Academic journal article Austrian Journal of South - East Asian Studies

Where Peasants Are Kings: Food Sovereignty in the Tagbanua Traditional Subsistence System

Academic journal article Austrian Journal of South - East Asian Studies

Where Peasants Are Kings: Food Sovereignty in the Tagbanua Traditional Subsistence System

Article excerpt


In the Philippines, rice policy and public investment on agriculture had been mostly dedicated to lowland, irrigated areas, whereas upland rice ecosystems have largely been left untouched. Consequently, upland farmers relied solely on traditional cultivation methods and varieties to maintain rice production (Dayanghirang, 2011). As rice production pressures increase with population growth, rice exports, the loss of agrarian land to real estate development, and the invariable poverty of farmers, policymakers have been turning their attention to the uplands. This article is an outcome of a research and development project that took place in the frame of the Upland Rice Development Program (URDP), which was launched in 2011 and draws on the Palayamanan Systems Approach1 and the integration of traditional agricultural systems. In particular, it aimed at sustaining the seed sources for traditional upland rice varieties through the establishment of community seed banks and the promotion of sustainable farming practices. The program has focused its efforts on the eradication of swidden or slash-and-burn agriculture (Philippine Rice Research Institute, 2011) because it is perceived as unsustainable given the rapidly growing population (Rambo, 2009; Suarez & Sajise, 2010). National policy promulgated by programs like the URDP envisions a future for upland farmers driven by growth in production, preferably through modernization and mechanization (Corong & Cororaton, 2005). The intention of the program is to increase the income of upland farmers in order to improve their conditions and cross the poverty threshold.

The intensification of rice production in the uplands was purportedly an effort to achieve rice self-sufficiency, but the consequent implementation of URDP is evidence of the "dissonance between governmental desires for rice self-sufficiency and pursuit of a more export-oriented agricultural economy" (Ehrhart, 2013, p. iv).

In early 2008, a food crisis hit the Philippines and put the issue of food shortage at the forefront of national debate. Until now, the Philippine government - while certainly not blind to the looming food crisis - finds itself unable to attain its goals of rice self-sufficiency (dela Cruz, 2014). Even though domestic rice production has failed to satisfy the demands of the domestic market, the Department of Agriculture recently reported the milestone of exporting 400,000 metric tons of premium rice to Hong Kong and Singapore ("For first time," 2014). The Philippine agricultural policy, including URDP, is based on the paradigm of food security which, however, was unable to serve the interests of the majority of food producers and has resulted in devastating effects on the livelihoods of peasants worldwide (McMichael, 2014). In contrast, the paradigm of food sovereignty, initiated by La Vìa Campesina, calls for "local production for local consumption" whereby food is valued based on its "nutritional and cultural benefits" in order to bring back control over food systems to nations and people rather than corporations who dominate the market (Wittman, Desmarais, & Wiebe, 2010, pp. 8, 10).

Based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted from 2013 to 2014, this article explores how a culturally shaped farming system that capitalizes on local knowledge continues to provide for the needs of families and upholds a meaningful form of subsistence while generating income for household expenditures. The research documents agricultural production and the planting calendar of Tagbanua upland rice farmers in two communities in Palawan, Philippines. Open-ended ethnographic interviews and focus group discussions with Tagbanua farmers as well as migrant, non-Tagbanua residents were conducted in order to explore the role of swidden cultivation in ensuring food sovereignty in the Tagbanua villages.

The article discusses local swidden agriculture and its relation to Tagbanua livelihood and identity. …

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