“When nature is viewed solely as a source of profit and gain, this has serious consequences for society. This vision of “might is right” has engendered immense inequality, injustice and acts of violence against the majority of humanity, since resources end up in the hands of the first comer or the most powerful: the winner takes all.” Laudato Si’ 82
It was a majestic view that greeted students of the Ateneo Graduate School of Business (AGSB) as they drove to the upland community of Bendum, the first time for most of them to set foot in Mindanao. But as they took out their phone cameras to capture the beauty of the rolling landscape of Bukidnon, they were also confronted with a tangible image of the realities in the margins: genetically modified corn for animal feeds instead of native trees clothing the mountains, claw-like marks on now-steeper hillsides due to massive soil erosion, and expanding concrete roads built for trucks that transport extracted resources, not for local people and local economies.
In the following days, the business students would meet the human faces and stories behind these images and get a deeper sense of how businesses impact the land and the people.
Through a field learning course held 5 to 10 September at Balay Laudato Si’ in Bendum, Bukidnon, the participants listened and learned from experiences of smallholder farmers and youth in marginal communities and reflected on why the margins persist in a growing economy.
“We have lost the pillar species in the mountains. Only small trees are left for our children to inherit,” a local farmer shared when the students visited one of the smallholder corn farming communities.
The increase of high-yield variety corn farming in marginal lands in Bukidnon exacerbated land use change in the area in recent years. With most of the uplands deforested heavily in the last four decades, only 24% of the forest is left today, with 1,986 ha (3%) of secondary forest lost to corn farming in the last decade. The result is the degradation of the mountain landscape and the contamination of water sources, making marginal communities more susceptible to impacts of the climate crisis.
And yet, even as Bukidnon emerged as the second largest corn-producing province in the Philippines, smallholder corn farmers continue to live in poverty due to abusive financing and trading practices that proliferate and prevail in the system.
“We borrow money for the seeds and fertilizers at 10% monthly interest. When harvest time comes, we are required to sell our corn to financiers at a low price, otherwise they would not lend us money for the next cropping season. Then they sell our produce at a higher price,” a farmer said.
He said rural bank loans, even at a lower monthly interest rate of 2%, are not a viable option for them, as they would even have to borrow more money just to comply with the long list of loan application requirements. Hence, smallholder farmers make do with the measly PhP 9-10 per kilo of corn grain that middlemen pay.
Due to this situation, some of the farmers shared they would rather have their children work overseas instead of becoming farmers like them.
“At least when they work abroad, they would earn, what, PhP 20,000 a month? Then they can help us get out of this poverty,” one of them said.
“I can feel the pain of the parents, thinking ‘I should be the one providing for my children,’ but because they don’t get enough support, they are the ones hoping that their children would provide for them one day,” Jenrry Daulo, one of the students said after their dialogue with the farmers.
“To think that they do the most crucial work in society – feeding us,” he added.
Through the field engagement, the students reviewed the government’s national development plan for Mindanao, and whether it is really benefiting the people in the margins.
“I feel that we are going the wrong direction. Development here means making the region more accessible through road networks, but the underlying motive is still for capital. What’s really lacking here is forest management, so that people would earn without destroying the ecosystem,” student MJ Endaya said.
“Our economy is eating our ecology. It should be the other way around. The ecology should be sustaining the economy,” course facilitator Pedro Walpole SJ said.
The group later saw sustainable ways of living in relation with the land through forest management and agroforestry as explained to them by the Apu Palamguwan Cultural Education Center-Forest Farm and Leadership in the Margins (APC-FFLM) team.
The students were also given time and space to reflect on their own ways of living in the city, how they could live with simplicity, and how they, as future business leaders, could be part of the change needed in a system that is exploitative and unjust.
“We should be aware of how decisions of businesses affect everyone. As future leaders and decision-makers, we should lean towards more sustainable and helpful ways for our society,” student Louie Tejada said.
Seeking a New Business Paradigm: A Field Course, Engaging marginalized youth and communities in agriculture is facilitated by the Environmental Science for Social Change (ESSC) for business schools in Asia Pacific in coordination with Balay Laudato Si’ as part of a broader effort to address some of the grave challenges facing the world today that appear to be impossible to solve.
Through engagement and dialogue, the effort aims to encourage and give confidence to individuals and institutions working for a transformative education. At the same time, this initiative posits that shifts are possible, and that, through greater collaboration, these shifts can contribute to a difference.
“Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving our world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the areas in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good.” Laudato Si’ 129
This article was also published in the ESSC Website and Ecojesuit Online.