Last year I visited Fr Brian Gore who has recently returned to Bantollinao, in the mountains of Negros Occidental where he is implementing the work of the Negros Nine Human Development Foundation (NNHDF).
The Negros Nine were three priests and six lay workers who were imprisoned in 1983 during the Marcos regime and sentenced to death on trumped up murder charges. Brian and Lydio (Boy) Mangao are two of the nine who have helped begin the NNHDF.
Their purpose is to help form and strengthen Christian Communities, organic cooperatives and people’s organisations. In my short time with the people there I was given a glimpse into why the NNHDF was trying to do this.
The people who live in the mountains are quite isolated. They live a frugal existence. The children walk seven kilometres to Oringao for primary school or stay in town during the week for high school. Among the farmers living a subsistence lifestyle with limited farming skills, there has been limited food production.
The NNHDF purchased land on the side of the mountain then began an organic demonstration farm with a multi–purpose building. The farm was developed with contouring, pasture grasses, fish ponds, food crops, a worm farm, a plant nursery, livestock and carabao which are hired out for ploughing. Local farmers came and learned about biodiversity and organic farming and pretty soon, a co–operative was formed.
The co–op now has 114 members from communities around the farm. They meet there to plan income generation projects. Farmers gain individual benefits, but the communal benefits stay in the co–operative to continue improvements on the farm.
One of the big projects they have worked on together has been moving numerous rocks to make the “Great Wall of Bantolinao.” This is a stone fence to enclose the land being returned to forest. The members have planted 13,000 trees which need regular maintenance, but are starting to look like a diverse forest with increasing numbers of wildlife appearing.
The co–op is separate from the parish. When the NNHDF started, there was no local parish community. But with the connections the people have made, they have formed a Basic Christian Community and taken San Columbano as their patron. I arrived when they were having a community meeting to plan the fiesta for St Columban’s Day on November 23.
It was wonderful to observe these people taking on different roles to work together. People walked long distances for several hours to connect with each other. When Fr Brian presided at Mass in the simple bamboo building there were dogs laying on the floor, mothers with little children, grandparents, dads and teenagers. I felt a real sense of community that will enable them to be stronger and use their collective skills to overcome their extreme poverty.