Rural livelihoods in times of crisis: Filipino NGOs learn from COVID-19

Rural livelihoods in times of crisis: Filipino NGOs learn from COVID-19

Philippines - 02 June, 2020
Heidi Mendoza and Koen KustersHeidi Mendoza and Koen Kusters

Through selling forest honey and community-based ecotourism businesses, people in forested areas of the Philippines can make a sustainable living. The current COVID crisis, however, shows that it is never wise to put all your eggs in one basket. Livelihood diversification is key.

In the Philippines, Tropenbos International works with the Forest Foundation and other NGOs that support sustainable management of forested landscapes. In recent weeks, the Forest Foundation organized several digital meetings with the staff of other NGOs and community members to discuss how the current COVID-19 crisis is affecting people in rural areas. It became clear from these discussions that there are large variations between communities.

Counter-intuitively, in some communities the crisis has resulted in surging incomes, due to an exploding demand for certain commodities. This is especially the case for abaca, which is a particular species of the banana plant (Musa Textilis) that is native to the Philippines. Its long leaves provide a high-quality fiber that is used for the production of medical fabric. With the sudden and drastic worldwide rise of the use of personal protective equipment, such as gowns, gloves, and masks, there has been an unprecedented increase in the demand for abaca. In some areas of the Philippines—there where trade is not completely restricted—abaca-producing farmers are benefitting.

SUB: Small store in a village in the Philippines. Hans Vellema

Others have not been so lucky. Government-imposed restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have had immediate and severe negative consequences for the livelihoods and food security of many communities. Because of social distancing regulations, community markets are not allowed, so farmers can no longer sell their agricultural produce, or must sell at much lower prices. Moreover, restrictions to the movement of people and goods within and between islands have further curtailed the trade of many agricultural and forest products, with far-reaching consequences—even in remote villages. In Palawan, for example, indigenous communities used to sell forest honey and resin from the Almaciga tree (Agathis philippinensis) to traders from Cebu and Manila, but this has come to a halt, because the traders are no longer allowed to travel. Likewise, households that used to rely on ecotourism have seen their cash flow dry up.

As a consequence, the people in these communities have come to rely on their own food production. Many have turned their attention to backyard gardening to maintain food supplies for their families. But there are also farmers who do not grow their own food. For them, switching to the cultivation of food crops takes time, resulting in immediate food insecurity. Some NGOs are therefore planning to help these farmers by setting up programmes through which they can exchange their non-food products for basic food items, such as rice.

SUB: Agricultural plots in the Philippines. Maartje de Graaf

Several other Filipino NGOs have indicated that they will put livelihood diversity and local food production higher on their agendas. One of them— KIN —is planning to look into the lessons that can be learned from the coping mechanisms of indigenous communities who maintain a level of self-reliance by combining commercial and subsistence activities. Other NGOs have started supporting backyard food production and collection of forest foods. They see it as a new goal for sustainable living—not only during, but also after the pandemic.

The current crisis has increased NGOs’ awareness of the importance of diverse livelihood portfolios and local food production, to increase people’s resilience, i.e., their ability to deal with shocks and stresses. COVID-19 has highlighted the importance and urgency of building resilience more than ever. 

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