact of climate change on peace around the world, the Southeast Asian nation is at the highest risk of multiple climate hazards.
Nearly half of its 106 million population live in exposure to natural disasters such as tropical cyclones and drought, which the report said “are expected to increase in frequency and intensity due to climate change”.
In El Nido, islanders work hard for food. Their life very much depends on fishing. But as catches dwindle, many people have to find an alternative to ensure they have enough to eat.
For Ann, it is permaculture farming, where agriculture is integrated into the natural ecosystem in a way that benefits both humans and the environment.
Working with a local community-based travel company TAO Philippines, the mother-of-three has tasked herself with transforming coastal villages into a climate-resilient and self-reliant community, where locals can grow their own food, live in harmony with nature and thrive in the fluctuating climate conditions.
It is work in progress and any change takes time. Ann and her company currently work with 17 coastal communities between El Nido and Busuanga. The heart of their operation is a secluded complex behind a row of palm trees in Sitio Parangaycayan, where she is in charge of food production.
Unlike most coastal areas nearby, her workplace is brimming with food – sweet basil, mustard, spinach, coconut, pineapple, papaya, turkeys, ducks, pigs, and the list goes on. Somehow they all thrive in defiance of the searing heat and tropical storms.
“Here in our community, we have a lot of food. Everybody grows their own,” Ann said.
Behind her, a mountain is thick with bamboo, banana trees and various kinds of plants whose long roots help absorb rainwater and prevent soil erosion. Its lush green colour paints a striking contrast to the stunning shades of blues of the Darocotan Bay.
Seven years ago, when Ann first came to this exact same place, it was bleak and hopeless, “like a bald mountain,” she said, pointing at the green forest behind.
“Slash and burn, that’s the traditional way of farming here – slash the forest, get it dry and then burn. They burn because of the charcoal; it’s a really good fertiliser. But if you keep on doing that, the soil gets depleted. Then you don’t have trees and then we experience drought.”
‘ANG TUBIG AY BUHAY’: WATER IS LIFE
Through community outreach, education and examples, TAO Philippines has built a growing community of islanders who are passionate about improving local livelihoods a natural and sustainable way.
Challenged by limited freshwater supply and drought, the community is committed to conserving and increasing the amount of spring water on the island. Years of hard work, experiments, research and failures have resulted in a remarkable transformation of Sitio Parangaycayan.
The key to their success is soil.
“Soil gives life,” Ann said. She strolled past a stream that zigzags through the farm. Reflected in the water, a large wooden sign in local Tagalog hung from a tree branch. It reads ‘Ang Tubig ay Buhay’. Water is life.
For several years, Ann has been working with local farmers to improve soil so it can retain water and nourish plants. They use organic fertiliser in cultivation to avoid polluting soil. Plants such as beans are also grown to feed the soil nitrogen – one of the most essential nutrients for plants – while climate-resilient Vetiver grass is used to restore degraded soil, prevent landslides and catch sediment from storm water runoff.
“Vetiver is an amazing plant. We grow it everywhere. We also use it to filter water,” Ann said. “We also do mulching to protect the soil from strong winds and strong sun.”
The result is tangible. The soil in the community has improved over the years and so has its water situation. Today the well in the farm is full of spring water from the mountain, rich with minerals, soft and sweet in taste.
Up there, a furrow has also been created to harvest rainwater. Its base is covered with mulch made of decayed leaves and bark, organic fertiliser and seeds of various trees. When it rains, the soil gets soaked with water and remains moist underneath the mulch, allowing the plants to grow.
“If there is no tree, the water will just flow down. But while you have the furrow here, the water is just there and slowly, we plant trees,” Ann said.
“It has changed a lot three years after that drought. Now we have a good source of water.”
Reforestation is an annual ritual for the TAO community. It is also Ann’s most favourite activity in the rainy season. In fact, she is thinking of planting hundreds of flame trees on the mountain so it turns red in summer.
Down in the farm, ‘Talinum’ sprouts flourish in the hot sun. The tropical plant, also known as Philippine spinach, is often used in salads and increasingly grown around the community. Its climate-resilient nature means it can grow and survive on its own without much water or care.
“We plant them everywhere. Even if you take off the leaves and throw away the stalks behind the kitchen, next week they sprout. In the dry season, maybe you don’t see them but once the rain comes, even overnight, in the morning they sprout. So why waste your water? There are a lot of plants that grow crazily everywhere,” Ann said.
A ‘PARADISE’ CLASSROOM
Today, a variety of plants and animals have replaced the once barren land in Sitio Parangaycayan. They are grown and raised in a natural system that conserves and improves the environment while supporting the local livelihoods.
The farm and forest is now the main source of food for some 300 locals in the TAO community – farmers, boat drivers, fishermen, cooks, women and young islanders. Their abundance is living proof that people can live in harmony with nature if they get to know it, work with it and be part of it.
“The idea is that we don’t have to buy stuff from the market – that’s the goal,” Ann said. “We’re slowly teaching people on the islands.”
One of them is Melanie Jacob. The 35-year-old farmer with a degree in agroforestry was born in Sitio Parangaycayan, where her family owned a traditional paddy field. When she joined the TAO community, she learnt a new way of farming – more organic and sustainable – as well as how to minimise climate impacts on plants.
“The weather changes a lot. There are typhoons and drought. I’ve learnt that in the dry season, we must use a greenhouse, where moisture is better maintained. The roof also helps shield the plants from the sun,” she said.
Melanie works in the TAO farm with Ann. Every school break, she said students would come to visit and learn farming techniques such as how to make compost and organic pesticides.
“We teach those kids and they apply what they’ve learnt at home.”
Besides plants, pigs, ducks and turkeys are also bred at the farm for protein. Two years after the breeding programme began, there were more than 100 pigs. According to Ann, piglets were then distributed to several coastal communities.
“Now people on the islands, apart from fishing, they also raise the animals for food,” she said.
"We don’t stop learning or experimenting. The big thing is you work with the communities and the kids. They don’t go to school but they learn something else here, like the real life. If there is a typhoon, they can climb coconut trees. They can grow crops. They know how to prepare fish and everything. They have all these survival tools for the island life."
Around her, a jungle of herbs, vegetables and trees swayed in the sea breeze. Flowers are in full bloom – yellow, red, pink and purple. Everyone was getting ready for a Christmas party, where she planned to whip up another unforgettable meal for her community.
Near the beach, young islanders were playing volleyball. Little children had their own game on the grass while their mothers prepared food in the main kitchen.
“This place is like a training ground,” Ann added. “They can learn more; they have this paradise here.”