Being visionary in Eastern Samar is like going against the tides and monsoons in the Pacific. It was back in 2015, when I first met Luis Bayarong, the president of FEA Agrarian Reform Cooperative, in the small sleepy town of Guiuan.
The town made into all major world headlines in November 2013 when it got hit as the first settlement by the super typhoon Yolanda before it swept across the whole central Philippines and caused havoc of apocalyptic scale and unprecedented loss of lives. I was sitting on the porch in my office to hide from scorching heat when our common friend introduced Luis to me. Luis spoke quietly, which is very rare for a Filipino, so I also listened quietly to his exciting story.
FEA Cooperative started as Farmers Entrepreneurship Association in 2007 when seven people from four families from the village of Iberan organized themselves, contributed each 100 pesos (3 dollars), and continued contributing the exact amount every subsequent month. A lending institution was created from these modest contributions, and eventually, a vegetable farm was established and a small grocery store in the nearby town of Salcedo. By 2013, six years later, FEA was, by far, the largest and the most successful farmer association in Eastern Samar province with over 200 members. Then typhoon Yolanda came...
The storm took everything – all association’s assets were destroyed, all members lost their houses, their livelihoods, and some also their loved ones. “8th November 2013 when Yolanda striked, we consider it as Ground Zero for the association”, Luis further explains to me. The association’s board has decided to pardon all debts of the members. “This decision proved to be live-saving not only for the organization but also for its members. A strong bond of trust was built between the association’s board and it’s members as articulated in our slogan – Farmers helping Farmers” Luis continues. “We made plans to recover the loss. Association’s officers started to visit offices of international NGOs based in the area and government offices based in the provincial capital town of Borongan”, Luis smiles.
FEA Association managed to form partnerships with several big INGOs, and in 2014, it restored its lending program and gradually established vegetable and cassava farms, built a piggery and meat shop, and constructed a large cassava processing facility. The British NGO Oxfam supported the association’s fruit tree nursery. “We produced seedlings of mango, papaya, calamondin but the main tree in the nursery was a cocoa tree. Around 1000 cocoa trees were growing in our nursery but when Oxfam closed its office in 2016, we could no longer sustain the nursery without their financial support”, Luis recalls.
Fortunately, at that same time, my former employer People in Need, Czech Republic-based NGO started with the cocoa initiative while exploring alternative crops to support coconut farmers, whose livelihoods completely collapsed after Yolanda. Cocoa production is more economically viable than coconut production. Also, it brings multiple ecological benefits and is far more resilient against strong winds than coconut plants. Together with People in Need, FEA entered into a partnership with Seedcore Agro-Industrial Corporation, the 2nd largest cocoa exporter in the Philippines. In a few months, a nursery was constructed on FEA’s grounds, and the first seedlings were provided to the farmers in November 2017. The nursery has a capacity of over 200,000 seedlings and belongs amongst the largest cocoa nurseries in the whole country. The joint effort was very much appreciated during the visit of Leni Robredo, the vice-president of Philippines, during her visit in August 2018.
Another milestone came in September with the initiation of Eastern Samar Cocoa Livelihood Programme led by SPS Biota in partnership with People in Need and funded by Ministry of Foreign Affairs & Trade. “While Seedcore provided technical know-how, we provided labour. For almost 1,5 years the Programme was employing 15 association members and with the arrival of extremely knowledgeable and skilled nursery manager Peter Paul Cruz from Davao, the nursery operations and quality control improved dramatically”, says Luis. A systematic movement was set, where every month, the nursery supplied local farmers with more than 10,000 seedlings, and more than 250,000 seedlings were distributed to 1000 farmers since the establishment of the nursery.
FEA, now transformed into a cooperative, also saw other business operations booming, especially cassava processing and pig raising. Currently, they accumulated 4 million PHP in cash and an additional 5 million PHP in assets. However, being situated in Eastern Samar means to be unceasingly prepared for new challenges.
On Christmas Eve 2019, typhoon Ursula made landfall not far from the Iberan village, where all FEA operations are localized. I expected the worst. On 25th December early morning, I travelled with People in Need Coordinator to Iberan. We found Luis in the nursery. He was devastated. The nursery sustained heavy damages when the whole canopy collapsed into the seedlings. Although the canopy was standing again within a few days, 23,000 seedlings worth 9 months of daily care had died from the stress within coming weeks. “We couldn’t imagine than just in a few months’ time from the typhoon we will meet another and much bigger challenge”, Luis continues.
COVID has affected the FEA cooperative and its members heavily. In March 2020, the Philippine government introduced one of the toughest lockdowns in the world, with severe restrictions on people’s movements still being in place until now (February 2021). With the severe impact on all of FEA’s operations, Luis estimates that the cooperative lost some 4 million PHP income. Until recently, but perhaps a more crucial problem was the outflux of 62 cooperative members who couldn’t afford to pay their loans and took along their whole savings – 800,000 PHP. But things started to improve once again in January 2021. FEA received 850,000 PHP in grants and a huge contract worth of 22 million PHP with an estimated income to be made of 2 million PHP. Notably, the situation with COVID has stabilized and a number of new cases have been gradually decreasing around the whole Philippines. The government has also signaled an easement of all restrictions starting by March 2021 – after long 12 months. By that time, the production of seedlings for Cocoa Livelihood Programme will be completed. “Something to be proud of. We have grown these seedlings from seeds ourselves without any technical support or back up”, Luis raises his voice in joy. The next nursery development will be purely up to FEA.
People in Need handed over the nursery, whose operations has been funded by the Cocoa Livelihood Programme led by SPS Biota, in August 2020. “This is a massive opportunity for us you know Pavel. We can build a strong cocoa industry in our province thanks to the nursery along with our knowledge and skills we have mastered and driven by our slogan Farmers helping Farmers”, Luis concludes.
- Pavel Muron, Offshore Programme Manager