Mindanao is known as a ‘land of promise’, with potentially one of the richest agricultural areas in South-East Asia owing to its warm temperatures, abundant rainfall, large areas of fertile soil and innovative farmers. But this potential has been hampered by conflict arising from a range of religious, cultural and political differences.
Conflict disrupts farming activities, reduces investment in farm infrastructure, breaks down social structures within communities and makes it difficult for governments to provide much-needed extension services.
For decades, ACIAR has had a presence in supporting agricultural extension in the Philippines using a Landcare-based approach that brings farmers together in groups where they can coordinate what they want to do, particularly in managing natural resources. But it wasn’t until one of the local partners received the call from the community leader that they recognised an opportunity and began the development of LIFE (Livelihood Improvement through Facilitated Extension): the new approach to improving farmer livelihoods in the presence or threat of conflict.
Dr Mary Johnson, Research Fellow, RMIT University, leads an ACIAR-supported project that is working in the Philippines to implement LIFE in three conflict-affected or conflict-vulnerable sites across Mindanao: in Zamboanga Sibugay, Maguindanao and South Cotabato. The project works with local partners, the University of the Philippines (UP) Mindanao, UP Los Baños and Landcare Foundation of the Philippines, Inc.
LIFE involves a 15-step approach that starts with the appointment of a facilitator who lives in and is part of the community—ensuring they are culturally attuned and have existing local relationships.
‘Formerly, extension processes have come from a position of “Here’s a problem; here’s a solution; this is what you do” but this is not the approach we took at all,’ says Dr Johnson. ‘We focused on working with farmer groups and communities—people as the solution, not the problem.’
Instead, the team supported the development of local farmer groups who worked with their facilitators to help them achieve what they wanted through their networks.
It’s about shoring up existing or developing new networks between farmers, farmer groups and, for example, in the Philippines, local government units or NGOs that are operating in their area,’ says Dr Johnson.
Core to this work is building on social capital within communities. Dr Johnson explains, ‘Social capital is about how the community gels together, the social links and networks, who’s talking to who, and how connections are made for social and business interactions.’
For example, in Maguindanao the farmers were mostly growing just corn or coconuts in a monocropping regime, with little knowledge of, or capacity to grow, other crops. The facilitators helped the farmers look for various opportunities and they identified vegetable production as a priority. The facilitators then linked the farmers to a local government program to access inputs such as seeds and get the advice they needed to start production. Now they are growing vegetables to eat and are growing enough to sell as well.
Jury Alimonjanid is a farmer from Ampatuan, Maguindanao, which is the site of the infamous Maguindanao Massacre of 2009 where 58 people were killed in an attack sparked by political rivalry. Unrest remains and continues to threaten the lives and wellbeing of the local people.
As a result of the project, Mr Alimojanid still grows corn and coconuts but now also grows rice, bananas, vegetables and fruits. ‘Before the LIFE project, we only had a few crops and a low income because we lacked knowledge on farming technology,’ he says.
‘When the project arrived we learned a lot, especially on the proper use and application of mulching, water impounding and organic fertiliser, which we then used on our crops.
‘The project helped us learn how to properly plant and manage these crops. This is a big help for us since we get our income for education and household needs from these.’
In some cases, farmers’ annual incomes have increased by up to 80% where LIFE has been implemented. Moreover, through part of the broad consultation and engagement steps that form part of LIFE, visits to neighbouring farms and conversations can take place that would not have otherwise occurred. This has allowed relationships between previously distant Muslim, Christian and Indigenous farmers and communities to improve.
In South Cotabato, the impact of the project is also being felt by local government agencies. Helen Anaud, an officer of the Koronadal City Agriculture Office, South Cotabato, who works with the project team, says the LIFE approach has changed the way her office implements its programs with farmers.
‘LIFE really changed the way we prioritise projects [and] identify beneficiaries and the areas to implement our programs,’ Ms Anaud says. ‘Before, we just accepted projects that were downloaded to us by the national government through the Department of Agriculture.
‘Now, our farmer partners are involved in the cycle of program implementation, from planning to monitoring and evaluation. I think LIFE is a useful tool or model for other local government units because our farmer beneficiaries, at the end of the project, become entrepreneurs—empowered and capacitated.’
Since the pilots at the three sites, additional local government units and development agencies have expressed interest in adopting LIFE. Moreover, the Department of Science and Technology–Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development (DOST-PCAARRD) has provided 30 million Philippine pesos (A$878,500) over three years to expand and evaluate the use of LIFE in three other conflict-vulnerable sites in South Cotabato, Maguindanao and Zamboanga Sibugay.
- Conflict has significantly disadvantaged communities and dislocated extension services on the Philippine island of Mindanao.
- Mindanao farmers are now reaping the rewards of the 'LIFE' agricultural extension program.
- LIFE supports farmers to identify what they want to improve in their farming enterprises and lives, and taps into their social capital to help them achieve it.