By Yvette Tan

Seeds are important. From these sprout the crops we harvest. Seeds may be tiny, but they are key to the success of a community.

Raf Dionisio realized this while working with the Aetas of Yangil village in San Felipe, Zambales. Dionisio is a founder of MAD Travel, a company that organizes trips where travelers can help and interact with the local community (MAD means Make a Difference) and Circle Hostel, a budget friendly hostel chain that promotes a sustainable, ecologically sound, and community-driven lifestyle among its guests and partners. One of Dionisio’s side-projects is Seed Nation, where partner farmers are given seeds to plant for both self-sustenance and profit.

Seeds > Cash

MAD Travel started working with the Aetas about two and a half years ago. “We thought that we could do tours to help them move out of poverty, give them a pretty good income, get them to minimum wage,” Dionisio says.

After the first successful tour, Dionisio handed the profit—about Php2,000—to the Aeta’s elder and was shocked when it was turned down. “He said ‘No thanks! I don’t need the money,’ and I said, ‘Why don’t you need the money?’ He said, ‘Look at our land, it’s huge, 3,000 hectares but there’s nothing in it. If you give me money, I might spend it on coffee, cigarettes, or load.’” Dionisio recounts.

And then the elder added something that gave Dionisio an idea. He said, “But if you give me seeds, then I can only plant it.”

The elder had asked for seeds because it was too expensive for him to leave the community to buy them—the trip alone would cost at least Php500. It would be more cost-efficient for the community if Dionisio brought seeds with him whenever he was in the area.

Dionisio used the money to buy ube (purple yam) seeds from his grandmother’s friend, who owned a jam making company. “They loved the story of the Aetas and the seeds,” he shares.

When he gave the seeds to the community a few weeks later, he was surprised at the difference it made, not just to the elder, but to the entire village. “With that Php2,000, I was able to get enough seeds for the entire village. Everyone was saying ‘I want some!’ because they knew how to plant and multiply that particular crop,” Dioniso says. “And so I began to realize how powerful seeds are. Seeds are currency that these guys have been using for the longest time.”

The Importance of Seeds

Encouraged, Dionisio started to deliver more seeds. “Seeds are important because it’s something the farmer can leave behind, like a business that keeps producing and growing,” he says. “It’s important to remember that the community has been suffering because they had been unable to harvest from their land after Mt. Pinatubo erupted.”

The 1991 eruption Dionisio is referring to covered much of Zambales in lahar and spewed ash that reached as far as Manila. “They were wealthy in the sense that they never went hungry because there was always food around them—in their gardens, in their farms, in their forest,” Dionisio explains. “When the volcano exploded, it took away everything, and when their land is no longer fertile, they lost their wealth, their lifestyle, and a lot of their culture.”

Paying the villagers in seeds instead of cash ensures that more people benefit, and for a longer period of time. “Giving them seeds helps them and empowers them because it’s something that they can work with,” Dionisio says. “It inspires a lot of hard work and at the same time, it gives rewards.”

The effect of this project have the potential to affect future generations as well. “The Philippines doesn’t really produce enough food for itself,” Dionisio says. “We import a lot of rice, mushrooms, garlic, chocolate, fruit, coffee, etc. These are things that the Aetas can produce.”

The average age of the Filipino farmer is 58, which means that encouraging the younger generation to farm is crucial to the country’s agricultural industry. Fortunately, the youth of Yangil village seem keen on following their elders’ footsteps. “They are young, motivated, and want to farm, yet no one’s giving them seeds, so Seed Nation becomes the answer to that.”

Save Seeds, Save the Nation

The project has already met with success. “We have a proof of concept that first batch of purple yam were brought are already being harvested,” Dionisio says. “And every weekend, we buy from the community at market price—not farm gate, but it’s a higher price so they can earn a little bit.”

Seed Nation hopes to replicate this model, or at the very least, expand on it. “Not being a big organization, we want to tap into the heroism and good hearts of everyone,” Dionisio says. “We want to gather seeds from restaurants, establishments, and households that otherwise would have been trash and bring them to farmers who can make use of them, thus empowering them and providing a food source for us here locally.”

The long-term goal is to be able to produce enough to supply restaurants and consumers looking for sustainably grown meat and vegetables. “If we can build or create more of these, through chicken, rice, and other vegetables like tomatoes and onions, it will be a great example for the table to farm movement and then back from table to farm,” Dionisio says. “It really goes full circle and it’s an experience that we want a lot of people to get involved in as well.”

To find out how to help or partner with Seed Nation, contact Raf Dionisio at info@madtravel.org.