Finding room to grow in your own backyard

Paula is a young mother, originally from Laguna, but has been living in Presentacion for the past two years with her four year old son. “He’ll be five next Sunday,” she tells me as we sit on a bench in Dolo, San Jose. In many ways, she has made the journey here for him, whether or not he knows it, as he plays with the other kids who have also come with their parents on the lawn. They race around, occasionally coming over to make faces at the camera – erupting into shrieks of laughter when I turn the viewfinder around to them so they can see their own image.

The 22 permaculture “champions” – 14 women and 8 men from across Camarines Sur -gathered in Dolo for the permaculture kitchen garden training – an intensive ten day workshop that will teach the participants the basics of permaculture and different ways to plan and grow their own food in their own spaces back home.

It is an important branch of the EMBRACE project – that it isn’t enough just tell participants to feed their families healthier foods, but to teach them how to grow this food in a sustainable manner. The project, which started in 2015 and will run until 2020, aims to reduce maternal and child mortality in the province of Camarines Sur, with a focus on increasing consumption of healthy foods in mothers and children under five.

Leading the permaculture kitchen garden training was Greg Knibbs who leads Edge 5 permaculture in Australia, and came to the Philippines to spread his knowledge with the eager permaculture community leaders who will in turn head back to their communities to teach the knowledge to other EMBRACE kitchen garden participants.

Paula tells me that she is here also to get over a fear – she hates dirt and worms and in the past it has stopped her from farming with her husband’s family – instead she has been relegated to the kitchen during planting and harvesting seasons, which she dislikes. She wants to push herself to get over this fear and to take her life into her own hands,“I am not a fan of planting trees, I hate soil, I hate vermi (worms), I hate all of that. But I get curious about things, and I want to conquer my fear.”

Permaculture, which is a method of using natural materials and cycles to plant and farm, offers a holistic approach to agriculture and small scale gardening. It is seen as a natural way of growing and working with the land, working with systems that occur organically. Permaculture also eschews using chemicals and destructive fertilizers, opting instead to find natural ways of conquering pests and encouraging growth.

“Even in a little space, even in my backyard, I can grow a garden there on my own. Which can support me and my family, and at the same time can help with the nourishment of my child,” Paula says with a smile.

But, most of all this is for her son, she wants to be able to apply permaculture back home in her barangay, and show her community what can be accomplished through hard work and a fierce mindset. Ultimately, she dreams of being a school teacher, a dream she put on hold once she had her son and moved to Camarines Sur

She hopes that one day this training will be passed down to her future students, as well as her own son, who was eagerly involved when the team went into the field to practice creating a kitchen garden beside the Dolo elementary school.

At the end of the two week training, as the group parted ways to head back to their own barangays, there were tears, starting with Paula who was moved by all that they had learnt as a collective over the past two weeks.

“Now I’m so excited – what will be the output of what we have learned from here? At first we didn’t believe in permaculture because we had our own methods we used to implement. But now we have gained new ways of planting,” Paula said excitedly.

“I’m excited for ADRA and Greg to come back in a year so I can show them ‘look  – look this is my garden, I was afraid of soil but look I’ve conquered my fear. And look, I have shared my knowledge with everyone. I’m excited to show that my barangay can change from using chemicals to doing things naturally.”