The blog below is written by Wendy Phelps, a US Citizen teaching English in Japan with the JET program who spent her alternative spring break learning more about the Philippines with the Green Empowerment partner, AID Foundation Inc., on the central island of Negros in May 2009.
Alternative Indigenous Development Foundation Incorporated (AIDFI) was a wonderful host for my five days in the Negros Occidental region of the Philippines. From the moment they met me at the airport to the very comprehensive schedule they prepared for me, I could not have asked for a better experience. During my time with them, I got to see first hand the many components of their organization in action.
DAY 1. Visiting ram pump sites
After Liloy and Roy picked me up from my hotel, we headed east out of Bacolod City to check on two existing ram pump projects. After driving for almost 2 hours on muddy dirt roads, swerving around overloaded tricycles, we reached our first stop. We were greeted by half a dozen members of the water association standing under the corrugated metal awning that served as the association hall. Roy explained to me that out of the dozens of projects AIDFI has implemented in Negros, this is the only community to build an association hall. Not surprisingly, the ram pump project in this community is well maintained; the result of a strong community leader and real sense of ownership among its members. After a brief conversation, we went to look at the pump. From the center of the community where we parked the car, it was about a 15 minute walk. The last 200 meters were a bit of challenge, weaving through trees on a steep, forested slope. We found the pump clanging away, providing the 45 members of the association with clean water for drinking and washing, 24 hours a day. After almost slipping twice en route to the pump site, it was easy to see what a difference having access to water close to home makes for the association members.
We got back in the car and headed to stop two, a slightly bigger installation that serves 150 people who live along a four kilometer span of road. When we arrived at the leader’s house, there was no one standing out front to greet us. Closer inspection revealed there was no one home; my guides explained that everyone had gone into town to shop at the Sunday market. The walk down to the pump here was less treacherous than the first stop’s, but we did have to walk daintily around some large cattle that were also using the path. Since there was still one more stop on the agenda, we couldn’t wait for the association leader to return. As we drove back towards the main road, we passed several families walking back home from the market with huge sacks of rice and sugar across their backs.
After a lunch break, we made our way to the last community of the day. We took the car as far as it would go on another narrow, uneven dirt road, then got out and walked almost a kilometer to reach the house that would host that afternoon’s organizational meeting. Since it was raining, everyone tried to fit into the small, dim living room, but once the rain stopped, the group, which was mostly women, went outside to better accommodate everyone. I couldn’t understand much of the content, but their excitement and enthusiasm was easy to recognize. After electing the officers for the new association, everyone signed their names onto a list, agreeing to help with the installation and maintenance of the ram pump, and verifying their understanding of the monthly dues. Dues would be around 20 pesos a month, or less than US$0.50.
DAY 2-3. Staying overnight in Mambugsay
The next morning, I met Toto, an expert in organic farming and composting, who accompanied me on the three hour journey to Mambugsay, south of Bacolod City. The community we visited is not only home to a ram pump project, but also has an organic lemon grass oil industry. Each member of the association has a small plot of land (usually under one acre) which they use to grow lemon grass. At harvest time, lemon grass from different growers is combined in the communal distiller to produce oil, which is then packaged and sold at the AIDFI office. On the afternoon I arrived, preparations were underway for processing a batch of lemon grass the next morning. These included removing the remains of the last batch from the distiller and chopping a few hundred kilograms of grass into short pieces so that it would fit into the distiller without being too bulky.
Next on the afternoon agenda was checking up on the composting program Toto had started the last time he was in Mambugsay. The existing piles were home to some disgusting looking white grubs, which meant they were progressing well and full of nutrients. The next step was to start a pile for another member of the association. Half a dozen people worked together to gather materials from nearby. We used dead lemon grass, green and brown banana leaves, chicken manure, and sticks and leaves from a cacao plant to form a cone. The outside layer was protected by fresh banana leaves. Toto said the pile should sit for 45 days, then be turned and left for another 15. At the end of two months, the compost would be ready to use. Using compost made of local materials is more economical and much healthier than spraying pesticides, and insures that the oil produced in the community can be sold with an organic label.
The next morning was spent back at the oil distiller. There was still a sizable mountain of lemon grass to be chopped, and the chopped pieces needed to be scooped into bags and weighed before they could be put into the distiller. All together, this batch of oil used about 200 kilograms of grass. The grass was poured into the top of the distiller. A fire was built underneath. As the grass heated up, it produced steam that was diverted into a separator. Once the steam cooled, it would condense and separate into water and the desired oil. Since water is denser than oil, it left the separator out of a spigot at the bottom, while the oil dripped out from one at the top. The whole process took about 3 hours, and at the end there was 1.2 liters of oil to take back with us to the AIDFI office.
DAY 4. AIDFI Office and TechnoPark
After seeing a few projects in person, I was looking forward to seeing the place where they started from, the AIDFI office. The office is located on a main road leading out of Bacolod City. Downstairs is a coffee shop and a garage where the technicians work hard manufacturing different components for the ram pumps and other technologies. Upstairs there are desks and computers where the director, community organizers and human resources department work. Out back is the TechnoPark, where several AIDFI technologies have been installed.
On the day I visited, AIDFI staff led two groups of local college students through the park, explaining how each project worked and could be used to benefit communities in sustainable ways. After the tour groups left, I spent the afternoon working with Toto; feeding the pigs that produced the methane used for cooking in the coffee shop, sifting the substrate from the worm culture pen, and tidying up the grass and small vegetable garden. In addition to serving as an outdoor classroom for interested members of the general community, the TechnoPark allows the technicians to test their products right on site! Overall, I was really amazed by the efficiency of the whole operation. The TechnoPark wasn’t much bigger than a football field, but contained about a dozen different, yet complimentary technologies.
DAY 5. Mt. Kanlaon Area Projects
Each day of my itinerary with AIDFI involved something different from the previous day, and the last day was no exception. Today’s agenda took us to three communities in the scenic area near the base of Mt. Kanlaon Volcano. From our approach on a rocky, narrow dirt road, the first community looked just like any of the other ones I had visited. But a short walk from where we left the car revealed something entirely unique—a community managed swimming pool! I was so surprised to climb up the stairs and almost fall into its clear blue waters. Clearly, quantity of water was not an issue here, although like so many other small villages, accessing the water involves a climb over steep, wooded slopes. This community already has a few ramp pumps which provide water for irrigation, so the purpose of today’s visit was to talk with the leaders about the installation of a small hydropower generator. While Liloy, Roy and Carl talked about the specifics of the project with community members, I jealously watched the younger residents enjoy the pool. The pool is a wonderful asset in the hot climate, and has the capacity to be enjoyed by members of neighboring communities, but the bad conditions of the roads in the area leave the pool under utilized.
Our next stop was at the home of a farmer, who like almost all of farmers in the Negros region grows sugar for giant corporations. This farmer though, has been specially recognized for his high yield crops. The secret to his success—growing organic! While we were there, we also got to sample some of his organically grown coffee. This farmer’s commitment to not using chemical pesticides and fertilizers has paid off with contracts with foreign companies. From what I understood, he was currently seeking organic certification with a distributor based in Germany. These contracts help diversify his income, helping to protect his livelihood if one crop fails.
The last stop of the day was to visit members of the AIDFI team who are currently living in a community and preparing the parts of a ram pump to be installed there. The community had loaned the technicians the use of an empty house to sleep and work in. Since there is no electricity, they were using a generator made out of an old motorbike engine to power the tools needed to manufacture the pipe connections. This is the kind of thing I would never think about, since I have always lived in place where electricity is available at the flick of a switch. This stop exemplified the commitment of the AIDFI staff to their work. The technicians had been working away from their families for a few weeks, and when AIDFI does projects in other parts of the Philippines, the technicians are sometimes away from home for more than month.
With AIDFI’s busy schedule, I feel very honored to have been able to spend a week with them. Reading about the projects before I went to the Philippines, it was easy to come to the conclusion that the work they are doing is important. But to actually visit the projects they have completed and see the enthusiasm in the communities were the work is just starting gave me a much deeper appreciation for what they are able to accomplish. The ram pump technology may be simple, and consist of door hinges and old tires, but it so much more than just the sum of its parts, freeing up precious time that used to be spent collecting water for other economic pursuits, family time and leisure.