In the southernmost Philippines, there lies a small agricultural municipality of Sto. Niño. Situated at the heart of Allah Valley and guarded by the Roxas-Matulas Range in the north and the Daguma Mountain Range in the south, Sto. Niño is the smallest municipality of South Cotabato in the island of Mindanao. It is home to some 41,000 Mindanaoans, most of which are farmers by vocation. One of those is organic farmer Pacifico M. Palero, Jr.
Pacifico, fondly called “Tay Paps,” has two kids working in different professions and a wife based outside the country. He has been an organic farmer for roughly two decades now. In his tender age of 62, Tay Paps is in-charge of cultivating his 1.35 hectares of land in Sto. Niño, all dedicated to planting organic black rice.
“Simula noong 2003 hanggang ngayong 2021, tuloy-tuloy na ang aking organikong pagsasaka at hindi na kami bumalik sa [kumbensyunal] (Since 2003 until this year 2021, I have been practicing organic farming, and I never went back to [conventional farming]),” he recalled.
Organic agriculture is a set of agricultural practices that does not rely on synthetic inputs such as chemical pesticides and fertilizers – unlike its conventional counterpart. When asked why he chose to practice organic farming, Tay Paps enumerated its numerous advantages.
“Sa [kumbensyunal], magkano ang presyo [ng inputs], malaki ang gastos. Pagdating sa harvest, doon mo makikita na lugi talaga sa [presyuhan]. Ngayon sa organic, mas malaki ang ganansya mo, (In [conventional farming], how much is the price [of inputs], you spend a huge amount. When harvest comes, that’s the time you’ll know that you incurred a loss. Here in organic [farming], you’ll have more to gain.”
He also added that going organic will help prevent being exposed to harmful chemicals, unlike crops cultivated through conventional farming practices that heavily rely on synthetic chemical inputs.
Pacifico is a member of a local farmer organization called Sto. Niño Farmers Association or SINFA. He and his co-members are also practitioners of Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS). SINFA is part of the Sto. Niño chapter of PGS-Pilipinas, the largest network of PGS practitioners in the Philippines.
According to IFOAM – Organics International, PGS as a concept has been practiced as early as 1970s. However, the term PGS was only recently coined in 2004 in an international workshop of organic agriculture practitioners in Brazil. Participatory Guarantee Systems, in its official definition by IFOAM, are described as “locally focused quality assurance systems [that] certify producers based on active participation of stakeholders and are built on a foundation of trust, social networks and knowledge exchange.” To put it simply, these are the ways practitioners themselves, mostly small farmers, certify organic products and ensure the quality of production.
One of the key features of PGS is membership to a grassroots organization. Through this, practitioners ensure that the approach to certification is as participatory as possible, especially to the stakeholders. This makes Pacifico’s choice to be part of their local organization SINFA a very much valid choice. SINFA is an association of small organic farmers based in Sto. Niño, South Cotabato.
“Nagsimula kami na mga 24-27 members lamang. Hanggang sa lumago at naging miyembro ng PGS Sto. Niño. Malaki ang naitulong ng PGS sa amin pagdating sa PO-led marketing at pagpapalawak ng membership ng aming samahan (We started at around 24-27 members. Until [our organization grew] and we became a member of PGS Sto. Niño. PGS greatly helped us in PO-led marketing and expansion of membership),” he said.
According to Pacifico, being a PGS practitioner has made him become a better organic farmer. It has helped him check the quality of his and his peers’ production, and in the promotion of their products as well.
But being a PGS practitioner and an organic farmer does not come without challenges.
Pacifico’s main produce is organic black rice. There is a consensus among the scientific food community that black rice is a “super food” as it can lessen the risk of cancer, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis and premature aging. However, as more and more farmers produce black rice, competition becomes stiff.
“Dito sa’min, marami ang kumpetisyon sa pagbebenta ng black rice, (Here, there are many competitors in selling black rice),” he said. However, this is not enough to compel him to convert to conventional farming. He just brushes it off, adding “paliwanagan lang (just explain to them).”
He trusts that his customers will remain loyal to him through PGS. “Ang tao, makakaintindi naman (People will understand),” Pacifico exclaimed as he enumerates the difference of PGS-certified organic products to traditional and even non-certified products claiming to be organically produced. PGS really builds trust between consumers and producers because it relies on community-based standards as well as between the produces themselves through peer review and sharing of best practices
Finally, he calls everyone to be genuine in their practices, “dapat maging totoo, kapag nag-organic farming at ayaw sa [kumbensyunal], kailangang maging totoo tayo sa ating pagsasaka. Mag[tuloy] ng trainings at mamonitor [ang produksyon] (we have to be genuine, if we practice organic farming and we do not want the [conventional] practice, we need to be real in our practices. Continue with the trainings and monitor the production).”