Security in Sustainability: Food that Does Not Satisfy
▲ Children displaced by renewed military action on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao stand in line to wait for food at an evacuation center near Pikit. Photo by Paul Jeffrey.
By Lindsey Kerr*
The sea in Polomolok is green and moody—the waves are vast and spiky and ebb and flow with the seasons. When harvest ebbs, the tide disappears. Polomolok is the agribusiness hub of the Philippine island of Mindanao. The land is often called the “Sea of Pineapples”; the seemingly endless hills of fledgling citrus were once ancestral lands of the indigenous people of the region. Now the warehouse-sized cannery and the fleets of construction vehicles testify to the massive presence of corporate monocropping.
The Dole Corporation owns Polomolok. Through the Philippine Government’s pro-international business legislation and with the aid of corrupt politicians, Dole was able to take this land for next to nothing and “lease” it for 25 years. This land is now only for pineapples and those pineapples are only for export. Without crop rotation, the pineapples are depleting the soil of its nutrients. Without any replanting of the trees cut down for construction, the land is eroding. Chemical run off from fertilizers and the cannery have poisoned the area water supply. By the time the farmland of Polomolok is returned to the indigenous people (members of the Bla’an tribe who still live in tiny shacks out among the pineapple fields), it will be near useless.
I stayed in Polomolok for a few weeks in October 2007. The air smells like smog with a twinge of pineapple—all the citrus and
A boy in Katipunan, on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, where many residents earn a living harvesting and processing coconuts. Photo by Paul Jeffrey.
chemicals in the air caused me to break out in hives and develop a severe allergy to pineapple. At one point I mistakenly drank some water from the public water source—the watershed Dole pollutes with chemicals from the cannery and untreated sewage waste, the water the people who live in Polomolok drink every day. I developed amoebeosis, a parasite condition that wreaks havoc on the stomach and intestines. Amoebeosis is serious, especially if not treated with expensive antibiotics. It is often deadly when contracted by young children or the elderly.
Dole pays its temporary harvest laborers less than two dollars a day for 10 hours of backbreaking, but seasonally temporary, work. Even college graduates working in the cannery make less than five dollars a day. Food staples like rice and potatoes have to be imported into the area at the cost of higher prices. The vast majority of families live paycheck to paycheck in tiny homes with minimal (or no) electricity and sewage. Even public school is too expensive for most peasant families to afford and many children suffer from malnutrition.
Back in the United States, I see lots of Dole products in the grocery stores. Occasionally, I’ll look at the label on a can of pineapples and see if it’s from Polomolok, to see if this is the particular product that is worth the price of indigenous land and another town in developing world poverty. I wonder what is so important about having pineapples in the winter, why we in the West need these tropical fruits at all. Why don’t we wonder who is on the other side of the inexpensive imported products? Could we not just be satisfied with peaches and pears grown in our own country?
I don’t really eat pineapples anymore. The allergy I developed in Polomolok has never really gone away and I don’t think I’d have the stomach for it otherwise. But it’s not just pineapples and it’s not just Dole. The whole agribusiness model can simply not be sustained. Not only is it destroying ecosystems by the bulk; it also oppresses the masses at the whim of those of us at the top. It strips whole nations of workers of their right to provide for themselves and their children just so we can have more choice of what to eat in our salads.
But the earth can satisfy all of us if we just give it in the chance. About a six hour bus ride from Polomolok is the City of Mati in Davao Oriental. Two months after my time in Polomolok I traveled to Mati to spend a month with the peasant farming community of Sanghay and a group of Benedictine nuns who serve the area.
In Davao Oriental, it’s large-scale mining that is threatening the livelihood and lives of the people. It has remarkably similar effects to that of agribusiness—destruction of soil nutrients, creation of erosion, poisoning of water sources. These companies pay next to nothing to “lease” land they will destroy and then return to the people. And so the people in Sanghay have turned to themselves and an idea that is spreading across the island as slowly but surely as the harvest season.
The farmers of Sanghay are implementing sustainable agriculture in their communities. Sustainable agriculture is best defined as “farming of animals and plants that maintains ecological balance and does not deplete the land of natural resources.” As people are watching the most beautiful parts of their land being destroyed and discarded by companies like Dole, sustainable agriculture is an empowering alternative that moves the people to be good stewards of their land.
The fundamentals of sustainable agriculture are both basic and profound. The key is integrating all of the growing and animal raising, understanding that everything on the farm has a relationship to each other and can be used to fertilize the soil and feed the animals. Farmers need to learn to plan their farms for efficiency. For example fruit trees should be planted on sloping parts of the terrain and around a water supply to prevent erosion. Plant waste can be fed to farm animals instead of being discarded. Animal manure can be used as a natural fertilizer that is both cheap and environmentally friendly.
I lived with a peasant family in Sanghay who practiced sustainable agriculture. They also grew pineapples, a few plants here and there that would be rotated with root crops in the next planting cycle. The people were still poor, but their livelihood was tied into their land. The land will stay healthy and continue to produce and profits made are their own, not the property of a transnational corporation. Sustainable agriculture provides hope, not just a change but for the very things we need—clean water, clean air, freedom to care for one’s family.
It seems so minimal to us, but it is everything to a people who have nothing but the earth underneath them. It starts with pears and peaches and finding out where our food is coming from and who is profiting (or not) from our consumption. It’s just looking on the back of a label and looking up the company online- it’s buying locally grown produce or free range meats. It’s simply buying things that don’t disenfranchise other people.
It’s easy to get out of touch but it’s impossible to go back when you take a moment to think about what’s going on. When I think of Polomolok, I think of a world that’s been taken over by agribusiness corporations, of land that has been turned into an ocean for the desires of people on the other side of the world. This type of food cannot satisfy the laborer or consumer and it simply cannot be sustained. As Christians, we are called to the bread that does satisfy, the bread that brings justice and equality and a fair wage to the laborers that prepare it.
*Lindsey Kerr is a Mission Intern whose international placement was in the Philippines.