Years ago, back when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines, I served on the small island of Sibuyan, in the middle of the Philippine Sea. My days, wherever I worked in the Philippines, seemed to consist of one-half water, one-half rainforest. With more than 7100 islands, it's no wonder that ninety percent of the population live in close proximity to the coast. My best friends were always part farmer, part fishermen. Like diversified farmers everywhere, many farmers I knew relied on the shipping industry, or had a friend or relative that helped get some of their produce to a market on another island.
In an essay I wrote for my first website, and then later published, I wrote about what it felt like to just make it through a storm with one of my forest-fishermen friends. Years later, I traveled back to both the Visayas for my master's reserach on forest farmers, and then to the island of Southern Mindanao where I worked with smallholder banana farmers as part of progressive land reform policies that enabled them to aquire some of their own farmland to grow both bananas and other food on.
Like farmers who acquire land for the first time everywhere, starting out can be rough going. I found in the Philippines in 2004 that the first and second generation farmers needed a lot of help with their management and practices. Those who had been farming longer, who had gained much of their knowledge from past generations of farmers, were often the ones at the cutting edge, who had the most diversified farms, who had developed rotation schemes of farming within the forests they returned to 20, 30 and 40 years later. This was not the slash and burn agriculture that we so often witness for palm oil plantations, but it was another type of agriculture altogether: one that involved working within the constraints of different types of forests, building soil over generations, and replanting the forests. This is what inspired me. This is what inspires some of my Philippine farmer friends as well - I can count many farmers who are proud to be, all at the same time: upland rice, coconut, banana, and ginger farmers. It's searching out these complex farmer-systems out that keeps me writing, photographing and filming today.
Often while I collected this information, I'd be working in the hard weather of storms, or holed up with farmers, sometimes in a bamboo hut in the middle of the forest, sometimes in a concrete house near the coast.
Over the past days, as I worked with our farm animals, the irony was not lost upon me that many farm animals in the southern Philippines were not faring well. Small farmers I've worked with in the Philippines have close relationships to many of their goats, pigs or cattle - as a key part to their food secrutiy.
When the latest typhoon struck, again in the Philippines, it took a bite out of everyone's safety and security there, and especially those who are responsible for producing food. Scanning through the images on the internet today, I spent time first with the images of the typhoon damage from this storm. But then, in looking over several collections of images rated as most impactful from around the world in my lifetime, I'm struck by how many of those images, especially in recent times, are of flooding, damage caused by weather, extreme climate and food insecurity. This irony was not lost upon the current series of climate talks in Warsaw. Hopefully it will not be lost upon the rest of us.
Editors Note: A more entertainting account of making it through a typhoon, and living to tell about it, is here.