The Philippines is a melting pot of culture from its many regions. And in western Mindanao, the Zamboanga Peninsula exemplifies the various vibrant cultures of the nation. One of its oldest and largest settlers with the most unique heritage is the Subanen, an Indigenous tribe also referred to as ‘people of the river.’ The Subanen is a peace-loving and agricultural tribe that boasts marvelous music and practices that speak for their creativity and resilience through the years.

When Project ConVERGE came into the picture in the year 2017, one of the ARBOs it developed was the Malagandis Indigenous Farmers Association. MIFA was then a very young group located in Titay, Zamboanga Sibugay. The farmers, all members of the Subanen tribe, were also relatively new to modern-day practices of rubber farming.

Wilme Liasan is one of the Subanen members who remains faithful to the traditions of his people, and is also now a rubber farmer. Together with his family, he shared the challenges that came with the changes in the times, and how the mere act of banding together for a common goal helped resolve their community’s struggle.

“Sauna, ug mananggot mi, iyaiya ra mi ug baligya. Among presyo barato kaayo. Baynte tres ra gyud among nabal-an, walay laing nailhan. Ang bayad namo hapon pa. Usahay ma-delay, pati among pamugas ma-delay pud. Naglisod gyud mi atong panahuna,” ([Before being formed into an organization] We used to sell our products individually. And so our price was very low, only around 23 pesos per kilo. We got paid in the afternoon. Sometimes, the payment is even delayed, and so is our capacity to purchase rice and food. It was a very difficult time) Liasan said.

But with MIFA’s formation, he said that there has been improvement in their prices as they started their consolidated marketing, where they sell by group — a practice that has brought impact in their rubber farming.

Subanen’s Emergence in Rubber Farming

The Subanen have come a long way, emerging alongside the era of modernity. They have adapted to the modern world, carefully moving towards progress without leaving their identity behind.

In fact, in MIFA, the Subanen men and women have continued to thrive. And with their success as rubber farmers, they bring along with them their community as they are also their organization’s leaders. 

Starting as an ARBO with limited resources and knowledge in proper rubber farming, they have proven themselves worthy of a promotion in the enterprise structure. Thus, they were selected as one of the newest consolidators of rubber lumps for Project ConVERGE-supported producers in their town.

This colossal step for MIFA is partly thanks to good leadership, and the Subanen culture they uphold in the organization. It is through their insights and values that the association is now able to master rubber farming.

The Subanen put their trust in Sabado Tumitay, who is MIFA’s chairman and also the Bogolan or Subanen local community leader. With great leadership from MIFA, their organization and the consolidation of rubber lumps brought improvement to the income of the members.

But challenges are a constant in every organization. However, it is with good leadership that you overcome.

“We encountered many challenges since the start. We had to adjust to the times. We didn’t have capital. There were seminars we couldn’t attend because we do not have funds. But now, with Project ConVERGE and DAR, MIFA and its members felt the changes in the running of the business,” Tumitay said.

“We are one of the first to be organized in this area. Our neighbours do not have organizations for their farming. And so at first, people were skeptical. But when they saw the efficiency of MIFA, nearby farmers expressed interest in joining us and trading their rubber with the group.”

Just like in most rubber areas, consolidation to drive up volume is key in securing a better negotiation for the price. This is complemented by good agricultural practices that ensure high quality of inputs. With the help of Project ConVERGE, and the unwavering dedication of the MIFA officials and members,  the organization is now starting to enjoy the fruits of its labor.

From roughly 23 pesos per kilo, MIFA is now able to sell at around 29 pesos, or an increase of 26 percent on their product value. Payment is now also done upfront. And lastly, aside from the 70 members, neighboring producers are now linked to the ARBO to trade.

Being the Brains for Creative Solutions

Meanwhile, another ARBO dominated by IPs in the same province is the Silingan Rubber Farmers’ Association. With IPs seated in the management, they have also been the brains of the ARBO’s creative solutions. The most notable is their modification of the traditional rubber trading practices to a more efficient rubber bidding scheme. 

Unlike other crops that employ marketing agreements to secure steady partnerships with buyers, rubber tends to not thrive in fixed prices as its global rates continue to fluctuate. Traditional rubber traders dictate the local market price. And so, most able ARBOs resort to product bidding.

SIRFA modified this usual practice. The ARBO created a network with a pool of potential bidders. For transparency, they can then send a representative on-site to witness the bidding process. Winning trader consolidates the rubber lumps from SIRFA and participating rubber farmers. This solves the geographical concerns for many organizations. Every bidding rate is anchored on the reference price of the Malaysian Rubber Exchange and the Banko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) to ensure that bidders don’t take advantage of the scheme by offering prices lower than the global rate. When the bid prices do not meet the MRE/BSP standard, the bid is considered ‘failed’, where no bidder gets to acquire the rubber lumps. This provides SIRFA the alternative of negotiated marketing, based on their PSPs and MOA. And thereby also puts the power of negotiation in the hands of the ARBOs, as opposed to the traditional trading scenario years prior.

“Before, we just looked for the best price from those presented to us by buyers. And then we award the products to that buyer. But with consolidation and the volume we have now, coupled by the Production Capitalization Fund from Project ConVERGE which increased the volume of our yield, many new members and associates decided to integrate their products with us. Buyers are also after our rubber cup lumps. Thus, during rubber bidding, the bid offers have increased,” SIRFA Chairman Charlie Divinagracia said.

Continuing to Thrive

It has been a long journey for the Subanen tribe, from being people of the river into becoming top rubber traders in their locality.

And for sure, there’s more to come. With their recent recorded increase in ARBO assets and an unstaggered yield despite the pandemic, the likes of MIFA, SIRFA, and its Subanen leaders are just at its launching pad.

And for Sabado Tumitay, he looks forward to the day where the IP Communities in Zamboanga will continue to thrive. “We hope that the IP Community continues to receive attention. We want to show the world that the indigenous peoples like ours have a purpose, that we are united, and that we are persevering. We look forward to making the most out of these opportunities so that we can continue to thrive,” he said.

More actions are currently being taken to promote their culture and to ensure that the next generation of Subanen learns to embrace its beauty. This was seconded by the Barangay Malagandis LGU in regards to the inclusion of indigenous individuals in their priorities.


About Project ConVERGE

The Project Convergence on Value Chain Enhancement for Rural Growth and Empowerment (ConVERGE) is a six-year project implemented by the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR), funded by the Philippine government and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). Its goal is to improve and sustain the gains of the agrarian reform program by supporting the services of the Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries (ARBs) in the different clusters of the Region through various interventions such as farm input provisions, training, and establishing partnerships with new markets. Region 9’s enterprise commodities are rice and rubber.

About IFAD

The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) is a specialized agency of the United Nations, dedicated to eradicating poverty and hunger in developing countries. It works in remote rural areas of the world to help countries achieve the millennium development goals. Through low-interest loans and grants, IFAD develops and finances projects that enable rural poor people to overcome poverty themselves.

Written by: Katrin Anne Arcala & Jullienne Veronica Tuazon