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Going organic to cope with a changing climate

By Baikong Mamid

On the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines, the climate is changing rapidly. "When I was just a child, I remember droughts happening every five years or so," says Lopiz Kamid, a farmer and local community leader on Mindanao. "But since the 1980s, there have been big changes in the weather cycle and seasons."

For villagers in Mindanao, once known as the food basket of the Philippines, extreme heat, droughts and flash flooding are now annual occurrences. They used to enjoy three planting seasons a year, generating bountiful crops from their fertile soil. Now, villagers are battling regular pest infestations and unpredictable weather, malnutrition is rising, and some villagers are forced to survive on bananas.

The worst crisis so far was the 1997 El NiƱo, which lasted for nine months. The temperature soared, plants dried, land cracked, and clean water sources were threatened. People left their villages.

In the village of Sepaka, last year's drought lasted for six months. All the crops failed and some farmers only managed to produce one sack of rice. In a good season, one hectare yields an average of 70 sacks of rice.

This year the farmers face an added crisis: many of the rice fields have turned black and dried up because of an infestation of black rice bugs. Nobody knows where the bugs come from, or why. All the villagers know is that they face food shortages again within the next six months. The people of Sepaka are desperate because they do not have staple foods.

One villager has decided to find a new way to survive in the face of a changing climate. He is Rasid Naim, 28 years old, from a family of farmers of rice and corn. In 2004, Rasid started to volunteer for Oxfam's operational project and received training in organic farming techniques. He applied these techniques to his father's hectare of land and soon found he was making huge savings by mixing his own pesticides and fertilizers instead of buying synthetic ones. He was able to pay his previous debts to traders and buy an additional 1.5 hectares of land, which is now an organic farm too.

At first, Rasid's fellow farmers teased him that his new approaches would not withstand the threats from insects and pests. But they did, and his success in organic farming has convinced 18 more farmers to shift from chemical-dependent to natural and organic practices. His experience proves that his own rice field withstood not only rice farm pests, but also intense flash floods and recurring droughts. Now Rasid is experimenting with an organic pesticide against the deadly black bugs.

It is still early days, but Rasid's work is just one of a myriad of grassroots adaptations to climate change that are already happening across the developing world. Rasid hopes for more support from the government for this kind of project.

"Organic farming frees us from poisonous substance from the chemicals found in the synthetic fertilisers and pesticides," says Rasid. "Our land is more fertile, our bodies are healthier, and we are happier that even the next generation, our children and grandchildren, can benefit from it."

Women's groups have also been created to generate income. One of their activities is making organic soap. They sell it to their neighbors and use their income to buy ingredients needed to make organic fertilizers.

"We need to save mother Earth," says Nor-aisa Iskak, one of the women fundraising to make organic fertilizers and pesticides.