7 min readA Farm of Hope

Sometimes, it is a little weird; sometimes, a little revolutionary. Gathered around a big pink citronella candle, we string little beads of hope. Somebody says that the candle makes her reflect and think that this place is a light. This farm is a 1.5-hectare piece of land that had once been reduced to almost total infertility with heavy use of chemicals. But it was able to give life again after five long years of tilling the soil with organic fertilizers. I cannot claim to be an expert on how nature regenerates or gets restored. I only know that what used to be a barren land is now a place of convergence of organic farming practices, is a source of living to a small community of ex-prisoners and children who were in conflict with the law and is a microcosm of a sustainable society.

An environmentalist observes that nothing has been removed or destroyed. Pieces of soil that hold seedlings are wrapped in strips of banana leaf. When the seedling gets planted to the ground, the banana leaf goes with it. It is a little revolutionary. Truckloads of biodegradable waste from the city are being used here to make a vermicompost where African Nightcrawlers eat the garbage. It produces organic fertilizer. The said worms actively eat during the night when it is dark so the compost is wrapped in black tarpaulin—as if it is night time. It is not very honest, but it is a little revolutionary.

It could put man’s best friend to shame to see one of the goats approach our host and rub its face on his hands. The goats are very docile—no concept of danger and chaos. They are being fed fruit juice cocktail as we arrive. We are told that everything they eat is natural and that it manifests in their behavior. A nun would tell me later on that she has stopped eating meat since the time she learned about macrobiotics. She believes that the negative energy from the shrill cry of an animal that is being slaughtered manifests in us. Sister tells us that she’s doing her Ph. D., in Preparation for a Happy Death.

A certain parameter had been fenced for free-range chickens to roam and look for food. They don’t run wild all over. No concept of scarcity. I think that this is how it should be in our society: people are free to find a living and they find it because there is opportunity. It is a little weird to find the metaphor in goats and chickens, but it is a little revolutionary.

I find myself scrawling the words indigofera, callandra, citaria, madre de agua, citronella, arabica, stevia and so on. The farm generates roughly 12 million pesos from insect-repellant citronella candles each year. Our host tells us that the initial idea was to provide a livelihood program for ex-prisoners. They grew orchids, and then failed. They had to discover how to teach themselves how to make candles instead. He thinks that the candle is expressive of life: you have to allow yourself to be molded by God. It can be beautiful and useful if one allows himself to be consumed, to be burned. We have to allow ourselves to be the hope, the source of light. I’d like to call it The Parable of the Candle.

The farm also exports stevia, a sugar substitute. Google tells me that it is three hundred times sweeter than sugar but has zero calories. It grows pine trees, different kinds of bamboo and other trees. There is a blaze of flowers in its midst. It breeds peking duck and turkey as well as tilapia among others.

We’d like to find the moral in every story or the virtue in every struggle. A 19-year old articulates that “puwede ra gyud diay,” it can be done. She breaks into tears and laments that she doesn’t understand why man uses his knowledge to destroy nature. Somebody talks of how adults easily lose their way and of the deadening of the spirit. If you put the spotlight on the children, she says, you will see that the spirit is there—it is alive. These children go to school, in classrooms of 69, even on an empty stomach. When children speak, the adults realize that they must continue the resolve—if not for them, at least for the children. We will meet these children in a documentary called “1000 Islands.”

We are told by our environmentalist colleague that the Philippines is the center of the centers of marine biodiversity. “What a glorious heritage,” one exclaims. He tells us that when the underwater biodiversity is rich, it follows that the land is. But somebody states the irony in the Philippine islands: we have the richest of the rich underwater and the poorest of the poor above that. “What do you think is wrong with that?”

We say that the economic growth does not reach the poor. We cannot expect these people to work in call centers. The message of 1000 Islands is that even in the most barren of wastelands, there is a garden to grow.

Somebody says that the farm teaches us that sustainability is not an abstract thing. She affirms that we must continue with what we’ve started—no matter what. Our host has told us that they didn’t really know what they were doing back when they were still excavating the land, contouring it, planting different kinds of plants and grasses, doing different kinds of things to stop the soil from moving. They thought they knew what they were doing only after three months. Weeks ago, he says, he thought he now knows what God has been doing. He acknowledges that by the standards of the world, they lack a lot of things but that the lack in itself is a proof of the source. “I am not the source,” he says.

The role of MISSION as I understand it is in “finding the holy in the common.” It believes that nothing is too small or too ordinary. It might still be baffling to think that the flapping of the wings of a butterfly in the Amazon could create a hurricane in Florida, but it is not baffling to think that stringing little beads of hope, of inspiration, of vision and of courage could help revolutionize our societies. This farm, indeed, confirms our convictions.

We try to find the logic in movements or causes. I believe that they could outlive us. Therefore, I believe that sustainability is not an abstract thing. This is my truth today. Sometimes, it is a little weird; sometimes, a little revolutionary.

 

NOTE:

PSP (Pag-asa Sa Paglaya) Farm is a project of the PSP Multipurpose Cooperative, a nationwide cooperative whose members are mostly renewed ex-prisoners. The farm property used to be a 1.5 hectare piece of land that was reduced to almost total infertility due to years of heavy use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. After five years of patience and hard work, it has once again become nature’s showroom of life-giving activity where city garbage now becomes a necessary resource in making first class fertilizer called vermicompost. The ex-prisoners, usually considered the dregs of society, are now engaged in so much beneficial activity, generating roughly 12 million pesos a year from making candles and other products including those produced in this farm.

 

In this farm we allow nature to do it’s work unhampered. From germinating the seed to transplanting the seedlings to the plot by using a seemingly unusual but, in fact, a very traditional practice of utilising “lokong”, tiny “pots” made of banana leaves. From sorting garbage to feeding them to African Nightcrawler Earthworms, producing fertilizer for our herbs, flowers and vegies. Here we also tame rain water runoff that is feared for its wild power to cause floods and landslides by making it move slowly around trees and hedges, down to our water catchment that hosts our tilapia and Koi fishes, and which has become the swimming pool for our geese and peking ducks.

 

Also here, our little boys now politely called Children in Conflict with the Law (used to be labeled Street Urchins & Juvenile Delinquents) care for the goats, turkeys, guinea fowls and mini parrots which can get noisy at times but which actually provide mother nature’s music in a lush refuge where free range chicken, carabaos and cows also move around toforage in peace and contentment.

Fr. Vic Labao, S.J.