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Filipino ex-rebel winning battle for sustainability

Former Mindanao rebel building a brighter future

Nacianceno Pacalioga (third from right) receives his One World Award for championing organic agriculture (photo supplied by Rapunzel Naturkost) Nacianceno Pacalioga (third from right) receives his One World Award for championing organic agriculture (photo supplied by Rapunzel Naturkost)
  • Joe Torres, Manila
  • Philippines
  • September 26, 2012
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It was already late in the evening when he arrived at a small, out-of-the-way cafe that serves organic food.

"I'm sorry, I still get lost in the concrete jungles of the city," he said.

He still looked like the guerilla that he once was in his black jacket, white T-shirt and jeans.

"I haven't slept in the past 24 hours," he said. "I just can't sleep in a plane."

He had just arrived from Germany and took a cab straight to the cafe.

Asked if it was not, in a way, dissimilar to the old days which required long treks through jungle and little chance to sleep, he replied: “No. It’s a lot different now. The level of the struggle is far more challenging.”

Nacianceno Mejos Pacalioga, known as Jun to his friends, was a rebel leader in the western part of Mindanao during the turbulent 1970s and 80s.

Nowadays, he is mayor of Dumingag town in the province of Zamboanga del Sur, the leader of over 46,000 people in 44 villages.

On September 16, he was named "One World Award" laureate in Germany for his "impressive and highly inspiring" work to promote sustainable agriculture, forestry and resources management in his landlocked town in the hinterlands of Mindanao.

The international One World Award honors people and their projects "that make the world a better place, dedicated people who give positive and innovative examples of globalization."

The award is given by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, the global umbrella organization of organic agriculture that represents more than 700 organizations and institutions around the world, and Rapunzel Naturkost, the world’s leading manufacturer of organic foods for 35 years.

"It never crossed my mind to get such recognition, and even travel to a faraway place," Jun said.

Jun grew up in the mountains. He studied to be an engineer but "the struggle for freedom" lured him to join the ranks of the rebels. He lived with poor peasants and tribal people and organized them to assert their rights on their land, and their futures.

When democracy was restored in 1986, Jun was elected to the town council. After nine years, he was elected mayor and pushed for the development of organic agriculture.

"It was not something new. I learned it from Church people and missionaries who implemented the program in rural areas where I was based," he said.

Church projects were hit and miss though, he added: "The people themselves should initiate and implement the program."

It’s an approach he learned from the Communist movement, part of which was leading by example.

He campaigned against smoking, so he stopped smoking. He explained to villagers the evils of gambling, so he does not gamble. He preached about the virtues of farming, so he tills the soil himself and plants vegetables, corn, fruit-bearing trees, and rubber.

He set up a training center for farmers to teach them organic farming. His dream was to help people rise out of poverty, protect the environment and put his town on the map for agri-governance in the Philippines.

At first, it was not easy. People resisted, finding it easier to continue inorganic farming because chemicals were available.

But with the help of his wife, Girlyn, Jun planted a half-hectare of paddy, which was mortgaged to him, with organic rice.

"We had to show people that it can be done," he said.

People laughed when he and his wife started spreading buffalo dung on the field but they persisted.

"We showed them that our land had been destroyed by chemicals. We convinced them that land has to be rehabilitated to produce an abundant harvest," Jun said.

Dumingag is a small town in the eastern part of Zamboanga del Sur. It is classified as 50 percent mildly rugged and 50 percent lowlands, rolling hills and plateaus. Up to 90 percent of the more than 8,000 families in the town rely on farming for their livelihoods. Middlemen control the price of agricultural produce that are sold in other places, thus the people wallow in poverty.

"If the capitalist system continues, farmers’ livelihoods will continue to deteriorate," said the former Communist rebel.

The only way to change the system is to empower the people, he said, adding that sustainable agriculture will free poor farmers from the "bondage of slavery from capitalist traders."

Roughly 90 percent of people in Dumingag live below the Philippines poverty line, according to government data, so Jun drafted a ‘Genuine People’s Agenda’ which became the basis for his sustainable development program.

It includes ideas such as training kindergarten teachers in the basic principles of organic cultivation. Workshops on organic agriculture were organized in villages and even soldiers stationed in nearby military camps became farmers.

After five years, the Dumingag's food supply has been secured through the cultivation of 98 different local rice varieties. Jun said that from 20 organic farmers when he started in 2007, there are now 500. Only two of previously 10 pesticide traders in town are still in business.

In 2010, Jun received a national award for the "best implementation of a rural development concept."

Dumingag also became a "national model town for poverty alleviation" and its anti-smoking drive was lauded by the World Health Organization as "the most successful non-smoking campaign."

The citation of the "One World Award" lauded Jun's "courage to confront the risks of his policy" as he continues his fight against corruption. A gold mining company tried to bribe him. When he declined, armed men entered the town.

"But they know that I will stand my ground," he said. “The struggle is still far from over.”

The former rebel leader had another plane to catch. He needed to be back home in the mountains to till his land.

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