June 23, 2024

They Raised Forests in Buenavista

Nestled in the mountain ranges of Caraballo is a 3000-hectare forest, a short distance from the Magat River winding from the north and guarded by a forest-dependent community since the late 90s.

The community of forest stewards, a People’s Organization (PO) called Federation of Vista Hills, Kalongkong, and Kakilingan Upland Farmers Inc. (FVHKKUFI), is a conglomeration of three (3) Upland Farmers Associations. These associations arose from the different nuclear points in the Barangay Buenavista, Bayombong, Nueva Vizcaya, Philippines – (1) Kakilingan, (2) Kalongkong, and (3) Vista Hills. These subcomponents have preexisted the establishment of the Community-based Forest Management (CBFM) in 1999. 

The community has antedated the paradigm shift to sustainable livelihoods, which was apparent in the long history of being engaged in illegal charcoal-making, kaingin, and timber poaching that had set the original landscape of the area barren and uninhabitable.

In the late 1980s, there was an initiative to address the resulting landscape, but this did not make the community less vulnerable than it already was. In 1995 to 1997, the community was selected to become a site for a project implemented by International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) which had proven successful and thus paved the way for the shift for the entry of CBFM strategy. Since then, the PO has developed alternative livelihood and community-based enterprises such as tiger-grass plantations for walis tambo production and more recently, Littuko(rattan fruit) wine production. These livelihoods were hailed and recognized as sustainable means of generating economic stability from the forests while also ensuring that the resources are not depleted.

The FVHKKUFI had been actively involving the constituents of the Barangay Buenavista in forest stewardship programs by also engaging with them in information drives, inviting them to take part in their own forest farm lots, among other initiatives. In 2003, they received the Model Sustainable Development Project Award given by the Nueva Vizcaya Provincial Council for Sustainable Development. The following year, the Regional Council for Sustainable Development granted them a similar award. 

The Seed that Sparks

The manager behind the production of the Littuko wine enterprise is Melia Bantayan, who is also the president of the Kalongkong Upland Farmers Association (KUFA), one of the three components of the FVHKKUFI. While the Littuko fruits are harvested by members of the Kakilingan Upland Farmers Association Inc., Bantayan had taken the initiative to lead despite being from KUFA. She has been leading the KUFA since time immemorial and she recalls that initially there were only 45 members but now there are 65 active members. According to her, Littuko wine is the “livelihood” of the federation.

Littuko wine is the Federation’s livelihood because of its long shelf-life and because it not only helps the FVHKKUFI as a PO but the PO sees this as a way to elevate the individual economic ventures of their members. The FVHKKUFI sources out the raw materials for the wine from the oversupply of the harvests by the residents of Kakilingan. The history of engaging in the production of Littuko wine dates back in during a solution-building meeting to address the problem of oversupply of rattan fruits in 2017.

The chairman of the board at the time utilized the PO’s linkages and approached the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) for training on food preservation for both Taro, which is also one of KUFA’s products, and Littuko. The training program spearheaded by a focal person from Nueva Vizcaya State University equipped the members of the Federation with the capacity to preserve Littuko fruits through pickling, jam, vinegar, and wine.

This was a pivotal point in the livelihood, dynamics, and membership of the Federation.

Ripening of an Endeavor

When the community members harvest the fruits of Rattan, it requires extra effort than merely the idea of plucking fruits from the branches. It calls for seeking rattan vines that climb up to great heights and ensuring there is also an equally tall tree that is on par with the heights that the vine had reached. When they harvest fruits, the risk they take in climbing the trees is also on par with the risk they take with the market value. When the odds are unfavorable for the harvesters, on occasions that the market value is low, the fruits wouldn’t get transported outside of the Barangay, not even outside the forests. In cases like this, the PO ensures that its constituents get subjected to the tragedy of the market trends. By purchasing from each harvester hundreds of kilograms of fruit, totaling tons of Littuko, FVHKKUFI provides a safety net for its members in more ways than one. 

When the fruits are secured, the strenuous chain of activities for their Littuko wine making is initiated. The entire production process was dominated by women members of the federation, all hailing from the different PO’s in the Barangay Buenavista – from acquirement of proper bottles for production, cleaning the bottles and ensuring that the production remains uncontaminated, processing the fruits, to the bottling of the finished wine. According to incumbent President of FVHKKUFI, Valentin Descalzo, the production had not only strengthened the organizational cohesion more than ever, but it had significantly empowered the women members as well.

During the initial productions, they used large ordinary cooking equipment, buckets, and containers in the FVHKKUFI office. Just as they had been taught during the livelihood training years aback, the members ensured to keep the working area sanitized and cleared off possible sources of contamination. Because the most accessible containers were merely big plastic bottles that used to contain water, these were the containers they used to house the Littuko wine of various hues of brown.

At the back of their heads, there was a resounding sentiment that propelled the members of the Federation to search for means to improve the production area and equipment. They have seen two to three women dedicate mornings of their days to cleaning and scrubbing the bottles of local brandy they purchased for cheap. They have witnessed the difficulty of mass-producing wine with equipment and instruments of limited volumes and capacity – recalling even the time they had been sealing the caps of their Littuko preserves with a shrinking seal and dousing it with hot water instead, because they didn’t have a proper heat gun.  They knew that if they wanted to make the production more sustainable and competitive, they needed to improve their production setup. And in some kind of happenstance, an opportunity slid into the office of the forest stewards in Barangay Buenavista.

They were contacted by a representative of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to propose a start-up grant for their green community enterprise. While the grant’s initial recipients were limited to the Sierra Madre landscape and the Palawan landscape, the idea of providing any thriving CBFM PO an opportunity to improve their circumstances was more than welcomed. Thus, this had pivoted the Federation to a new direction.

Harvesting the Fruit of their Undertaking

When the PO pitched in 2022 for a startup grant for their green business, it was still during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. There had been no chances of presenting other than virtually. President Descalzo spearheaded a movement from within his home and then-chairman Judy Puno offered support with her presence from the corners of her cubicle in the local government. The grant would offer all the invited POs grants, but the top three would be awarded additional fund support for meeting the criterion of being viable, sustainable, innovative, and integrated with the standards of Ecosystem-based Adaptation (EbA).

The Federation was awarded third place in the project pitch for their sustainable livelihood of Littuko wine production. This gave them a grand opportunity to enhance their livelihood and hence improve the overall wellbeing of the organization.

They were able to purchase equipment and tools that had maneuvered them away for the better from recycling and tediously cleaning bottles to purchasing wholesale bottles that are both of guaranteed quality and don’t demand as much effort to sanitize. Their equipment that offered minute volume to their production was replaced by larger and more convenient cooking instruments. They were able to seek the help of DTI for crafting a label that was market ready. And most of all, they were also able to construct an extension of their office that served as the production area of the Littuko wine enterprise which they supplemented using their own funds to further enhance the area. They no longer had to resort to means that limited them, as they were able to use the grant to expand their own means, entailing the enhancement of their production.

With a proper label and a more efficient production, the market expanded greatly from the small-scale sales to selling wholesale to their linkages from the government, the barangay constituents, to their own personal events – Mr. Descalzo even proudly recounted that tray of bottles of Littuko wine were used as souvenirs and gifts for special occasions, even for his own son’s wedding.

The Littuko wine was easily integrated and institutionalized as an integral part of the Federation’s entirety – but mostly in how it helped the members whose livelihoods rely on selling their Littuko fruits and how it has provided them with employment. In its history, it was only this product that had mobilized the Federation and empowered their members, especially the women.

Strength in Preserving, Cohesion in Security

Littuko wine, in retrospect, is of course just one of their many milestones. Their long history as a CBFM PO was studded with countless significant highlights. One is that their membership had grown through the years, each sub-organization from Vista Hills, Kakilingan, and Kalongkong continuously increasing. One that Mr. Descalzo had mentioned is how there are notably small areas left to be rehabilitated with forest tree seedlings. This was a testament to their dedication in converting the entirety of the area from a scalded land to a forest that overflows with ecosystem services that not only benefits the members of the organization but also the Barangay residents who utilize the water from the ubbog or the spring.

Even after all these milestones, they still collectively know that there is a long journey ahead awaiting their organization, surpassing all their lifetime. Which is why they believe that it was crucial for their CBFM Agreement to be renewed for another 25 years after its due expiry this 2024, for the legacy of their organization to be transmitted to the next generations.