From crisis to cash: how an indigenous women’s group in the southern Philippines turned their livelihoods – and lives – around amidst the pandemic

The agrobiodiversity-based livelihoods project implemented by FAO and funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) enabled the women of the TBoli tribe in the southern Philippines to keep on earning a living despite the challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lake Sebu, with its beautiful landscape, rich culture, and cool weather, is the tourism hub of South Cotabato in Mindanao, drawing local and international tourists all year round. Approximately 40 percent of the town’s income comes from tourism, which meant a huge drop in the profits of the residents, many of whom come from the T’boli tribe, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The other source of income of Lake Sebu, agriculture, was also beset with serious issues even before the pandemic. The municipality has experienced the adverse effects of climate change, with farmers contending with crop losses and failure in the past years. While some have opted to grow vegetables besides rice and corn to supplement their incomes, these additional earnings are seasonal. Furthermore, transportation of their agricultural products to the market was already a challenge for the farmers even before the pandemic. Many of the villages in Lake Sebu are hard to access because of their geographical location and the underdeveloped roads. The pandemic added to the difficulty of earning through farming, as road closures and limited transportation options prevented them from bringing their products to the market.

Producing t’nalak, the signature fabric of the T’boli tribe, has also been affected by climate change. Hotter temperatures due to climate change have made it more difficult to grow abaca, the main material used to make the fabric. It becomes brittle and easily breakable when exposed to heat, resulting in low-quality t’nalak that fetches low prices. Bungolan, a banana variety indigenous to Lake Sebu, has also been affected by climate change, considering these grow optimally when the temperature is cool and have sufficient forest cover. Prior to the pandemic, farmers were able to export these bananas to Japan. However, the movement restrictions that came with the community quarantine imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the exporter from picking up the bongulan bananas.

Instead of letting the bongulan bananas go to waste, the T’boli women turned to food processing, a school they learned through the Dynamic Conservation and Sustainable Use of Agro-Biodiversity in Traditional Agro-Ecosystems of the Philippines (ABD Project), a project implemented by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the Philippine government through the Department of Agriculture–Bureau of Agricultural Research (DA-BAR), and funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

One of the first initiatives of the project in Lake Sebu when it began implementation in 2017 was to facilitate the formation of the Lake Sebu Indigenous Women and Farmers Association (LASIWFA), with membership coming from the five pilot villages of the ABD project. Because of their negative experiences in the past, not many of the T’bolis opted to engage in the project. However, more women, including youths, have since expressed their interest in joining after seeing the initial gains that the original members began to enjoy in the project, including one upgrading her house using more durable materials and another establishing her own mini-store. The support of the Provincial Local Government Unit of South Cotabato, including providing funding for the construction of food processing centers, also contributed to motivating more people to join the organization, as these complemented the trainings and product development skills that LASIWFA got through the ABD project. In Barangay Klubi, one of the pilot sites, membership has grown from five to 25, with 10 of the new members being 30 years old and younger. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Luhib, another village in Lake Sebu, already benefited from the project when they processed their tomatoes, which previously were just left on the sidewalks and left to rot if these were not sold in the market, into candies.

Prior to their engagement in the ABD Project, the T’boli women did not believe in the value of enterprise, believing that selling products is akin to begging. The limited opportunities available to them, coupled with their shyness, made them even more averse to pursuing other entrepreneurial opportunities outside their village besides making t’nalak. “‘Di bale nang maghirap [Never mind that we are poor],” Chita Sulan, the president of LASIWFA, said, recalling their mindset. Eating one meal once a day was the norm for many of the families in the tribe because of their limited resources.  Through the ABD Project, they learned how to utilize their crops, which they previously just allowed to go to waste, to earn so they can better support their families.

Hindi na ako nahihiya magbenta [I am no longer shy about selling,” said Edwina Malindang, 21, one of the new members of LASIWFA. “Hindi dapat mahiya magbenta, matuto dumiskarte para may pambili ng pagkain ng aking pamilya sa panahon ng lockdown [You should not be ashamed about selling. You need to learn to find ways so you can provide food for your family during the lockdown].”
Chita secured a quarantine pass, which allowed her to transport a small volume of processed banana chips from Klubi to the rolling store an initiative of the provincial local government to provide goods to all municipalities in South Cotabato while the community quarantine was strictly imposed. This allowed the women to earn income even during the COVID-19 community quarantine. They were able to generate PHP 6,000 (about USD 120) from two batches of deliveries from April to May to the rolling store.

Ang hindi na napapakinabangan na mga produkto ng mga magsasaka namin ay nagamit naming at naibenta at napakinabangan ng aming pamilya sa panahon ng COVID-19 [We converted the products that the farmers were not able to use into products that we could sell and have our families benefit from at the time of COVID-19],”   says Naida Rose Sulan, 23, a LASIWFA member and one of the banana chips food processors. A single parent, she was able to use her earnings to provide food for her children. “Kahit may pandemya, may pag-asa palang kumita sa paraang ‘di namin nasubukan dati [Even with the pandemic, there’s still the possibility of earning through previously unexplored ways].”
Naida Rose credits LASIWFA for allowing her to dream again. “Sa pagluluto at pagbebenta ng mga produktong gawa ng LASIWFA ay makakatulong ito para maabot ko ang aking pangarap sa buhay [Cooking and selling products made by LASIWFA will help reach my dreams in life].”