Erle Frayne Argonza y Delago
[Writ 04 May 2008, Quezon City, MetroManila]
As I went around Batan Island, Batanes province’s main isle that contains the capital Basco and the domestic airport, for the 1st time in 1981, I immediately scheduled visits to the Mayors of Mahatoa, Ivana and Uyugan towns. I heard from my kins, the Basco Mayor Castillejos included, and staff that these towns still practiced consuming ‘sweet potato’ and ‘gabi roots’ as staples. Prior to that, I saw with my own eyes the huge bulbs of garlic that dwarfed the golf-sized ‘native’ varieties we had in the ‘mainland’ (Luzon). I told myself I can’t miss out on this opportunity to biz-track the root crops of Batanes.
I was then livelihood coordinator of the Ministry of Human Settlements for Northern Cagayan & Batanes in the 2nd semester of 1981, so I had the mandate to do development tasks for this paradise island. So enchanting was this province that I literally experienced heart pains whenever I left Basco back for Tuguegarao and Gonzaga in Cagayan where my official headquarters were located. Part of the enchantment was the wonderful root crops there: sweet potato (kamote roots), gabi roots, garlic, onion, and ginger.
Right away, upon arriving at Mahatao town hall, the lady mayor served my team fried sweet potatoes that were sliced so thin they would pass for some manufactured sweet potato chips. The lunch came, and there went out the boiled sweet potato, served alongside the viands. Lunch was also served with the wonder wine made from sugar called palec. No rice was served at all.
After lunch we visited farm lands planted with the root crops. I was amazed to see farms planted in the old biodiversity way rather than the nutrient-damaging monocrop system. All the root crops mentioned here co-existed in plots as small as half a hectare. The small planters than informed me that they were interested in increasing the volume of production and explored marketing some products to the ‘mainland’. They needed some fresh funds to increase the land area (via purchase), install good storage facilities, and working capital for farm inputs and marketing expenses later.
I was then motored to Ivana town after that, and lastly to Uyugan (hmmm am I right in my ordering?). Traversing these towns was via an asphalted road at the periphery of the islands, and overlooking the sea below. To your left are the stone houses of Batan, much like those of the isle of Capri in Italy. Herds of Brahman cows and carabaos could also be seen, consuming the luscious verdant pastures of the rolling hills. Perfectly idyllic! Splendid! …I heard practically the same things from the small planters there, about the need to expand production.
That is, the prototype ‘root crops project’ there would turn planters from subsistence producers to commercial producers, turn them into agro-businessmen. Seeing that the planters knew what they were aiming at and how to achieve it, save for writing the technical papers (biz plans, proposals) and processing them, I “jumped the gun” pronto and declared that for the whole of Batanes (including the other isles of Sabtang and Itbayat that was nearer Taiwan than Batan) will have root crops production as priority investments for state assistance.
As soon as I convened the new Kilusang Kabuhayan at Kaunlaran Secretariat there (I was already the deputy provincial manager-designate), I put on the top agenda that root crops and indigenous crafts of the island shall be preserved, not only as part of the development program there but also because the products and crafts are part of the national heritage. Anticipating the ‘green revolution’ in Batanes then, I also put on the agenda of the core Provincial Development Council the fast-tracking of electrification and wharf expansion, and the acquisition by Batanes of its own maritime ship that will enable trade expansion by leaps and bounds.
With only a year to operate in Batanes, I did everything I can to see to it that the development principles and targets I initiated there will take off at least, sensing that I might be re-assigned (promotions for this young technocrat was dizzyingly rapid). P500,000 worth of root crops projects alone, owned by small planters, were approved in early 1982, during my watch (that’s P10 Million today). Couples of millions more worth of projects were on the pipeline. Happily, when these projects took off, the National Electrification Administration team arrived, installing at last the long awaited electrification facilities in Batan.
Finally, let this be stressed strongly, I moved for the retention of the biodiversity practices in Batan. With ‘ecology balance’ among my agency’s priority agenda, I had sufficient weapon to support biodiversity rather than shift the planters to mono-cropping that sadly sapped out soil nutrients in ‘mainland Philippines’ since their inception during the time yet of Spanish Governor General Basco (1700s).
Every time I left Basco back for Tuguegarao then, I also had on hand more than a kilogram of garlic, sometimes with onions and ginger. I was so proud of the garlic that I always brought a few samples to show to my kins and fellow state officials in the ‘mainland’. The same variety now is cultivated in many regions of the country. But Batanes’ cutting edge is fully recognized: garlic & rootcrops here were planted in the sole paradise islands of the north. Ipso facto, they are root crops that enchant too, like their mother soil.