Embracing ethnicity and taking up space

The role of women and indigenous people in the modern agricultural sector

There are stories to tell and there are stories to be gathered from the field. They are created because someone took a stand and let their voices be heard. And in the cases of the indigenous peoples in the Philippines, taking a stand amid the buzz of other modern issues to voice out theirs is something that is continually a challenge.

Especially rampant in farming and agriculture, the achievements of the indigenous peoples are most times drowned out by other issues. It seems like a hectic generation such as this implies that there is no space left for the stories of the marginalized – that there are no platforms available to promote the inclusion of minorities.

A Subanen rubber farmer in Zamboanga Sibugay begs to differ. Donning her beloved Subanen attire, Marilyn Razo struts on the farm, ready to let her story be heard.


Marilyn’s Story

Marilyn Razo is a rubber farmer since 2010 and a cooperative member of the Jo Rubber Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries Cooperative, a closed-type organization that consists of mostly IPs as members.

But her natural leadership skills started way back in her high school life in Sulu National High School, where she was an honor student, and where she was inspired and encouraged by her teacher to nurture her skills. She was eventually elected as the vice president of their student government organization. In 2010, she graduated with a degree in Computer Science at the Western Mindanao State University when she was called back by the Jo Rubber Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries Cooperative (JARBECO) manager to work in their office. The 31-year-old has been working as the cooperative secretary of JARBECO since 2010.

She also remained a rubber farmer because this was how their parents earned for them way back. “Being a rubber farmer is important to me because this is what we inherited from our parents. We also have our own farm,” she said.

She joined the cooperative beginning as the secretary of JARBECO when she was called to take on the position of the previous secretary who was studying education. She was 23 then. At that same time, she participated in DAR’s screening for their organization to be part of the department’s Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries (ARB). With the training and seminars attended, Marilyn was further encouraged to stay in the organization upon seeing the help provided by the government.

But obstacles in an organization still cannot be denied. Just as businesses encounter blockages, so did JARBECO.

“The cooperative had its share of challenges. We did not have a proper income in the early years,” said Marilyn, recalling the time they struggled with income in the organization.

We worked as volunteers. We individually grew around 400 trees per hectare. We maintained these farms to help sustain the cooperative as well. My family all helped in the farm maintenance, even if we were not yet paid by the coop. At first, it was all Bayanihan.”

She also shared how they altogether worked on maintaining the farms in the heat of the sun because they wanted their trees to survive. Fortunately, until now, they have survived with 56 hectares fully planted with rubber trees, with 30 hectares fully tappable.

Supporting the beneficiaries

The Project Convergence on Value Chain Enhancement for Rural Growth and Empowerment (ConVERGE) came into the picture with the goal of improving the lives of farmers. ConVERGE provided JARBECO with the support it needed: inputs, training, and marketing of their rubber produce. Marilyn is grateful for what they have received. She, along with 883 other IPs in her province, were able to benefit from the various project interventions.

“ConVERGE really provided us with more than enough, not only in farm inputs but also to me,” she said. “I was hired as an enumerator and geotagger multiple times. That’s added income for me and my family to sustain my needs.” 

One of the recent support from the project was the implementation of an input loan scheme that would further aid the farmers in fertilizing their rubber trees to improve their production. This scheme is called the Production Capitalization Fund. JARBECO was one of the conduit ARBOs tasked to handle the loan distribution and collection. So far, 180 other producers in her cluster are identified as Subanen. They are able to participate in this ndoe of the value chain as recipients of either farm inputs and fertilizers or the PCF.

“We gave emphasis on this project because even if it’s a government initiative, we want to show our effort as a group that honors commitment. We deposited the payments as expected.”

Embracing ethnicity

JARBECO is a closed-type cooperative that consists of 90% of Subanen members and beneficiaries. And as an indigenous person herself, Marilyn takes pride in her ethnicity and the work she does together with her Subanen brothers and sisters in the cooperative.

“I can say that I am privileged as an IP and also as a worker of JARBECO. We are given focus on projects. As a working IP who is now a secretary of the cooperative, I have amassed experience. My growth was also aided by training as both an IP and a farmer.”

She also added how the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples supported them. “Very recently, we were informed of a project on indigenous clothing to work on the preservation of our Subanen tradition. So those who do not have their traditional costumes can have it made,” she said.

Project ConVERGE has also provided a stage for the IPs in the project to share their insights and learn more about other ethnicities, while also discussing the issues and concerns with the respective organizations that could aid them. Last July 2022, a project-wide IP forum was conducted for the IPs of ConVERGE. Marilyn was one of the participants, and she was glad for the experience, as it was one of her many stepping stones to continue promoting her culture.

But this was not her first forum. In fact, she has been invited by the project many times in the previous years to impart her experiences as an IP.

“I have been joining IP forums,” she said. “The first memorable one was in Butuan in November 2017. We were able to share our culture and stories. I presented for the Region, and the others were so proud of me as well as myself.”

She also participated in a global online forum with participants from around the world.

“It was a Southeast Asia Indigenous Peoples’ Forum,” she said. “Even if it was only through online, I still got to experience and listen to the stories of others like me in other countries. Most of all, I was able to share my experiences.”

“We talked and shared about our respective traditions, and discussed the next steps in further preserving our indigenous roots for the next generations. Through that forum, we were encouraged to embrace our culture even more, and understand that as we are part of the society, we too should take a stand and share our culture. Letting our voices be heard paves way to more opportunities for us. That is why I stand and talk as one of the representatives of our Subanen tribe,” she proudly ended.

A message for IPs

Marilyn hopes that every IP of the project, and even in the whole Philippines, gets to take up space in this current society. Learning to embrace their own culture and heritage is one way of letting this generation know that the IPs are here to take a step and let their voices and culture be heard and appreciated, which will bring forth many more opportunities.

“For my fellow IPs, may we also continue farming because this is part of our tradition and livelihood. For the young IPs, may they not feel embarrassed by their IP roots. Instead, be proud of our tribe and tradition.”