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Manila Bulletin, Saturday, February 19, 2005 FEATURE NGO lends helping hand Farmers plan to export organic rice to Switzerland By Angelo S. Samonte, Researcher ORGANIC rice produced from Negros Occidental barrios would soon be served on Swiss dining tables, if the sample rice export sent to Switzerland will get the approval of the Swiss government. But for now, farmers in Sitio Tabidiao, Bago, in Negros Occidental can only hope that their product would enter the lucrative Swiss market, which needs 250,000 metric tons of organic rice annually. Organic rice farming started in upland Negros communities in 2000 when the Broad Initiatives for Negros Development Inc. (BIND), a nongovernment organization working toward sustainable development in the countryside, carried out its Million Trees Sustainable Mountain Development program. Founded in 1988, the organization is supported by the Swiss Inter-church Aid (SIA) and The Netherlands Committee for the International Union for Conservation of Nature. It also has been receiving funds by donors from the Swiss and Dutch governments but also accepts contributions from local sources. BIND’s efforts are now bearing fruit, however, small. Take Pacencia Demetria, for instance, an organic rice farmer who owns a 2,000- square-meter land. With BIND’s help, Demetria has started harvesting 18 to 20 kilos of palay for every hectare with the use of organic fertilizer. This new practice, she said, rice farming became more profitable compared to the system that uses expensive inorganic fertilizer. “Previously, our income was enough just to pay for our debts because of the high cost of fertilizers and seeds,” Pacencia said. The application of organic fertilizer in Sitio Tabidiao farms is well suited for planting rare native rice varieties, which are reacquired by Tabidiao farmers from other palay- producing communities in Negros. At present, the farmers have collected more than 30 native rice varieties for preservation and mass production. Farmers use an organic fertilizer produced in backyards called vermicompost, which is composed of decayed farms waste, leaves and husks. Instead of using hazardous pesticides, farmers used odorous herbal plants such as alibhon, oregano and mansanilya to ward off farm pests. Besides successfully modeling organic farming, the program also promotes organic livestock and organic vegetable production, a system that could make the involved communities food self-sufficient, although some of the produce is being sold at Negros’ urban communities. Organic rice being produced meanwhile should be certified so that it could penetrate the markets abroad. At present, the Organic Certification Center of the Philippines is the only certifying body that approves whether locally produced organic products passed the standards or not. BIND coordinator Benedicto Sanchez said however that if the organic rice is subjected to OCCP’s certification, local rice producers would not be able to pay the standardization process, and the price of organic rice will increase. His organization, he said, is looking for financial assistance from other donors to shoulder the certification of their product. Although the rice sample they sent to Switzerland does not bear the OCCP seal, Sanchez said, it was analyzed by experts in laboratories in Manila to comply with the European standard. The shipment was also subjected to tests in Zurich, he said. They are now waiting for the approval of Claro, the Swiss rice importer, before they could ship additional volume of rice for commercial consumption in Switzerland. Although certification is required before shipping organic products, Negros farmers have not complied with this requirement. But Claro would eventually ask local rice organic producers to comply with the Fair Trade Labeling Organization, a certifying body based in Bonn, Germany. Besides the rice being imported from the Philippines, Claro has been sourcing non- organic rice from Thailand, at lower price compared with organic rice produced in the Philippines. Thus, for now organic rice to be exported to Switzerland could be sold in a niche market, since it could not be found in Swiss supermarkets. “If the government wants the program to go mainstream, it should involve itself because NGOs could only effectively try such initiatives in small scale level,” Sanchez said.