‘Farm along da riles’: Tondo youth marry urban farming and bayanihan for food security

Rosette Adel, Deejae Dumlao - Philstar.com
�Farm along da riles�: Tondo youth marry urban farming and bayanihan for food security
In this May 22, 2021 photo, the youth of Barangay 228 Zone 221 in Tondo, Manila converge to plant vegetables in their humble "urban farm" along the train tracks.
Philstar.com / Deejae Dumlao

MANILA, Philippines — In a community in Tondo, Manila, children found a unique way to bond.

Instead of being glued to their screens, the youth of Barangay 228 Zone 21 plant and grow vegetables on a small lot along the Philippine National Railway which they turned into a little farm. It has since become their communal activity with their parents.

Sangguniang Kabataan chair Joseph Alvear said the initiative started in 2020 during the Enhanced Community Quarantine period, or the hard lockdown that forced them to stay at home. 

They were tapped by Action for Resilient Communities Inc., a non-profit group led and run by young disaster risk reduction professionals that has been working with barangays of Tondo, Manila for Disaster Risk Reduction capacity building for persons with disabilities and the youth since 2019.

The youth are also guided by Gulaynihan, a community-led urban farming project in Novaliches, Quezon City, founded by Vermon Timbas, also from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

"’Yung mga bata kasi, hindi sila nakakalabas. Bilang isang leader, sabi namin magtanim sila sa sariling bahay," Alvear told Philstar.com, adding that only the youth 15 years old and above were initially allowed to go out until the quarantine restrictions eventually eased.

Alvear said that they first planted monggo as these are the easiest to grow.

Since then, the mini vegetable farm, dubbed "Gulaynihan along the riles", provided food on their table and to the community. The joint project is now called "Farm Ready: Gulaynihan sa Tondo."

They have been producing a variety of vegetables such as radish, mustard, okra, beans, bitter gourd, mushroom and many others.

FRESH PRODUCE: String beans harvested from the Gulaynihan sa Tondo on July 17, 2021.
Philstar.com/Deejae Dumlao

Gulaynihan is a play on “gulay” vegetables and “bayanihan,” a term used for the spirit of civic unity and cooperation among Filipinos.

Why urban farming?

Bianca De Mesa, chairman of Arc Inc., said that in 2020, they found that the youth of Tondo became interested in urban farming because of the increasing hunger and unemployment in the community. It also helped that gardening and caring for plants was becoming a popular pastime.

Prior to this, she said, four of the six barangays in Tondo that they engaged in 2019 had echoed their desire to have an urban farm along the railways of the PNR.

She said the community prefers this as it is the only area in where they can plant and have access to farming basics such as soil and sun exposure.

"It is just [that] back then, it didn't have a sense of urgency. 2020 reminded us how important it is to invest in food security measures," De Mesa said.

They then enlisted the support of the Department of Agriculture and the DENR before they tapped Simbahay Youth Squad, a young generation Christian group and the Sangguniang Kabataan of Barangay 228 to begin the urban farming journey.

"We had not really intended to build a farm, all we wanted is to teach these kids some gardening basics. With a couple of dialogues with the core project team, we found it appropriate to teach them container gardening for starters. To test the waters if the youth will like it or not," De Mesa said.

A general view of the Gulaynihan along the riles in Tondo, Manila, taken July 17, 2021.
Philstar.com/Deejae Dumlao
In this July 17, 2021 photo, Shirley Ferrer, one of the mothers of the youth engaged in Gulaynihan sa Tondo, shows off the blossoming greens from the urban farm.
Philstar.com/Deejae Dumlao

Challenges in urban farm set-up

The success of this Farm Ready: Gulaynihan sa Tondo, however, met many challenges along the way.

ARC said they encountered problems such as lack of means to buy garden tools and limited green spaces.

Garden tools used by the youth of Tondo.
Philstar.com/Deejae Dumlao

"They barely have a space to cater to a plant let alone a garden. The community doesn't have a background in farming," De Mesa said.

Sometimes, the harvests are also taken away by residents without permission.

"We cannot blame the residents din na minsan scarcity mindset e. Hirap talaga. (Sometimes there is a scarcity mindset because everyone is having a hard time) Every opportunity they get to have food or source of food, they will take it," De Mesa said.

Answer to lack of food security, disaster preparedness

For the residents, however, the mini urban farm is more of a blessing and an answer to the lack of food security and disaster preparedness in the area than a problem.

"Habang tumatagal na mayroon tayong urban farming, nakikita ng community ‘yung kahalagahan na mayroon tayong food security,” Pastor Jake Adam Pascua, one of the founders of Simbahay Youth Squad told Philstar.com.

(As the urban farming went on, the community saw the value of working for food security)

"Nakikita ng community na mahalaga pala yung kahit papano ay nagkakaroon tayo ng munting pagtatanim ng mga gulay upang ‘pag dumating yung panahon na wala tayong makuhanan ng pagkain… Minsan hindi tayo naabutan ng tulong o ayuda mayroon tayong pagkukunan. Meron tayong aasahan na tulong sa atin mismo nanggaling," he added.

(They saw that it is important to have even a small plot of land to plant on during times when it is hard to get food. Sometimes, we don't get financial aid, so it is good to have somewhere to get food. We can rely on something that we ourselves worked on.)

Twelve-year-old Bettina Anne Ferrer said that the food security the Gulaynihan sa Tondo brings to the community motivated her to help the group. She also said getting food from the mini urban farm lessens the risk of contracting COVID-19.

"Sa kabila po ng pandemic mahirap po natin isipin kung ano po ‘yung kakainin sa pang-araw araw. ‘Yung pagtatanim po isa na po yun sa nakakatulong kung pa’no natin masosolusyunan yung iniisip natin," Ferrer told Philstar.com.

(Aside from the pandemic, we have to think about where we can get our food and planting helps address that worry.)

"Kasi imbis na lumabas [pa] tayo...puwede po sa labas ng bahay nakakaiwas na rin po sa dami ng tao sa labas," she added.

(We can just get our food from nearby and avoid crowds)

Barangay 228 Zone 21 resident Shirley Ferrer harvests string beans from Gulaynihan sa Tondo on July 17, 2021.
Philstar.com/Deejae Dumlao
In this July 17, 2021 photo, residents of Barangay 228 Zone 21, including Pastor Jake Adam Pascua, help the youth in managing harvests from Gulaynihan sa Tondo.
Philstar.com/Deejae Dumlao

The city of Manila has a Food Security Program (FSP) that distributes food assistance to about 700,000 families living in the nation’s capital. The initiative started in February this year and is on top of other COVID-19 assistance to residents since 2020.

In March, Manila Mayor Francisco "Isko Moreno" Domagoso signed Ordinance 8739 authorizing a supplemental budget that would cover the expenses for the city government’s FSP.

"This is meant to augment the maintenance and other operating expenses, particularly the welfare good expenses of the Manila Department of Social Welfare in the amount of [P1.427 billion] for the implementation of the city’s FSP," the mayor said.

He also said in May that the food assistance is the local government’s response "to ease the public’s economic burden amid the COVID-19 pandemic."

The food boxes distributed to residents contain three kilos of rice, 16 pieces of canned goods and eight sachets of coffee, the city deemed these "basic commodities and staples."

Looming demolition, relocation

The residents said the local government’s food assistance packages are not enough to get them by. Sometimes. they set up a community pantry and offer their harvests to the families of Barangay 228.

"The children and youth of Barangay 228 have sacrificed their screen time to make more time and effort managing the farm and community pantry. It has engaged youth in school, their parents, out of school," De Mesa said.

Aside from the lack of food security, the Barangay 228 residents are also at risk from a planned railway expansion. They were tagged among those who would be affected by the massive North-South Commuter Railway (NSCR) project.

The construction of NSCR’s first leg includes the PNR Clark Phase 1, which runs from Tutuban in Manila to Malolos in Bulacan, and will pass through Barangay 228. The community fears demolition of their homes and their relocation this year.

PNR General Manager Junn Magno in a press briefing in February said PNR Clark Phase 1 would be partially operable by the fourth quarter this year while the full operation is in the second quarter of 2024, according to a report from Philippine News Agency.

Despite this development, the Tondo youth remain steadfast in continuing their Gulaynihan even if they are relocated to another area.

"Magtatanim pa rin po kasi nasimulan na ‘yun. Para naman sa ibang lugar makatulong din, para makatulong din sa ibang lilipatan," Harvey Cliefford Joves, 16, said.

(We will still plant because it's something we have already started. So we can also help other places, so we can help the area where they will resettle us.)

While they cannot give financial support to the community yet, 16-year-old Selliah Collantes said their effort to plant, water the vegetables and clean the garden would come to fruition someday and would help the community.

Thriving agribusiness 

Because of their collective effort for the urban farm, Farm Ready: Gulaynihan sa Tondo was chosen as among the winners of the Department of Agriculture’s Kabataang Agribiz: Young Farmers Challenge 2021. This competition seeks to provide financial grant assistance to youth interested in enterprises in the agri-fishery sector.

As the National Capital Region awardee, the group was awarded a grant of P250,000 on Saturday that they can use for their agribusiness.

The certificate of grant was received by Gulaynihan members De Mesa, Alvear, John Gil Salayog, Bianca Ferrer and Aris Narsuba.

In this Oct. 16, 2021 photo, members of the Farm ready: Gulaynihan sa Tondo attend the awarding ceremony of Young Farmers challenge.
Screenshot on Department of Agriculture/Facebook

To date, some 15 youth are involved in the Farm Ready: Gulaynihan sa Tondo project along with their parents. They will undergo training in food production and urban gardening so that they can contribute to the socio-enterprise and earn for the community.

In the future, De Mesa said the youth will delve into vegan processing, expansion of the urban farm.

They will be supporting the agri and fisher farmers of Balete, Batangas to expand their market reach in National Capital Region. The endeavor also seeks to help their partners in Batangas bounce back from the economic disruption brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, January 2020 Taal eruption and other disasters.

A sample of flavored mushroom chicharon prepared by the team of Farm Ready: Gulaynihan sa Tondo.
(Philstar.com/Deejae Dumlao)

With these expansion plans, it is SK chair Alvear's hope that the project would be passed down to future generations.

"We’re planning na maging sustainable ito. Hindi lang ngayon, hindi lang bukas, kundi sa salinlahi, generation by generation," he said.

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