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Four years ago, a typhoon struck the northern Filipino city of Baguio. The storm ruptured the walls of the city’s mounting garbage dump, sending hundreds of tonnes of urban waste cascading into the streets. The landslide flattened several houses and killed two young children. The tragedy was a wake-up call for Geraldine Cacho, an Igorot woman and rural farmer who first migrated to Baguio to pursue university studies. ‘Why would garbage become a killer? Why would it become an issue?’ she asked herself at the time.
Many Igorot migrants are accustomed to the practice of ayyew – known as sayang in Filipino – an indigenous concept of recycling and reusing all forms of waste. For example, biodegradable waste would be transformed into fertilizers using vermiculture, while plastic bottles and old clothes may be recycled into household containers or rugs.
As residents dump some 300 tonnes of garbage every day, recycling not only offers a source of livelihood to Baguio’s indigenous population but also provides the city with an effective form of waste management. ‘Using ayyew as a culture of managing waste would lessen garbage and help solve the city’s huge garbage problem,’ she says. ‘As an activist organizer, I knew there has to be a way. A mass movement is needed to help solve the problem, if not eliminate it.’
After attending a training programme organized by the NGO Tebtebba, Cacho set up a vermibed in her kitchen. At first she faced resistance from her landlady, who described the compost worms as ‘unsanitary’. She confiscated Cacho’s worms and discarded them in a smelly open-pit garbage dump in her backyard. ‘It was however a blessing because after some weeks, we noticed that the open pit was not smelly anymore, and the neighbours stopped complaining of its stench,’ she says. She then explained to the landlady how vermiculture works and helped her plant onions, eggplants and cabbage in her back garden using compost.
Cacho is now working with the Cordillera Women’s Education and Research Centre (CWEARC) to promote vermiculture practices in Baguio. CWEARC is supporting over 100 indigenous women to establish urban vegetable gardens with the help of recycled waste. The idea is to simultaneously boost the socio-economic status of indigenous women while combatting Baguio’s burgeoning waste problem. The women are all migrants from rural areas who often struggle to earn their living as street vendors or backyard hog raisers. By working as a collective, the women harness another indigenous concept, known as ubbo or mutually beneficial labour.
According to the UN, indigenous migrants make up 60 per cent of the city’s population and more than half of them live in poverty. Indigenous women are particularly marginalized and are usually excluded from discussions about urban planning in Baguio. But now they have a stronger voice in the community. ‘The project increased the capacity of indigenous women on project management, leadership, economic empowerment, and strengthened their organization,’ says Lucille Lumas-i from CWEARC.
Even the government has responded positively to the project. ‘In communities where practitioners were located, there is a decrease in the volume of waste being hauled by the city government,’ added Lumas-i. ‘At the community level, Barangay [ward] officials are very supportive of the project and some have adopted the concept in their community waste management programme.’ Cacho now has a blooming urban garden, studded with ginger, corn, squash and sweet potatoes. It reminds her of her family’s farm in the countryside. ‘The growth was very visible,’ she says, ‘like magic.’
Photo: Igorot father and child in The Philippines. Credit: Woody Wood.