Food security in the highlands of Kalinga

POINT OF VIEW - Daniel Jason M. Maches - The Philippine Star

If there’s one crucial thing that we can learn about this onion fiasco or the unprecedented price hike for almost every food we buy, that is self-sufficiency. In other words, we need to learn how to produce our own food. We can no longer fully rely on what is being sold in the market or the foods produced by big corporations. It’s all about going back to the basics, drawing inspiration and lessons from our subsistent ancestors.

Early this month, I and a few members of the SlowFood community for Mountain Province visited Pasil, a remote municipality in Kalinga. We wanted to see the power couple Lam-en Gonnay and Rowena Gonnay who started SlowFood Pasil, the first of its kind in the Philippines. Personally, I am intrigued at how they were able to start a burgeoning community that is now known even abroad for championing organic agriculture, cultural preservation and modeling a healthy and self-sufficient lifestyle.

Truly, Mr. and Ms. Gonnay are inspiring change agents who have taken a grassroots approach to tackle global problems. While many are complaining and whining about societal injustices, they mobilized themselves into taking small steps forward and eventually, inspired many others to follow suit. Thus, SlowFood Pasil was born, a platform that brought the unique Pasil culture not only to the national spotlight but also internationally. For years now, the couple has been showcasing the indigenous way of preparing delicacies in Turin, Italy and how the Pasil inhabitants have lived in harmony with their rich environment since time immemorial.

At the local level, they created model farms to ensure that organic agriculture remains the norm, sharing with their fellows that there is no need to adopt chemical-based approaches to boost productivity; that maintaining their indigenous practices is enough not only to ensure cultural integrity but also overall food security.

After all, Pasil is a self-sustaining community, as it has always been. Everything is there. From rich hunting grounds and natural fish sources such as rivers and brooks, to well-irrigated rice paddies and a thriving culture, Pasil exemplifies what it takes to sustain food security.

The home of the Gonnay family showcases that same model. There, we saw how they put up structures using locally-available materials such as bamboo and how they prepare their foods deliciously without additives or seasonings. They also have gardens with organic vegetables surrounded by various fruit trees. Literally, every basic necessity is there, just outside their humble home. There is no need for them to shop in malls or order from Shopee or Lazada to bring food to the table.

Essentially, their very lifestyle translates to self-sufficiency and food security. By being self-sufficient, they need not worry about soaring market prices.

So, when I asked Ms. Gonnay if she was bothered by the onion price hike, she obviously said no. And it dawned on me – why should they be when, in the first place, they have been surviving and thriving as a family and community with what is already there, what is in their backyards and organic rice paddies and farms.

One thing I also realized during our conversations is that cultural integrity is core to their sustainable mindset. Just like other practicing indigenous peoples (IPs) throughout the world, the Gonnay couple believes that the land is sacred and thus must be protected and preserved for both present and future generations.

This proves the fact that even before terms like organic farming, sustainability and environmental preservation emerged, the IPs have been practicing them for centuries – until the arrival of conquistadors who then introduced a Western lifestyle based on materialism.

So for the people of Pasil, it’s all about rediscovering and strengthening their cultural integrity to ensure sustainability not only of social values but also of the environment and their livelihoods. But like in many other indigenous communities worldwide, modernity is eroding such integrity. Thus, the Gonnay couple has tasked themselves to initiate projects and activities to revitalize and preserve their heritage whilst being food secure.

And yes, their impact transcends Pasil.

Interestingly, while many outsiders have characterized remote inhabitants as backward or uneducated, the proud IPs of Pasil and many other communities prove otherwise. With models created by the likes of the Gonnays, more and more organizations and institutions are looking back to the IPs and realizing their invaluable contributions to addressing global issues, particularly climate change. Even the United Nations recognize IPs as the hope of the world, citing that by guarding what is left of the planet’s natural ecosystems, they keep greenhouse gas emissions at bay and protect biodiversity.

As an IP myself, I take inspiration from our culture and values in advocating food security through sustainable approaches. I am thankful to Matt Dave Maches, Rose Dagupen, and Sharmaine Chocowen for having braved the perilous road with me to reach Pasil and listening to the stories and sharing of the Gonnay couple. I also express my utmost gratitude to Chit Juan of EchoStore and the Philippine Coffee Board for connecting me to them and to many other passionate individuals echoing the same cause.

So, what does it take to be self-sufficient? We learn from the Gonnay couple. And yes, there are many more like them whom we can emulate and draw inspiration from.

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Mr. Maches is a travel blogger and organic farmer who currently works as social media coordinator for Naturland in the Philippines. In 2021, he founded the Barlig Rainforest Coffee Project to pilot coffee production while preserving the rainforest and its biodiversity.


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