Words by Katrina Swee | Photography by Sonny Thakur
It was a fifteen-minute hike to reach Tao Farm, and I had no idea what to expect.
While I walked through the rocky path with a Tao “Lost Boy,” I was curious to see what was hidden beyond the stretch of green. Seeing the view of the ocean as we strolled onwards was magical—El Nido during golden hour with the Balatik basking in the sun while sitting in the water. What a sight.
I was welcomed by, what I later realized was, the co-owner, guests, and staff of Tao at the communal kitchen. Friendly, helpful, and polite, you could immediately tell that this was a close community. There were tucas in every direction, and there I found Karla in the middle of the farm walking towards me.
It seemed like she was dressed to complement the sea—the different shades of blue on her shawl and pants flowed in waves as she gave me a tour of the land. As we headed towards the beach, she stopped to drop some knowledge about the flowers she picked, telling me their honey could be used to create the perfect, natural tea blend.
She asked if it would be alright to meditate before the interview, and as we ascended upon the cluster of boulders, I knew I was in for a treat.
I know you started Kai Farms a couple of years back. Was it 2014? 2015?
2014 was when my partner and I got involved but it was already existing.
I didn’t know that!
It was a certified organic farm.
And what made you go into that?
I did this two-day, find your life purpose workshop with Nick Perlas. At the end of it, he gave us a series of questions and then said, ‘Okay, now look at your answers and see what you think.’ Mine was a farmer and I thought, ‘Really?’ I guess I knew it all along. I have always been into soil and planting but never thought about farming. In college, I chose political science because I wanted to make a difference. I realized farming’s a way to do that because our food system is so broken. That is why I’m in it.
Just so everyone knows, what exactly is sustainable agriculture?
Well, permaculture is a kind of sustainable agriculture. It’s also a kind of regenerative agriculture. Permaculture works in harmony with nature and all your inputs are from your surroundings so, to feed the soil, you can use kakawate (madre de cacao), calliandra, or legumes rather than buying fertilizer in conventional farming which contains chemicals and isn’t good for the earth or for human health. Sustainable agriculture is gentle on the earth and it’s also better for us because it’s chemical-free. The regenerative side is more than sustainable or organic because organic means chemical-free, but some organic farms are growing on depleted soil. They’re not regenerating the soil. Permaculture is all about soil health and feeding the soil 24/7. This makes the food quality so much better.
When you created your harvest baskets to sell in the city, how did you choose the products you sell?
What’s ready for harvest is what goes into the baskets. It’s kind of like what the land is gifting is what we decide to give to the people.
I’ve read that you’ve been involved in a lot of programs and initiatives regarding the distribution of seeds, organic and permaculture farming, helping farmers with food security, and generally spreading the word on what you’re doing at Kai Farms. Are these continuous and is there anything new you’re currently working on?
Yes! That was a lot haha. When you were talking, I first thought about how I recently read about why we shouldn’t call it food security but food sovereignty that we are working towards. Food security buys into this idea that you need a certain quantity of food to be food secure and it usually requires buying seeds and a lot of other things. With food sovereignty, you are in charge of your own. You can save the seeds on your own and don’t need to buy those inputs because you can make them on your own. We shouldn’t leave our food in the hands of corporations that may not have human and planet health as priorities. We shouldn’t give them full control of our food system. Food sovereignty means we have control and seed sovereignty on what we choose to grow. We empower ourselves this way.
Here in the Philippines, our land is so lush and giving. Everything grows all the time and we’re very blessed. Yet, we have so much hunger. If we work towards food sovereignty, we raise awareness as well as train people to give them the skill set to grow their own food and spend less of their salaries on buying food.
In our own farming community, we start with sharing the seeds because it’s hard to make organic affordable. These farmers can then do their own backyard farming and grow organic food. That’s been successful in places like Kauswagan in Lanao Del Norte. The mayor converted 6,000 hectares into organic farms so you have ordinary people with backyards bursting with organic produce. When you see those photos, you see it’s possible and you’re eating fresh and nutritiously. That’s the vision really—to empower people, make them realize they can do this, save money, and eat healthier without spending more.
In terms of new initiatives, we have an ongoing collaboration with SAHAN. I think we’re the only permaculture farm with a DIY cocktail kit. Then there’s the time spent here in Palawan I feel has been a gift. One of the projects we want to do is to start resilient communities. This is something that emerged about a year ago. We were with the Ecosystem of Stakeholders and Sustainable Agriculture to discuss the climate crisis and extreme weather issues. One thing that came up was the need to establish transition towns or resilient communities because of how vulnerable the Philippines is due to the climate crisis and the rising seas. We’re going to be called climate refugees because in as little as five years from now, depending on which analysts you’re listening to, coastal cities and settlements could be flooded. We need to start identifying locations for resilient communities that have good water, where we can grow food, have peace and order, and live where the sacred is respected and indigenous knowledge, wisdom, and experience are valued. We have to do this now while we still have time. People in the city don’t know how to grow food but the past year has been a wake-up call, and everyone got into growing their own food, which is great. In a way, it was what the world needed—us having more time at home to focus on the things that really matter. I think there has been an increase in interest.
Addressing the climate crisis and repairing our food system on a national level, you’re currently growing them on a community level and seeing them organically happen and evolve. Do you see a way to accelerate scaling up?
Totally. There are people in positions of government like House Deputy Speaker, Loren Legarda who get it. She invited us to talk a couple of times in some of her stories for a better normal. I think she’s in a position to scale it because she can connect with many people in the Philippines, and has so much experience working in government as well as on the ground with communities. There are people like that who are in place.
What I realized is, so many of us are already doing it. At the Organic 4.0 National Conference a year ago where Nick Perlas presented the science of the climate crisis, we were so stunned that we all started crying and hugging each other. I’m getting emotional thinking about it. I feel like I’ve been concerned about this for so long. I’m out here because it makes it easy to live in a regenerative way and it makes my carbon footprint so much less than if I were in Manila living my previous life. I just exited from that ecosystem because it’s unsustainable. All the food is trucked in and it’s an unsustainable place to live in, so I feel like one of the key things is for us to unclog the cities and to start moving to parts of the Philippines like Palawan—where there is so much abundance, where Filipinos don’t go hungry because there’s the sea, soil to grow food, coconuts with gata and healthy fats. It’s so much easier to be healthier here. There’s also that connection to nature which I think is essential for mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing. It’s all interconnected. People are empowered and happy here. They’re happy, healthy, free Filipinos. I would love to see the Philippines be more like that and I don’t think it’s going to happen in the cities.
Having said that, we can’t abandon the people in desperate situations in the cities. We’re currently working with Good Food Community by Charlene Tan and Mabi David, and started something called Food For Today, Food For Tomorrow.
One of the things I did in Manila was Slow Food Community but when I left to come to Palawan, I told Slow Food I’d want to pass it on to someone. Char and Mabi took over and started Slow Food Community For Agrobiodiverse Gardens in Quezon City. It’s a mouthful, I know haha, but their nickname is Slow Food Sari-Sari. They’re teaching Payatas families how to grow food and these are the most crowded, nutritionally-deprived parts of Metro Manila. They grow the food for themselves but also grow enough to sell and share. I think we need to also be doing that so we’re not forgetting the most vulnerable communities. It’s also important to connect together so that we can learn from and inspire each other and grow stronger together, rather than working in silos. That’s why gatherings like that one we had are important because we’re still in touch.
I want to invite The League of Organic Agriculture Municipalities, Cities and Provinces of the Philippines to come to Palawan so we can do that here because a lot of the agriculture here is still chemical. My call to action is to take part in changing that. Something about being a farmer is that you keep learning with every season and interaction with other farmers.
During my time here, I’ve learned that the connection between agriculture and the sea is so strong because, for example, there’s a marine protected area in San Vicente where we spent some time. There were farmers who planted corn and put chemical abono to make it grow. When it rained, the chemical abono would go into the sea, so in one season, that caused an imbalance in the ecosystem because the chemical fertilizers created an oversupply of nutrients. That created algae and jellyfish blooms which ended up suffocating the coral because the fish can’t eat fast enough. Then, they take over. The whole reef is now pretty much algae blooms. For the last eleven months, I saw how the reef suffered.
The chemical agri has to stop because it damages the sea and the sea is so integral to human survival on the planet. The sea absorbs 93% of greenhouse gases and yet, the seas are dying. I’m ridiculous. Sometimes I’m out there and I’m crying while snorkeling. After I come up, I’m bawling by myself. It’s really silly but I get moved by what I see and start crying because I can see it’s dying. There are people here who are doing something and my inspiration is to be one of them. We all need to be doing something.
And could you elaborate on what you’re doing here and in Puerto Princesa?
Sure! I spent this last year exploring Palawan and making the most of the gift of this time to understand the topography of the land, how things work from people who have been here much longer, and understanding soil health as well. We’ve been sharing Kai Farm seeds with sustainable farms in different parts of Palawan to see what grows. It’s so thrilling to see them sprout. It’s not just a seed you’re planting but a seed of collaboration. Unlike other businesses, farming is something where you don’t see others as competition. I see it as working with and helping one another. I also have been working on an edible garden in Puerto in Ditxay’s Kitchen. Ditxay is my friend who is currently in Paris but she’s been an environmentalist for years and I take care of her edible garden. I’ve been working with Tao Philippines and their permaculture farm here.
I’ve been sensing where my projects should be. In the Puerto area, there are beautiful permaculture gardens in Bianyas and you can grow much more on the land there than in El Nido. After the Taal incident, I thought Palawan as more of a resilient location because there are no volcanoes or fault lines, typhoons are gentler here and it’s still affordable. One of the things I wanted to do at Kai Farms was put up a farm kitchen and have gut health at the center of what we’re doing because gut health is connected to heart, lung, and brain health. It’s the foundation of our health and I wanted to make that relatable. We wanted to have a place where gut health and functional medicine doctors could consult others. One day, I want to have a place where my friends can visit, learn, eat fresh food, walk through the garden, and meditate like we did. We were going to put up a healing center for body, mind, and spirit so I’m thinking that could happen here in Palawan.
How does it work since you’re based here and Kai Farms is in Cavite?
Thankfully, we have the right teams in place. It took us a long time. We have our Earth Leaders who are our farm supervisors, our Earth Angels who are our agricultural grads/millennial farmers, and our Earth Workers. It’s been seven years of permaculture training and workshops. They have it figured out.
In terms of farming as a business, it’s not enough to sell vegetables alone. That’s why I was going to do the farm kitchen and all that but with what happened after Taal, it may be wiser to do it in a place like this.
I know you work with a lot of communities and I’m wondering how you did that in Cavite. Would they come visit Kai Farms or would you seek them out?
It happened organically. We’ve hosted a seed school where we teach them how to save seeds. Plus, most of the seeds you buy commercially are treated with fungicides so they don’t get moldy. It’s already a chemical start and most organic farms are buying treated seeds. We’re teaching the lost art of seed saving. We did that with Global Seed Savers which was started by a Peace Corps volunteer in the Cordillera. They are encouraging communities to have seed libraries so you can save seeds for yourself and share them. Seeds are life. I’m always picking seeds and sharing them wherever I go haha! I think there’s so much power in them because you can grow food and nourish yourself. It’s pretty amazing.
How do you see us, the Philippines, moving forward in terms of sustainability from this point onwards?
I think it starts with small acts. When everyone is doing small acts, it can have a big impact.
On the farm, we do workshops for kids because we want to teach them how to grow food organically and naturally so the next generation of Palaweños can grow food without chemicals. We also want to teach them about marine activism through art so they fall in love with the sea and understand why they should care about not buying candy wrapped in plastic, for instance.
My daughter, Uma, also started Talala to give jobs to the seamstresses of Tao Philippines. They sew the curtains, sheets, and bags that would be given to guests. Because of no tourism and no income, she started the brand using repurposed flour sacks which were turned into bags, including weaves from Rurungan Sa Tubod which is based in Puerto where they use natural dyes and help the weavers and their families. Then there’s Kai who started SAHAN with the sustainable learning kits and the bags used are actually made by the women here. We put organic seeds from Kai Farms and a Tagalog planting kit so the next generation is involved in climate action.
Those small acts make a big difference. If everybody did what they could, we would all be working towards something great. The way I see it, every Filipino needs to be involved in climate action in one form or another. It’s about realizing that our daily choices and habits already have an impact on what’s happening in this climate crisis and how we can make a difference.