It is mid-morning in Maricaban, Sta. Fe in the island of Bantayan. A group of women are huddled in a hut, exchanging light banter and laughter over snacks. This is their pre-lunch break after a morning of backbreaking work, tending to the plants and watering them, all under the oppressive heat of the sun.
These mostly women farmers form part of a collective under a livelihood program for survivors of super typhoon Yolanda that ravaged the island of Bantayan in November 2013.
In February 2021, Rev. Fr. Charles Jayme, head of the Cebu Archdiocesan Relief and Rehabilitation Unit, requested Cebu Archbishop Jose S. Palma if he could start a vegetable demonstration farm on a 17.3-hectare property owned by the Archdiocese in Maricaban. Archbishop Palma agreed to the use of one hectare of the property for the parish demo farm.
One farmer per family
Under a five-year usufruct agreement between the Archdiocese of Cebu and the Municipal Government of Sta. Fe., another hectare was set aside for the use of the LGU on condition that it would help the parish by providing training and farm equipment for the farmers, as well as animal and seeds distribution, among others.
“It is the wish of the Archbishop (Palma) that each family-beneficiary will have one farmer,” said Rev. Fr. Dave Villaceran, parish priest since November 2020. The program will be evaluated and assessed two years after its implementation.
“This is one of the developmental programs of the Parish Caritas,” said Fr. Villaceran. It envisions the 64 farmers to eventually become farmer-scientists. It also highlights the partnership between the Church and the LGU, he said.
Around 150 families who live in a Yolanda village of blue-and-pink houses adjacent to the farm stand to benefit from this livelihood program.
Already, their produce of okra, eggplant, bitter gourd (ampalaya), tomatoes, red squash, bell pepper, cucumber, and other vegetables are being sold in the public markets of Bantayan, Sta. Fe, and San Remigio in mainland Cebu. To eliminate middlemen, only a maximum of five kilos per buyer is allowed. The Parish Caritas has tapped the technical expertise of agriculture experts to make sure that their produce is chemical-free and naturally-grown.
Let your food be your medicine
A reminder that the farm adopts this effort is one marker that stands out amid a patch of vegetables. And it reads: “Let your food be your medicine and your medicine be your food.”
Aside from providing scientific and technical training for the farmers, the Parish Caritas saw it fit to form them into self-help groups. Thus, the BEC-SHEG (Basic Ecclesial Communities-Self-Help Group) was born.
Alberto Cabual, Parish Caritas coordinator, said that in June 2021, Fr. Jayme organized a parish social action and learning ministry training for selected members of mandated organizations and representatives from three barangays who enrolled in the farmer-scientist training program.
“It was not enough that they had Bible study sessions. We had to find a way to make the members self-reliant,” Cabual said. “And dole-outs are not sustainable.”
BEC-SHEG members can also invest in the BEC cooperative, take out loans, and earn dividends.
Under SHEG, a member deposits with the group his savings. There is no required fixed amount for this. Out of the pooled funds, a BEC-SHEG member can take out a loan payable after two months to fund a small business or enterprise. The farmers can also sell their produce to the SHEG.
To date, 28 BEC-SHEGs with an average membership of 10-20 have been formed. This micro-entrepreneurship program has since then seen SHEG members grow their business of achara (pickle) and peanut butter-making, and others. One BEC-SHEG has a common business — rice trading. Profits from this are plowed back to the group.
A combined spiritual and technical orientation is given to prospective members of the SHEG, according to Fr. Villaceran.
Food security as main priority
Judy Pilapil, Parish Caritas livelihood coordinator, said food security is their main priority, especially since the community is vulnerable to calamities and disasters.
She recalled that in November 2013, super typhoon Yolanda practically isolated the island of Bantayan from the mainland. It took weeks for normal travel and transport to and from the mainland to resume. Food, water, basic commodities, and construction supplies were scarce.
To prepare herself for the task ahead, Pilapil underwent an “extraordinary formation” that lasted for 22 days. Then she was elected head of the livelihood ministry. She sees more challenges ahead, noting that both the church and the LGU can work together to help address the needs of the community.
The Parish Caritas team has tapped its various social media platforms to tell the rest of the world their gains and accomplishments. This has caught the attention of individual, corporate, and institutional donors.
Still, Pilapil, said so much more needs to be done by both the church and the LGU in terms of addressing the needs of the community of farmers and fishermen.
“Wa pa gyud mi hingpit nga nakabarog from the effects of the (COVID-19) pandemic,” she said. (We have not fully recovered from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.)
After the May 9 elections, the Parish Caritas team will start their project to raise native chickens, goats, and cows.
Their expansion plan also includes tapping the 31 chapels of the parish and will prioritize those in the islets of Kinatarcan and Hilantagaan, where poverty incidence is high.
Father Villaceran and his Parish Caritas team have high hopes that their efforts to improve the plight of their marginalized parishioners will succeed through the combination of spiritual formation, technical assistance and financial stewardship training.
Pilapil believes that a “transformation” is gradually taking place in the community.
“Dili na sila magpa-abot sa ayuda. Molihok na. Dunay paglaum,” Pilapil added. (They no longer wait for aid. They act. There is hope. ). She observed that the BEC-SHEG members feel a sense of belonging in the farm community.
“We are harvesting people already. We are creating more leaders and giving hope to people that despite the challenges and trials, they can stand up,” she added.
Attorney Paredes is a Trustee of Cebu Caritas, Inc. and Member of the Good Governance Committee. Before her retirement, she led the Public Affairs division for Visayas and Mindanao of Smart Communications, Inc. She used to work in media both for print and broadcast.