Rediscovering our traditional and indigenous knowledge in agriculture

September 15, 2021

by Rosario Guzman

In the English language, when we set out to rediscover a thing, it implies that the thing remains there, it has just been forgotten and ignored.

To rediscover is such an apt word for our traditional and indigenous knowledge in agriculture – it is there, but we have gone through episodes of collective memory loss.

Such loss can be directly traced to the rise of modern capitalism. The emphasis on capitalist efficiency was crucial in introducing corporate plantations, monocropping and the use of chemicals. Our appreciation of Philippine agriculture would never be the same again.

The Philippines first lost its memory of traditional and indigenous knowledge in agriculture as a colony, under the encomienda system of the Spanish colonizers. The encomienda system concentrated the land under the control of a few encomenderos. Although not succeeding to cover the lands belonging to indigenous ethnic tribes and the Moro people, the encomienda system gathered together the peasants as vassals who had to pay tributes to the encomenderos. The system produced for the needs of the crown and its other colonies, even up to the point when the feudal power of the crown was already on the decline.

The encomienda system evolved into the hacienda system, which was geared more towards super-profits than tributes. The landholdings were expanded and were made into large economic units producing single crops, which were linked to international markets. Production by the mass of peasants and agricultural workers, mostly as forced labor, was geared towards export.

The Filipino people, led by the peasant masses and workers, waged a revolution and rendered a death blow to Spanish colonialism. The hacienda system was abolished in the South American countries, Spain’s former colonies, but it continued to exist in the Philippines. This was because the new colonizer, the United States, which snatched our revolution victory, systematized the hacienda system to feed its imperialist objectives. Even after the nominal independence from the US in 1946, haciendas persisted in the Philippines.

The Philippines as a neocolony lost its collective memory of traditional and indigenous knowledge a second time, when the US relegated the country to be the producer of the raw material needs of US imperialism. The farms were turned into vast corporate monocrop plantations and dumping grounds of US surplus farm machinery and mills. Milling capacity was increased, for instance, and all our rice varieties, sugar and flour (even as we import wheat) turned all-white on imported US mills. Even irrigation infrastructure was dumped on us, replacing indigenous knowledge on water management systems.

The Philippine republic started implementing fake efforts to dismantle the historically entrenched land monopoly. The country has the longest-running land reform program (88 years and still counting, starting from the Rice Tenancy Act of 1933) to the unfulfilled promises of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) and its extension. The country lost its traditional and indigenous knowledge a third time when one republic after another made sure that the landholdings of the ruling elite remain intact.

The Marcos dictatorship, supported by a program loan from the World Bank, implemented on a vast scale what was dubbed as the Green Revolution. It opened up Philippine agriculture to indirect control of transnational corporations (TNCs) and introduced the high-yielding varieties, which should have been rather called high-input varieties as they are heavily reliant on chemical inputs. The Green Revolution was supported by a World Bank credit program, Masagana 99, which sank the farmers who remained tenants deeper into indebtedness. The country lost traditional and indigenous knowledge a fourth time when the US-Marcos regime condemned Philippine agriculture to 99% chemical farming.

Agriculture modernization has been the banner call of the succeeding administrations, but without a genuine agrarian reform program, strong state support and rural industrialization plan. Instead, agriculture modernization has pertained to commercialization; techno fixes in increasing productivity; introduction of high-value crops; continued reliance on high-input varieties and inputs of course; genetic modification; monopolization of seeds and genetic resources through patents and intellectual property rights regime; water and irrigation control and user-fees; importation of oftentimes inappropriate technology and machinery; and offering Philippine agriculture to an unbridled open multilateral trading system. The country lost its collective memory of traditional and indigenous knowledge in agriculture a fifth time when, for the last 40 years, the government embraced neoliberal economics as its paradigm.

The Duterte administration is implementing full imports liberalization of the country’s staples. While this is just a continuation of the country’s commitment to World Trade Organization agreements, the Duterte administration’s implementation of neoliberal policies in agriculture is conspicuously callous, even coupled with direct political attacks against farmers and dissenters. Still mouthing modernization as its agenda, the agriculture department is mainly focused on agribusiness, specifically foreign investments, technologies and markets.

It is also starting to get obsessed with the digitalization of agriculture, a new fancy term introduced by the United Nations for agribusiness to capture value chains, without genuinely and sustainably developing agriculture production, in fact without even documenting traditional and indigenous knowledge, talking about ‘digitalization’. Production support is reduced to selling seeds and inputs, credit, and the popularization of urban gardening. This is even as the government does not support and even demolishes bungkalan (cultivation) efforts by farmers as well as the urban poor. Are we losing grasp of our traditional and indigenous knowledge for the last time by killing our farmers?

Hopefully not. We may rediscover our traditional and indigenous knowledge in agriculture by reclaiming the people’s control over the country’s rich and abundant natural resources and by asserting people’s rights to harness these riches in order to plan for an economy that truly serves people’s needs. Rediscovering is reclaiming our collective victory. ###

(This speech was delivered by the author as a reaction from an economic point of view to Dr. Susanna Balingit’s input in the webinar “Rediscovering people’s traditions, indigenous knowledge and practices in health and agriculture”. Sponsored by the SUKI Network, AgroecologyX Network, Asuncion Perez Memorial Center Inc., IBON Foundation, Council for People’s Development and Governance, and the PUP Center for Inclusiveness and Diversity, the forum was held in line with the culminating activities of the National Peoples’ Food Systems Summit.)