Beyond typhoons: Organic farming thrives in Batanes

by JESUS LLANTO, Newsbreak

Posted at Oct 14 2008 01:20 AM | Updated as of Oct 14 2008 05:47 PM

BASCO-Whenever people hear the word “Batanes,” images of strong winds and rains pounding stone houses usually come to their minds. But for the Ivatans, the province’s native inhabitants, the mainlanders’ perception of their home is inaccurate.
“We want to erase the perception that it [Batanes] is dangerous,” said Batanes governor Telesforo Castillejos adding that they want to change this misconception by promoting Batanes as an eco-tourism destination.
Located in the northernmost part of the country and in between the Pacific Ocean and South China Sea, Batanes is on the typhoon belt. The perception that it is always devastated by typhoon might have been caused by the fact that Basco, the province’s capital, hosts the last weather station in the northern part of the country.
“Batanes is always mentioned as a reference point of the typhoon,” said Milagros Rimando, National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) director for Region II. Rimando added that Batanes is always mentioned in weather reports even when some of the typhoons do not really cross the province’s islands.
Weather and geography
Local officials, however, admit that the frequent weather disturbance, the province natural strong winds and waves, and its archipelagic nature—the province is composed of  ten islands—have  hampered the development of its agriculture and trade. Lack of infrastructure for transport of goods from one island to another, and from mainland Luzon makes the problem worse.
“We could be isolated anytime,” said the governor adding that the seas are sometimes unnavigable even when there is no typhoon. He added that during these times, goods cannot be brought from one island to another because small vessels and boats are used in transporting them.
The prevalence of typhoons prevents the development of agriculture, particularly the production of staple crops like rice and corn. The province imports rice from neighboring provinces. “We produce only 10 percent of our rice,” said Castillejos.
Governor Castillejos added that vegetable production is very erratic in Batanes because of the weather and transportation problems—scarcity during summer and surplus during the rainy season. He said that during rainy season there is a surplus of vegetables since boats cannot transport them to other markets. “Farmers just feed the extra supply of vegetables to the pigs.”
Garlic as cash crop
Rootcrops have been one of the major agricultural products of Batanes. Unlike rice, corn and other crops, root crops like onions, garlic, ginger, ube and gabi are less prone to destruction of typhoons that frequent the islands.
Priscilla Nanud, Batanes’ provincial agriculturist told, that garlic is the sole commercial crop in the province that is marketed outside and has traditionally been the cash crop for Ivatan farmers.
As of 2005, the province produced an average of 4.03MT of garlic per hectare. Itbayat, Batanes’ northernmost town, produces the greatest volume of garlic (See table). Itbayat, said trade and industry provincial director Tess Castillejos (a distant relative of the Governor Castillejos), has clayish soil that is suited for cultivating the root crop.

Area Planted
(In Hectares)
Average Yield
Total Production
(Metric Ton)

Garlic production, the provincial agriculture office said, drastically decreased as a result of the World Trade Organization—General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade (WTO-GATT). The WTO-GATT has rendered the price of Batanes garlic uncompetitive compared to those from other countries, particularly those that come from Taiwan. Production of garlic, however, has improved in recent years. “The garlic industry is gradually recovering as a result of the popularity of organic products in markets outside the province.”
Organic farming
“In Batanes, it’s all traditional farming,” DTI’s Castlillejos said. Indeed, garlic farmers use organic methods in keeping out pests. Garlic farmers mix leaves of neem tree or “ariaw” to garlic bulbs and stock them in the “paya” or the kitchen attic.
Vegetables and other crops are raised without the use of chemical fertilizers. Soil is enriched through the use of animal manure and compost. Some farm lots are converted into pastures for a few months in preparation for the next planting season.
The province hopes to market its products in Manila and in Luzon but the transportation and infrastructure for agriculture like post-harvest facilities and dryers are major constraints. The provincial agriculture office said: “Freight charges from Basco to Manila markets are prohibitive, besides problems on handling for perishable products.”
DTI’s Castillejos said that as of now some non-governmental organizations help the farmers by chartering small boats for transporting goods and passengers.
Wanted: Shelter ports
Local officials believe that a shelter port is badly needed to address the problem of accessibility and linkage even during extreme weather conditions. Castillejos said a shelter port would allow ships and small boats to dock, especially during typhoon season.
“Our islands do not have natural protection from the waves.”
Rimando, meanwhile, told us  that proposal for a shelter port dates back to as early as 1997.  The main problem, she added, is funding for the port, which is estimated to cost around P430 million.
Castillejos said that a shelter port would also help the fisheries sector since it would allow small fishing vessels to dock during times when the waves are strong. He added that Ivatan fishermen have been losing out to Taiwanese who have bigger and stronger vessels. “The Taiwanese are the ones benefiting from our seas.”
This is the first in a three-part series of stories about the province of Batanes.
(Disclosure: The author is one of the journalists who visited Batanes last September as part of the media appreciation seminar sponsored by NEDA.)