The Rice Challenge

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We Filipinos eat a lot of rice.  And to be self-sustaining, it means we need to produce our own rice.  The good thing about our project site is, there’s an existing rice field.  The bad thing is, the soil is so degraded and abused with so much chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

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Our challenge is how to make this rice field as rich and as productive as possible using the permaculture principles.  To prepare it for the rice planting season in June, the start of the rainy season here in the Philippines, we need to introduce a lot of organic matter to it through producing compost soil and planting legumes like mung beans (monggo) and peanuts.  Legume plants are good for enhancing the soil quality and usually used as green manure because of their nitrogen-rich foliage and the nitrogen-fixing bacterias in their root system.  Our compost is a mixture of dried leaves, rice straw, rice hulls, saw dust, dried twigs, carabao dung, and chicken dung.

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In January, we started irrigating the rice fields, courtesy of our farmer neighbor who let us tap from their irrigation system (for the meantime we’re still setting up our own irrigation system).  We then soaked the fields for two days.

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We then tilled the fields using our neighbor’s carabao.  Although in permaculture, there’s a “no till” principle, we had to do it just this one time, while we are still brewing our own compost soil.

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We then planted mung beans and peanuts.

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They’re now almost ready for harvesting.  We’ll soon have peanuts and mung beans and we’ll just have to “chop and drop” the greens after harvesting.  “Chop and drop” is another permaculture practice of chopping nitrogen-rich foliage like legumes and dropping them to the ground to serve as mulch or organic fertilizer.

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Unlike our neighbors who plant hybrid varieties of white rice, we’ll be planting the traditional red rice through direct seeding.

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(Photos by Cye Reyes)

Going the Permaculture Way

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We only learned about permaculture last year when we were researching about the best gardening practices that we could apply to our project.  After reading and learning a lot about it, we decided to apply its principles, not only in our gardening but also on how we can generally promote sustainable living.  For us, it’s the perfect practice.

What is permaculture? It’s a design system for sustainable living that is pegged on three basic ethics: earth care, people care and return of surplus/sharing of surplus.  It was conceived by Bill Mollison in the 70s.  Permaculture promotes diversity, stability, resilience and abundance by designing a landscape modeled after a natural ecosystem.  The practice of permaculture has become a global movement of people who are concerned about the environmental and economic crisis caused by the present system of exploitation and abuse all for profit.  It is a political action.

So here we are, a bunch of women with little or no skills and experience at all in planting and building, daring ourselves to make a difference.  With the permaculture principles in mind, we started making a small kitchen garden.  We collected rich forest floor materials and lots of mulch (rice straw and dried leaves), and made some beds.

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We planted a mixture of veggies using the seeds we saved, bought from farmers’ trade fairs, and those given to us by friends: mustard, string beans, french beans, pak choy (pechay), bitter gourd, romaine lettuce, sweet peas, chayote (sayote), squash and some herbs like sweet basil, rosemary, cilantro, oregano, Thai basil and a lot more.  And just after a few weeks, we started harvesting.

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For fertilizer, we used dried carabao dung from our neighbors.  We planted some marigolds to act as natural insect repellant.

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To this day, we harvest something everyday from our small kitchen garden.  Believe it or not, we already have surplus. We are sharing some of our harvests with our neighbors, and it feels good.

We’re not experts.  This is a learning experience for all of us and we still have a lot of learning to do.

We thank our friends Bong Ramilo and Gino Orticio from Australia for sending us a set of DVDs on permaculture produced by the Permaculture Institute of Australia (http://www.permaculturenews.org/), and Ana Mae Espejo from Fresno, California for the book Gaia’s Garden, A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture.

(Photos by Cye Reyes)

Cob Workshop

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Cob is a mixture of clay soil, sand, straw and water.  It is a way of building houses and other structures, a building technique used for centuries all over the world.   Its wide use eventually died down because of the emergence of modern building materials such as concrete and steel.  But it was revived in the 80s as a result of having alternative building materials that are environment-friendly, inexpensive, healthy and readily available.

It was in the late 90s when we were introduced to natural building, when our close friends Jonilyn and Zeli Strugar built their cob house in La Trinidad, Benguet, Cordillera Region, Northern Philippines.  We were amazed then but at the same time reluctant with the idea because we were used to the conventional way of building.  But after consuming bottles and bottles of their home-brewed schnaps and wine through the years, we were finally convinced.  We did a lot of research and found out that there’s a growing international community of natural builders who are making a political statement  against the conventional industrial building practices, which is extractive, destructive and expensive.  As activists, this made us decide that natural building would be a perfect way for us to make a political action as part of our choice to have a sustainable living.

When we decided to build our own cob house, the Strugar couple along with their two lovely daughters, invited us to their place for a cob building workshop.  After reading so much materials on natural building specifically cob, it was a great opportunity for us to have a hands on experience in making cob walls.

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We learned a lot and we had so much fun doing it.  It was truly an enriching experience.  It made us more confident in building our own cob house.

If you want to know more about the Strugar family and their story, visit http://www.greenarchiadvoc.org/?p=416

(Photos by Cye Reyes and Carol Galvez)

Building the Kalapaw

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Last October, after the rainy season, we assessed the project site and we chose a spot to be the site for the main living area (Zone 1).  This is the boundary of the rice field and the forested hill.

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We cleared some of the vegetation and gathered materials to build the kalapaw for temporary shelter.  A kalapaw is a small hut used by farmers as their temporary shelter whenever they’re in the fields.  The species of bamboo we have, locally called bolo, is good for making walls. We got some really big ones (bayog) from our neighbors, to use as the main posts for the kalapaw.  We’ve already started planting this kind of bamboo for future use.

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We started building the kalapaw first week of December.  We called on our friend Danny who’s an all-around carpenter, to help us build.  We also hired some locals, Allan, Zaldy and Noli, to help us.

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We finished building the kalapaw in two weeks.  It has a small sleeping area, a semi-outdoor kitchen and dining area.

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We also built a small outhouse with a waterless composting toilet and an outdoor shower area.  We only use sawdust (kusot), rice hull (ipa) and some weeds to “flush.”  And we plan to harvest the humanure after some time to be processed and used as fertilizer.  Our waterless toilet became famous in the community, and every now and then some neighbors visit just to see it.  They’re so amazed with it, they want to replicate it, because water is hard to access in some parts of the community.  Our supply of sawdust and rice hull are all given to us by our neighbors.

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This is our shower area made of bolo.  We get our water from the community water service, tapped from a mountain spring.  We will soon establish a rainwater harvesting system for our other water needs like irrigation.

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We made our own filtering system for our graywater coming from the shower area, kitchen sink and the outdoor wash area.  We used river rocks, gravel and pebbles to filter the water. The soap residues and other impurities settle at the bottom.  We make sure we use natural or mild soap.  The filtered water drains to a pond where we’ll put assorted water plants for further filtering.  We’ll make a third pond where we’ll put some tilapias.  We covered the filtering system with lots of mulch like sawdust, rice straw, rice hull, bamboo scraps and dried twigs.  The mulch will eventually turn into rich compost, by then we’ll be able to plant on it.

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(Photos by Cye Reyes)