One small step to a giant goal

Nonfiction by | November 22, 2009

Comota is a barangay in La Paz, Agusan del Sur. Located 30 kilometers from the poblacion of La Paz, it can only be reached by walking or riding a banca or a motorcycle. When I was assigned there as a classroom teacher at Comota Elementary School in August 1999, what immediately struck me was the poverty of its inhabitants, composed of some 700 Manobo villagers and a handful of Cebuano families.

Poverty was due to inadequate family incomes that were worsened by the peace and order problem. The area was also frequently visited by floods that destroyed many of the crops during the La Niña phenomenon. For a teacher to be assigned in that place was, indeed, a challenge!

I taught 14 students from the Grade Five level and 36 from Grade Six. After a month of teaching, I got fairly acquainted with them, their parents and the barangay officials. One time, I was invited to attend the session of the barangay council and had a talk with the barangay captain and some councilors. From them I learned that each household owned several hectares of land, each of which was not fully cultivated. Almost 90% was still timberland from where they got logs as their source of living. This supplemented whatever they got from fishing and hunting.

After the meeting, I walked around the village and saw for myself how little of the land was planted on. There was practically no cornfield to be seen in what they called a farm. What I saw were mostly thick shrubs and patches of sweet potatoes and cassava. Perhaps, I thought, the parent farmers usually went to work only when the sun was almost at its peak and then returned home early in the afternoon. I had observed this working habit myself.

If they spent only about three hours a day at the farm, then not much is to be expecting during harvest – and poor harvest means less income. It was one of the reasons why the parents could not send their children to school. So when our teacher-in-charge called a P.T.A. meeting, I shared my observations and asked why their farming habits were such. They said that they could not go to their farm early in the morning and leave late in the afternoon because it was not safe — an encounter between the New Peoples Army (NPA) and the military could happen anytime. What could have been a productive community experiences stunted development because the peace and order situation was inhibiting progress.

It was time the school recommended alternative sources of livelihood to address the problem. Because the demand for food surpassed the very scarce supply, every household was told to do backyard gardening and to cultivate any land within sight of the barangay. Animal raising and school gardening were also encouraged.

The suggestion was noble; but, the problem was, nobody was doing anything about it. The school year 1999-2000 ended and nothing of the project was realized. Clearly, the value of hard work and industry was not understood. Its true essence was not felt by the children, or by the parents, or by the people in the community. It was at this time that the need for values reformation became an issue – but how and where could change begin?

By the next school year, I started gardening at the yard surrounding my cottage. I planted some upo, squash, ampalaya, eggplant, and kangkong. I also started to raise some chickens. After several months, I enjoyed my first harvest of vegetables and fresh eggs. There was more than enough produce that I was even able to share with neighbors.

This inspired the school to initiate gardening. Through constant advocacy on the importance of education and the formation of desirable traits among children and the community by the school and its teachers, change gradually became apparent. Some parents began to build their own backyard gardens. The pupils were motivated to plant vegetables in school. Goat-raising projects doubled. The values of hard work and industry were further strengthened when several families from the Visayas region, who are known to be good farmers, migrated to the place.

The project became an annual school endeavor. Pupils planted vegetables and root crops in the school garden and the parents maintained backyards for gardening and animal-raising. Parent farmers started to cultivate their idle land and even extended animal-raising into their lot. The farming experience became all the more enjoyable for the community when the peace and order situation was gradually restored.

Five years since, almost 60% of the land is now being farmed. Parent farmers can now expect a bountiful harvest – and high production means big money – allowing them to provide the needs of their children. Mr. Alfredo Havana, Sr., a Manobo resident of the barangay, is just one of the farmers who were able to send their children to college. His eldest child now holds an accountancy degree, while his junior is about to graduate as a mechanical engineer.

Although the people of Comota had varied livelihood sources, such as hunting, fishing, rattan selling, and logging, it was, perhaps, through the school’s initiative toward instilling admirable work values that a positive change in the community’s socio-economic status emerged.

Today, Comota parents are found working for their children to finish their education. They want change to happen. It started small, from just within their families learning the importance of industry, and grew larger as one simple act inspired another to build a strong community. Comota has a long way to go to becoming as urbanized as Davao City, but in the hearts and minds of the locals, the bounty they are experiencing now is enough reason to celebrate life and living every single day.

Floro G. Alvar is the Principal of Lydia Elementary School, La Paz District, Division of Agusan del Sur. After being granted a scholarship by the Agusan del Sur Provincial Government, Floro is now working towards an MA in Education, major in Educational Administration, at the Ateneo de Davao University.