Sangat Island : Jungle Farming in Coron

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Coron Bay

Up in Northern Palawan is the Calamianes Group of Islands – 3 large islands with hundreds of mostly uninhabited outlying islands. Busuanga is the main island where the airport is located and where you find the rapidly growing town of Coron. There is also the island of Culion, which had traditionally been the trading center of the area in the early years. This is where the National Leprosarium Colony is located and they continue to have the best available medical facilties to this day. Then there is Coron Island, another large limestone island with inland lagoons, deserted beaches and beautiful dive spots.This is all part of the last frontier of Philippine tourism, Palawan.

Coron Pier

Coron brings about images of white sand beaches, world-class diving and awesome limestone cliffs. In fact, it is far from that, much in the same way as Caticlan is to Boracay. It was a small fishing town until the backpackers and divers discovered it in the 80’s. It is also surrounded by other large islands that make a little bay where ships would hide in bad weather. It also has a small port where passenger ships would pass on the way to Puerto Princesa, unload cargo and the few tourists that chose the rough way down to these islands. The attraction of Coron was, and still is, its world class diving sites. It is also one of the world’s ten top dive sites, largely due to the wrecks left in the aftermath of the Japanese retreat in World War II. People from around the world come to dive the waters around the Calamianes, swearing by its excellent wrecks and impeccable biodiversity. It is poised to become a major tourist destination of the Philippines and making a name for itself in the tourist world map.

My first visit to Coron was a trip to Sangat Island Dive Resort ( www.sangat.ph ), one of the more

Sangat Island Dive Resort

popular dive resorts in that area. Interestingly, like most Filipinos, I had never heard of this island resort before. It was first mentioned to me by a friend who happened to know the owner.  Having made a few farms already, I was fairly known around certain circles as the island farmer. Could I

Sangat Island

possibly make an organic farm in this island of 700 hectares, made up of mostly of limestone with a few hectares of jungle scattered around it? It meant carving a farm out of some forested areas surrounded by mangroves, to which the only access was through the sea. This was, quite literally, island farming. We found a reliable water source about 4 months later, in a cliff about 200 meters above the farm which was surrounded by limestone cliffs everywhere. We were also carving our farm out of this little jungle by clearing foliage, cutting branches and cleaning the area. From these clearings we made our vegetable plots, using the fertile clayish soil of the island. The Nightcrawlers came soon after that and we also started making our own liquid  fertilizers from kitchen waste. In an island of dive enthusiasts, I stuck out as an object of curiousity.  I was gathering sea weeds on the beach and moving them towards the farm. I was chopping fruit scraps, fish guts and seaweed for fermentation into natural fertilizers. While most of these were by now second nature to me, everyone in the island kept asking me about this “thing” I was doing. This thing called island farming.

Vegetable Plots from Cleared Forest Area

Sangat Island is an ecotourism destination. Started in the mid 80’s by a British treasure diver that had decided to marry a local lass, this resort was the closest to most of the wrecks in Coron Bay. It was, surprisingly, quite popular with foreign divers. People from all over the world practically came to the Philippines to go to this island and dive the wrecks around it. It is very native setting one sees in Sangat, houses are made of bamboo and topped with nipa roofing. In the evening, the staff would put mosquito nets on the beds to protect their guests. Electric power was only available from six in the evening till seven in the morning. There were clean bathrooms, a huge ceiling fan over the beds and not much else. No music system, no television and no power in daytime. The resort did have an internet point, the clubhouse where people would converge to avail of the solar powered batteries that charged phones, laptops and cameras while the generator kept silent. The feel of Sangat Island is very family-oriented. Everyone ate at set times of the day, sharing a common family style buffet setting at every meal. The employees were very friendly and casual, it would make anybody feel at home.

composting with nightcrawler worms

Just half a year of work in the jungle, we’ve carved out a little farm for the resort, producing a good percentage of vegetables it consumes. We’re slowly moving towards lettuce and high-value crops. We’re also looking at catching rain water to sustain the farm. Our little worms are doing wonders, producing fertilizer for us. The kitchen waste is also fermented to liquid stuff we feed our plants. Slowly but surely, working for a sustainable environment in the island.

In mid-December 2010, I was on my way to Coron from Sangat Island on the early morning boat that

vegetable plots

would bring tourists to town, to be picked up by a van that would bring us to Busuanga airport and back to civilization. While clicking on my camera during the trip, I noticed a big box of vegetables riding with us and got a big surprise. In it were cucumbers and lots of okra. “Why are we bringing vegetables to town?”, I asked the boatmen. “We need to sell them sir, we have too much of these we can’t consume all of it anymore!” was the reply. I gave them a big smile while I wanted to give my back a little pat for a job well done. Jungle farming in an island has its own simple rewards.

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Boracay Lives!

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White Beach, Boracay 1985

I have always loved island life for some reason. Since the first time I set foot on Boracay Island in 1985, I was hooked to it. Back then, we would travel 8 hours from Iloilo to come to this little piece of paradise, where fishermen would sell their catch to you at daybreak, cook it in the back kitchen and eat it for breakfast. In Balabag, where I stayed, there was one bar back then, the Beachcomber, which served cold beer and played music till the batteries would last. Yes, the car batteries that were running the sound system. There was no electricity in those days and the only way to move around was to walk the beach, there were just no roads too.

I kept coming back. And back. And back. Finally deciding to live there in 2004. I found work in the island, even an office with a view of the famous White Beach. I also lived by the beach, on a house on a cliff in Bolabog Beach, today known as the kitesurfing capital of Asia. I left Boracay to move back to Negros in 2007 but it remains a second home for me to this day.

Bulabog Beach, Boracay

It has all changed now, the island is the Philippines’ premier tourist destination today. It has hotels and resorts for every niche in the market. Restaurants with world-class cuisine, fastfood outlets and yes,  Starbucks on the beach. It is rated as one of the world’s top 10 beach destinations, famous for its nightlife as well as its pristine white sand. Surprisingly, It is also a showcase in ecological solid waste management  today.

Boracay Sunset

Back in 2005, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) gave a Two Million peso grant for a joint project with the Boracay Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI) which matched the grant with another Two Million Pesos. It’s goal was to address the solid waste management problem that Boracay was experiencing. A loose group of island businessmen and professionals, the BCCI embarked on this gigantic mission of initiating change in an island with 30,000 residents and over half a million visitors each year. In the hills behind the famous White Beach, the island had an open dump site  – its own version of Manila’s Smokey Mountain- that was the trash bin for all types of waste from the island. It was literally smoking as there was continuous burning of all types of garbage. There were a few scavengers as well, earning a living collecting plastic material and aluminum cans. It was an eyesore and a solid waste management nightmare. It was such a huge problem, nobody wanted to take the lead in looking for a solution. Nobody but BCCI and people who believed in their cause, that is.

White Beach, Boracay

In the summer of 2005, my island “gig” was managing a Mongolian barbecue restaurant within the D’Mall, the island’s main shopping area. It was an idea of a good friend of mine and I came in to manage the 20 seat restaurant as his partner. I only worked nights, which was perfect as it left me the whole day to enjoy the island life I had been living. It was huge success too, we had a grill on one of the alleys which smoked everyone passing by and smelling the various ingredients  we cooked. To my surprise, Mongolian barbecue actually traces its roots to the days of Genghis Khan. As nomad warriors, they would usually eat meat from animals they would slaughter each day, cooking them in their metal shields in a huge open fire pit where everyone would serve themselves. It was a great story I would tell to tourists who had never heard of this type of cuisine. It was fun work, had very little pressure and a great way to meet new people as well.

Working on White Beach 2005

I had previously worked with the BCCI as a freelance consultant, facilitating their strategic planning workshops and teambuilding sessions – skills i had learned as a corporate training executive. I was also closely working with their board, a group of idealistic people who were the island’s major stakeholders. Karen Villarica-Neff, their president then, sent me a message one night as I was tending to customers. We set a meeting for the next day and was asked, more like persuaded, to consider heading their solid waste management project for the next two years. It was quite a surprise to me, I knew absolutely nothing about solid waste management and had no qualifications in this field. But I had managerial and planning skills, was quite good with people and had the corporate experience they needed. I also needed a more stable job and here it was, being offered to me. Most of all, it looked like a great way to contribute something to this island I had grown to love as my second home.

Boracay Chamber of Commerce and Industry

“Boracay Lives” was the project I started to manage in April 2005. It’s aim was to initiate recycling, waste segregation at source and a more sustainable waste management for Boracay Island. It included building a Material Recovery Facility (actually something I had never heard of previously)  in the island, educating people on the benefits of proper waste management and creating a proper waste collection system. I soon moved into an office on White Beach itself, hired staff members and went about following a detailed list of activities according to a set timeline. We conducted seminars, met with government agencies, partnered with other organizations and always hoping to convince people to join our cause. In the meantime, I was also getting my own lessons in solid waste management. Mostly from the work we were doing and partly from my parents, both of whom had been involved in this field for a good number of years.

famous boracay sunset

It was a daunting challenge, to say the least. I had to present the project to various government officials, government agencies and civic organizations. We also had our share of disappointments with many government officials. But a lot of people were supportive and provided us the encouragement to keep on keeping on. The project found its champion in a barangay captain named Glenn Sacapano, who headed Barangay Balabag which covered most of White Beach. I had met this quiet and humble man in the many meetings we had and I somehow  placed my hope on him. According to the law we were trying to follow, the barangay chief was to be the point man. Our success was anchored on his own political will to institute change and implement the law – which he did effectively.  As we worked closely together, change slowly happened. The dump site was permanently closed, he passed an ordinance on waste segregation and implemented it himself. In the midst of controversy and criticism, our project constructed the first Material Recovery Facility in Boracay, built a composting facility for biodegradable waste, provided the first shredding machines and donated the first mini garbage truck to collect on White Beach itself. In the years that followed, government agencies and private organizations poured their resources into this little upstart project, expanding it and eventually creating a showcase for ecological solid waste management practices in the Philippines. People from all over the country continue to visit this facility today, learning what they can copy for their own cities and municipalities. In 2010, a select group of top local government officials from around the country gathered in Boracay for a National Solid Waste Management Summit, showcasing the Barangay Balabag experience and the system in place around the island today. Today, Barangay Balabag’s Material Recovery Facility produces and sells compost fertilizer, sells all the recyclables to wholesale buyers from Manila and operates a self sustainable waste management system which is supported by its own income from recyclable and biodegradable waste . It is supported by the Department of Tourism, the Boracay Foundation, the Aklan provincial government and the Municipality of Malay and many private corporations today.

segregated waste bins

I write this because I just got back from Boracay a few days ago. As I usually would, I spent New Year’s Eve with friends at the beach, partying island style. This year, I saw so many people I was very sure this was the most I had ever seen on the island. It was totally crowded on White Beach, I only managed to visit it a few times. Yet I was impressed with what I saw, the island was actually quite clean. There were posters everywhere reminding people about their waste, there were also uniformed personnel implementing ordinances. There is even a smoking, drinking and eating ban on the beach itself as an effort to rid the area of garbage. For a rapidly growing tourism destination, it is successfully coping with its waste management challenge while building on its past success. Today, Glenn Sacapano heads the Boracay Solid Waste Action Team – the island’s clean and green task force. He is still the quiet and assuming man he was, though now he is the champion of Boracay’s waste management initiative. And an excellent one as well.

In the final months of our project, towards the end of 2006, we decided to place a small plaque at their office for posterity. It was a simple memento for others to see in the years to come. Vaguely it reads, ” Barangay Balabag Material Recovery Facitlty, constructed in June 2006. A joint effort of the Pearl2 Project of the Canadian International Development Agency and the Boracay Chamber of Commerce and Industry.” Underneath was my name as Executive Director and the board members, most of whom truly deserve mention. Charles Y. Uy, Karen Villarica-Neff, Philippe Bartholomi, Peter Brugger, David Goldberg, Gigi Piit, John Munro and others I may not be able to recall. They know who they are. Boracay hardly remembers what these people did years ago, but I do. Back in the day, with our island in a crucial tipping point, these were the people who believed, who reached out for funds, who shared their resources and really worked hard for a cause they truly believed in. There is real power in having faith and pursuing one common purpose. What we believe, we can truly achieve. And as we had all believed back then, so we  see today…….Boracay Lives!

Boracay's famous White Beach

Oh Shit! The Story of Japanese Bokashi

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Bokashi Factory

The tradition of Bokashi fertilizer dates back to early Japanese civilization when chemical fertilizers were yet to be invented, farmers used them to enhance rice and vegetable crops. The word “Bokashi” is loosely translated in English as “mixed organic materials”, just a simple method of mixing biodegradable waste matter, inoculants and microbes into compost material, returning to nature what was originally from it.  In the centuries that followed, this method became part of agricultural tradition and was later to become a world known method in the practice of sustainable  farming.

Bokashi recipes are family kept secrets in Japan passed on through generations of agricultural farmers.  On certain years when the bokashi mix was considered a powerful concoction, these were given to family and friends as gifts. It was all made in their own particular way and using only biodegradable waste.  They would use the rice hull and rice straw from their fields, spent grain from milling the rice and other biodegradable waste around their farms. To this day, it is still being used and practiced with the same intention, to nourish the soil in a sustainable  manner with natural materials completing the organic life cycle as nature would do it.  Inevitably, any compost mixture would require a nitrogen source which is most vital to plant growth. And the best source of nitrogen was always, well, shit.

bokashi fertilizer

My earliest introduction to organic farming was, interestingly, full of shit. We had a lot of these, too much in fact. Our farm was then operating a poultry contract growing business as a separate division and we were growing a total of population of 120,000 chickens around 7 times each year. The poultries required rice hull for its bottom beds to catch manure, then there was the manure itself that the chickens produced. We were producing hundreds of tons of poultry waste each year. We had a solid waste management nightmare. The waste rice hull was being dumped in heaps around the farm, the chicken manure had a small storage facility where we also processed our compost. We would have mountains of chicken dung surrounding this structure and the farm, naturally, smelled like shit. This was to be my first task working in the farm, to handle the waste material and turn it into usable compost. A tall order even for someone who had just spent the last three years in Boracay managing a solid waste management project. Bokashi seemed to be the solution to our problem. It needed work but it was not impossible. It was, at the very least, worth my best shot.

windrow turner

I researched. I observed. I experimented. I tested. I learned the story and the logic of Bokashi. I proposed and constructed a compost factory structure. We mechanized some of our operations. I watched how this was made day in and day out. I had totally immersed myself into this project. I streamlined our operations, built a team, branded our product, tested for efficacy, had it certified organic,  and registered it with the Fertilizer and Pesticide Authority for commercial sale. Our own bokashi blend fertilizer, now branded as OM PLUS – taken from Organic Matter Plus. It is essentially what we sell, high organic matter content plus inoculants and other microoganisms in compost form. It has also produced excellent results, all our produce is reserved for use by a small and select group of clients.

Today our farm produces over 1200 tons of Bokashi blend organic fertilizer a year, with over 7o percent of its raw material coming from our very own farm waste. A solid waste nightmare turned around 360 degrees, now  a major revenue stream for the farm. A triumph for waste management processing.  All borrowed from the early Japanese. All part of recycling nature. All in the interest of the preserving the planet and reducing global warming. All geared at promoting the organic farming revolution and a healthier environment around us. And all profit too – about turning shit into profit. Oh Shit!

Pamalican: Lessons in Island Farming

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Pamalican Island , photo credits to Amanpulo

Pamalican is a private island, set among the North Cuyo Islands, 360km south-west of Manila. Lying along the trading routes from Southern China to Borneo, the Sulu archipelago and the Spice Islands, the Cuyo Islands have been known to sailors and traders since pre-Spanish days.  Literally in the middle of nowhere, the people of these 40 islands live mostly by fishing and seaweed cultivation. The jewel of these islands is Pamalican Island. An island of of just over 60 hectares, it is surrounded by pristine white beaches and coral reefs.  Beyond are sandbanks and a channel where whales, dolphins  and sea cows have been glimpsed. On one end of the island, baby sharks would swim in knee deep water at sunset.  Here, on this little island paradise, is  a  resort quite famous around the world and simply as known as, Amanpulo.

windsurf hut

On this sunny day in July 2008, I was on a 19 seat Dornier 288 with s few tourists, loads of cargo and a few employees coming back from holiday. We were headed for Amanpulo and  I was coming on the personal invite of the General Manager who was looking for an organic farmer and had surprisingly found me through a friend who worked there. This was the trip of a lifetime. Amanpulo was arguably the most expensive island resort in the Philippines and was known to attract Hollywood celebrities and even royalty. And here I was, headed for this island as a guest. I felt like  I had won the lotto that day.

beach club

By then, I was already living in the farm and had a fair knowledge of the basics of organic farming.  Everything I knew was learned from first-hand experience in the farm. I knew nothing about farming in coastal areas, much more in a tropical island. It really did not matter now, I was on my way to Amanpulo and the mission was to explore the possibility of starting an organic farm. In a tropical island, in the middle of nowhere, in Palawan. I was both excited and nervous.

Amanpulo is, simply put, pure class. You take a private plane and land in the island’s private airport. Upon arrival, you are assigned your own golf cart for use during your stay. Guests are billeted in 40 private casitas scattered around the island, some of them with their own beach front area. There are 7 other private villas with its own pool and a beach front area. They have 4 restaurants, a gym, a spa, tennis courts, a library and all the water sports equipment you could want. Even a floating bar. At sunset, guests would rent the pontoon boat that was designed to accomodate a small cocktail party. It is also a nature reserve, where you would randomly see monitor lizards crossing the road and yellow-breasted orioles outside your window. Guests could request for private barbecue dinners on the beach front with their own private cook and waiter looking after their every need. The staff were all waving at you as you passed them and greeting you at every place you went. They were also required to know each of the guest’s names. It truly felt like the friendliest place on earth. This, I was later told, was the Aman experience.

amanpulo sunset

To my surprise, they had a little farm in the island. They grew a few vegetables, some herbs and ornamental plants. I was even more amazed to discover the island did not have any top soil. It was

amanpulo main beach

largely a huge sand bank and had only some wild growing plants around the island. They had started the garden from some clay soil that had been left from the construction of the resort many years ago. It was functional, but far from the guest attraction they wanted to create. We brought African Nightcrawler Worms to the island and started a vermicomposting facililty. We  shredded kitchen and garden waste to feed the worms. We gathered the waste sea weeds from the beach and used it as composting material. We rehabilitated the farm and created our own soil from compost, vermicompost and clay. A year later, we built greenhouses and started to grow salad greens.  We also started making our own liquid fertilizers from kitchen waste. I wasn’t long before we started to see surprising results. In a farm without top soil not even 100 meters from the beach, we were now growing lettuce and arugula. And we were doing it by recycling kitchen and garden waste through composting and fermentation. We now had a productive organic island farm.

amanpulo greenhouses

I’ve been consulting for Amanpulo  for almost three years now.  Today, our organic garden  produces vegetables and herbs for its various outlets. It has now become a guest attraction  as well, often featured by journalists writing about the island. The resort now offers a tour of  the organic farm as an option for children’s activities.  Guests are served freshly harvested salads from the garden at most of its outlets.

garden-to-plate salad

Manamoc High School students

The farm produces almost a ton of compost from its facilities each month and has become a self sustainable operation that supplies the main kitchen and its outlets with high-value vegetables,  as well as the employee dining facilities.  We have since expanded and still learning the intricacies of island farming as we move on. We now catch rain water and use it too maintain the garden.  In 2009, we started sharing this technology to high school students in the neighboring island of Manamoc. We brought a select group to Amanpulo for a day tour which included lectures, hands-on learning experiences and a some recreation time at the employee beach. They have since started their vermicomposting area and a small organic garden in their school premises.

organic arugula

In small and big ways, we strive to continue reducing the worldwide carbon footprint with each step we take.  We are also producing healthy food products for guests and even employees.  Amanpulo became the start of a new phase of my organic farming career. I have since built other farms in other places, still using the same things we did in Pamalican many years ago. I still visit Amanpulo,  it it is still a joy to come back to this first farm I had built. To see what has become of my earliest work. My earliest lessons, in the art and the science of island farming.

kitchen staff harvesting produce

Coming Home To Farmville

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Buro Buro Springs Vermi Farm

Way before I had heard of Facebook’s Farmville, I was already living in it. I was quite amused at this virtual internet application of what was, to me, daily hacienda life in your computer at home. Where I come from, haciendas are aplenty and agriculture was, and still is, the lifeblood of our provincial economy.  As it was, I had figured by then it was my destiny to someday be living off the land, and here I was learning this thing called  organic farming.

In comparison to others, this hacienda I lived in was but a tiny speck in a sea of vast sugar plantations that one can see in the province of Negros Occidental. It simply was a different farm with different things in it. We did not have one single sugarcane plant, for starters. A rarity in this land they had often referrred to as Sugarlandia. This fertile province had been producing most of the country’s sugar since way before I was born, and this place was full of interesting stories about the wealth that this industry had generated and the characters it had spawned. We were the odd one. We grew vegetables anf fruits, raised chickens, bred composting worms and only used what came from nature. Organic farming it was called, and our farm was quite known for being one of the first ones. People started businesses from what they learned here. It was a showcase for integrated organic farming, using very little land to its full potential.

Hacienda Buro Buro

Hacienda Buro Buro is our family farm. As kids, me and my brothers had spent countless summers swimming in the mineral water pool, camping in the orchards and climbing the many fruit-bearing trees that filled it. It always had a special appeal to me, and I remember telling a friend many years ago that I would live here someday. In the years that I had been away, my folks built a  house in the farm where we traditionally had family celebrations. Nobody really lived there and I had decided this was going to be my home now, it was the start of 2008.  So here I found myself , fulfilling a self-made prophecy and moving home to Farmville. I have not looked back and will be living there for a long time. After a long journey, I was finally home.

vegetable green houses

The African Nightcrawler Worms, which were being bred in the farm were a source of much interest to people. People came from all over the country to see them and my parents went all over the country teaching about them. They were considered the pioneers of Vermiculture in the country and had helped start this organic revolution we see happening now. And it was still about the worms, these little nightcrawlers. My mom called them by a pet name, “Eugene” , taken from their scientific name. They first appeared in Africa but have since been used in tropical countries like Cuba. There are over 200o different species of these worms worldwide and composting is their purpose for existing. Like some cartoon characters, they were known as wonder creatures. They made fertilizer from all sorts of things, they renewed the soil and most of all, they generated a steady income stream. We were supplying most of the worms being used around the Philippines as the first commercial breeding farm of these tiny creatures. This became my first lesson in Farmville, observing these nightcrawlers and what they did. I continued to learn more about them as life moved slowly. We have actually sold over 6000 kilos of these over the last 12 years. I was amazed.

organic lettuce

african nightcrawler

Scientifically known as Eudrilus Euginae, they were interesting subjects of study for most people. They were true hermaphrodites, which meant they were both male and female.  Everyone bred with everybody else around and they multiplied so fast, you could hardly keep track of them. But I envied these little things. They, not me, lived the life as we would call it. They had free housing, free food, all the sex they wanted every single day. They ate so much I would never be able to match them, foraging on shredded farm waste and consuming as much as their own weight each day. They were also expensive little things, costing more than premium beef per kilo and demand was constantly increasing by the year. We became very good friends, naturally. I had to learn about them and the best way to learn was to make friends with them. They still amaze me to this day, and I’ve carried them with me wherever I’ve gone to build organic farms.

We have since become partners. They became an integral part of my work and started a career for me introducing them to other people. We’ve built farms in remote places, helped natural farmers and have travelled to beautiful islands as well. We’ve truly had one hell of a great ride together.  Welcome to Farmville. Live.

The Organic Coach

I never understood the whole idea of blogging till 2009, and always wondered why people would go into so much trouble to write about anything that came to their mind. I started reading my friend’s blogs and found them interesting, fun and informative. It seemed like so much work and  I really had no idea how these things were done. Yet, for many years, people always told me I should write about my colorful life experiences. Just today, I somehow got into this thing called WordPress while tinkering with our farm website and had a flash of inspiration. It seemed so simple and easy…..it was certainly worth a try!

The Organic Coach is probably the best description of the work I do, travelling to remote places and tropical islands, building farms from scratch, sharing technology while having one hell of a great time. This blog is about the work and play of an organic coach, places I visit, people I meet, farms I’ve helped make. It is also meant to share the basics of organic farming and encouraging people to take a closer look at the advantages of cleaner, healthier food. It is also meant to share about little things we can do reduce the carbon footprint – one person at a time. It will also be a fun blog, because I’ve always believed if something ain’t fun, it ain’t worth doing at all.

Here goes the first step, the thousand miles come next…..