Less than two months ago, on June 30, the Don Bosco Multipurpose Cooperative (Don Bosco MPC) based in M’lang South Cotabato shipped 10 metric tons (MT) of organic black rice to the United Arab Emirates and 3.5 MT to the United States. This isn’t the first time the organization has exported organic rice, as it has done so in various occasions with an aggregate total of “more than 150 MT of organic black, brown and red rice to more than 10 countries in different parts of the globe,” according to reports. The shipment in June is the latest feather on the cap of Don Bosco, which has served as a model of synergy between entrepreneurship, environmentalism, fair trade, and healthy living. It’s also proudly Minadanawon. Resurgent reprints a story published two years ago by way of paying tribute to the organization’s humble and inspiring beginnings.
Betsy Ruizo-Gamela has an uninterested air about her, almost bordering on the bored. We are comfortably seated at a table after a good meal, the sound of night insects permeating through the large screen windows, the darkness descending upon this, what’s virtually her abode, a sprawling farm that produces organic products.
But before anything starts, she has that look, disarms me a bit, until I proceed with the conversation. I then relearn quickly that worn-out adage about books and their covers.
I’d long quietly pined for an interview with Betsy. The first time my wife Neng and I had set foot in her farm in Makilala, North Cotabato, four years ago, I was charmed not only by the lushness of nature—there’s a nearby hot spring to boot—but by the meticulous, nay mystical ways with which her staff cared for the environment.
Betsy is capo dei capi of an organization responsible for producing one of the country’s most successfully marketed organic products, Bios Dynamis rice. That was the straightforward agenda I had in mind when I sat down with her. But like a phonograph that had come to life, Betsy gushed out stories that left me enthralled, taking me back 30 years when change and resistance defined the youth.
“I was teaching Das Kapital,” she recounts her days in Xavier University in Cagayan de Oro City. She was a firebrand then, one among thousands reaching their “crisis point.” In between teaching Philosophy, she had bounced off ideas with Fr. Antonio Samson, then vice president of Xavier. They discussed Christianity, communism, the Ateneo’s credo about being a Man for Others, ranged against the appalling social conditions of the time. She’d walked away from the chats disheartened.
By 1986, she volunteered for the Cotabato diocese. But that proved disappointing for her impetuous heart, likely because the problems that hounded her fellow youth were not only economic and political in nature; they were personalist as well, e.g. vices and other juvenile delinquencies. She bolted in a huff to start a wobbling entity called Don Bosco, did a smattering of sustainable agriculture, but was, yet again, disillusioned by some co-workers who spent most of their time drinking.
Eventually, the late Fr. Beato Tariman, who was parish priest of what was then the prelature of Kidapawan, North Cotabato, offered to Betsy church property (which was, to begin with, earlier donated by her landed family to the church) to be utilized for her agricultural projects. Bp. Juan de Dios Pueblos, then the area’s prelate, handed her P50,000 as seed money for her new venture.
In less than 10 years of fits and starts and sheer determination, Betsy formalized the Don Bosco Foundation for Sustainable Development. In 1995, it began producing organic rice, unimpressed as she was by some ongoing nationwide grains program. She was also skeptical of government’s agricultural extension efforts, an apparent throwback of her activist nature. For inspiration, she turned her sights instead to the Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center in Kinuskusan, Bansalan, Davao del Sur where, since 1971, “farming with faith” has transformed a 19-hectare property into a model homestead of soil and water conservation, and Sloping Agricultural Land Technology.
The next few years found them operating on a shoestring (project proposals were fanned out, attracting all but one donor, Austria), engaging in kakwat(sourcing rice stocks instead of planting them), selling the stocks at their Don Bosco Health Food Centers, and renting facilities and transportation (they didn’t own a single truck).
In 2003, the epiphany came.
The foundation’s major funding for marketing dried up. This wake-up call prompted Betsy and her colleagues to pause and ponder the future.
A new awareness
Being heavily-dependent on donor assistance may have had its merits at the time. Yet they realized that in order to sustain the enterprise, it needed to be competitive. And to be competitive, the whole gamut of organizational, professional, and attitudinal norms had to be challenged for the better. Old notions of private business and capital underwent considerable re-examination. In her own words, Betsy summed up the pillars of this new awareness:
“Green” business is possible. “Alternative” products can be commercially viable if these are market-driven and developed with realistic goals.
Sustainability is in the “mindful market.” The fate of organically produced products depends on the consumers’ level of awareness. The more they realize the health and environmental benefits of these products, the more they will patronize them.
The market can demand. Customers themselves have the power to demand not only quality, but specific kinds of products like organic ones. An educated consumer base can insist on supporting only organic foods over and above pesticide-laced products.
Capitalism, per se, is not bad. Trade can and should be fair.
By 2007, two important things happened: 1) Bios Dynamis Rice was officially launched, and 2) Don Bosco acquired a new grain center—its seventh.
‘Passion in your eyes’
That last one was a story in itself, having been yanked out from the clutches of foreclosure at the Land Bank of the Philippines. Betsy remembers mulling over the property, a 1.35-hectare asset she couldn’t afford, until a visiting donor representative told her after a conversation that he would plunk in P5 million for the purchase. Nearly falling off her seat, Betsy asked him what made him decide to help, to which he replied that “I looked in your eyes and saw the passion.”
The donor money was pivotal, but it wasn’t the only source. For much of the organization’s other components (it has an active farmer training facility), it tapped officials’ Priority Development Assistance Fund, long before Janet Napoles gave it a bad name, and government’s Agricultural Competitiveness Enhancement Fund for an P11 million, no-interest loan for seven years.
Betsy had wrestled with the Board in defense of sourcing out support from unlikely places, and in the end, she prevailed. Today, thanks to external assistance, modest profits, and sound fiscal management, Don Bosco’s grains complex in M’lang, North Cotabato is home to two rice mills, solar and mechanical rice dryers, a warehouse, and its offices.
Six years after they established the complex, they began shipping organic rice to Germany, Switzerland, and the US. Short of becoming mainstream, Don Bosco had joined the big league as an exporter.
But why the seeming bias for foreign markets? I wanted to know. Shouldn’t we first saturate our shelves, feed our own?
The Lion’s Den
The answer I got was deplorable as it was instructive. Selling domestically may be viable, but not without its formidable challenges. In Manila, for example—Betsy calls it the Lion’s Den—“merchandizers” hired by big companies slash open Bios Dynamis bags from supermarket shelves, or hide them altogether behind other brands. Such “dirty tricks” are never an issue when Don Bosco trades abroad. Its trading partner in China alone has 1.4 million educated members, which says a lot about how health-educated many other societies are.
She is also wary of the much-vaunted ASEAN economic integration, which promises collapsing tariffs to promote borderless trading by next year. Betsy asks wistfully, What if they flood us with cheap organic rice? Since its inception, Bios Dynamis has benefitted some 3,500 organic farmers across three provinces. The consequences of uneven competition are, indeed, staggering.
Yet, for all the commercial advantages of exporting products, selling them here remains a missionary task for Betsy, who believes that organic agriculture must be supported because, quite simply, current crops are unsafe.
Filipino farmers are an impoverished lot to begin with, made even more destitute by being indebted by their mortgaged farm lots. And as if that weren’t enough, large swathes of land across Mindanao have been dedicated to corporate farming, which routinely uses pesticides and herbicides.
And the gargantuan hectarage keeps on swelling. In Kapatagan, Davao del Sur alone, vegetable farmers have begun shifting to banana farming. The practice is lucrative. One hundred twenty-eight hectares yields 9,000 boxes per week, or an equivalent of US$2.6M every week for the farmer. Yet, the dramatic conversion set off alarm bells in 2012, particularly since the area’s 5,000 households were known to “produce more than half of Davao City’s daily requirement of 300 tons of assorted vegetables,“ according to reports.
Betsy is hopeful that a Writ of Kalikasan issued last year by the Court of Appeals to further protect Mt. Apo will lead to long-term stewardship programs and stiffer penalties for environmental violators.
Hope in the stars
Despite all these, there is much to look forward to at Don Bosco. It has become the leading advocate and practitioner of bios dynamis agriculture, an applied science that involves “life forces” and astronomy (seeing to it that farm practices adapt to lunar patterns and other natural rhythms). Over 3,000 hectares in Cotabato and Davao del Sur are now devoted to this, including a fledgling organic banana plantation in Makilala. It has five stores in Mindanao that sell not only bios dynamis rice (black, white, and red; polished and unpolished) but tea granules, wild honey, "sinamak" vinegar, virgin coconut oil, mangosteen capsules, and herbal products, among others.
Seven years ago, more than 3,000 farmers in Cotabato cultivated 3,024 hectares of bios dynamis rice and harvested 1,196.6 metric tons. That is something to chew on, considering that the local market has yet to fully appreciate the value of organic products.
Today, Don Bosco’s credibility is affirmed by the Organic Certification Center of the Philippines and the CERtification of Environmental Standards based in Germany.
It may be a long way from teaching Das Kapital. But Marx couldn’t have found a better disciple to explore his treatise. (First published in the Mindanao Daily Mirror, May 31, 2015)