Climate crisis puts Indigenous farming to the test in the Philippines

For generations, Philippine Indigenous communities like the Suludnon have practiced biodiversity-based farming systems to sustainably ensure year-round abundance of food and income. But climate change is putting these practices to the test.

Upland farming near Lake Sebu, Philippines
Forecasts of five to seven tropical cyclones hitting the Philippines in the second half of 2023 have intensified concerns of Indigenous Suludnon farmers. Climate-driven typhoons and crop diseases have strained their harvests in recent years, affecting their food and income security. Image: ILO Asia-Pacific, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

In the mountainous village of Jayobo in the central Philippines, internet and mobile connectivity are spotty. The nearest town center is an hour’s drive along a rough, unpaved road, and electricity has only recently reached the village and remains intermittent. To get information about the weather, Indigenous Suludnon farmers like Adelfa Lebuna must either brave the trip to town — risky during the rainy season — or rely on a battery-powered radio. However, thanks to their traditional knowledge and strong connection to the local agroecosystem, farmers like Lebuna have so far managed to prepare for disasters.

Days before Typhoon Haiyan hit on Nov. 8, 2013, Lebuna says her husband, Leopoldo, had a disturbing dream. “There was someone shouting, giving a warning. He woke up and asked, ‘What was that? Why did I dream that?’ He told us to find shelter because a storm was coming,” the 51-year-old mother of six tells Mongabay.

The day after the premonition, the Suludnon community noticed signs of the approaching calamity: birds, snakes and bees retreating into the mountains, tree leaves turning upside down, and farm animals acting erratically. Well acquainted with these natural climate hazard indicators and warning systems, families like the Lebunas harvested their crops and stocked up on firewood to help weather the storm and its aftermath.

Later, they heard a warning through the radio about Haiyan, known in the Philippines as Yolanda. The typhoon went on to become the deadliest storm in the country’s modern record, killing more than 6,000 people. But initially, the tribe didn’t expect it to be stronger than previous storms.

When Haiyan hit, the wind sounded like a crashing airplane, Lebuna recalls. It forced her family to take cover on the floor as their roof peeled away and trees toppled. “Fortunately, we were not hit by those falling objects,” she recalls. “Oh, I cried and cried. Our belongings were soaked, our house was destroyed, and only the skeletal structure remained on the ground.”

The Lebunas and their neighbors rebuilt their lives, relying on their agroecosystem and traditional agroecological knowledge.

However, the Suludnon tribe, like other upland Indigenous farming communities across the Philippines, have found themselves grappling with the climate crisis, which triggers increasingly frequent extreme weather events, as well as crop pests and disease. These rapidly escalating catastrophes strain their time-refined coping mechanisms, making it challenging to sustain farming traditions without adequate government support.

Biodiversity-based farming system

The central Philippine province of Iloilo lies 465 kilometers (290 miles) from the capital, Manila, and hosts the Suludnon, also known as the Panay-Bukidnon. For generations, Philippine Indigenous communities like the Suludnon have practiced biodiversity-based farming systems to sustainably ensure year-round abundance of food and income. “The land is as precious as gold to us as it sustains our livelihood — it’s been our home since the beginning,” Lebuna says.

Farmers in  Jayobo practice agroforestry, with corn, root crops like cassava, sweet potato and taro, and a variety of native and fruit trees intercropped. This approach helps with water and soil retention, as well as mitigating the recurring problem of flash floods and landslides here.

Around the Lebunas’ hilltop home, they cultivate a diverse range of fruits, including rambutan, jackfruit, avocado, coconut, lanzones, coffee and bananas, to supplement their income. They also preserve native trees like narra (Pterocarpus indicus), recognizing the importance of adhering to state forest regulations.

“We are taking care of the forest because if it is destroyed, those below, like the crops you plant, will also be affected,” says Leopoldo, pausing from weeding his lowland farm and taking shelter under a tree shade to speak to Mongabay.

Leopoldo looks out over the rolling hills where his tribe grows resilient upland rice varieties like caporcas, suligmalido, asuzena, putot, kapigsik and tresmarias. These varieties naturally adapt to climate hazards, tolerating changes in temperature and moisture. Farmers prepare the upland for planting using cooperative soil layering, a practice called dagyaw, creating terraces near irrigation areas.

By cultivating a variety of crops, the Suludnon have been able to safeguard their food supply and income year-round, reducing vulnerability to climate change’s economic impacts.

“We shouldn’t underestimate their traditional practices because even without formal education, they understand the importance of crop diversification,” says Jelly Brillon, a Suludnon and retired professor of agriculture at West Visayas State University who co-authored a related study. In case of calamities or pest and disease outbreaks affecting their bananas and rice, they can turn to root crops as substitutes: “They have alternatives for survival because if they don’t think of solutions, they won’t immediately receive assistance from the government.”

Edwin Labordo, president of the Lambunao Natural Farmers Association, emphasises this adaptability and harmonious relationship with nature, maximizing available resources and embracing seasonal changes. Labordo, a retired education supervisor, says his community prioritises environmental well-being by avoiding synthetic fertilisers that can pollute the water, degrade the soil, and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

Instead, they enrich their soil with high-nutrient ashes from burned weeds during the kaingin (swidden farming) to sustain their primary cash crops: banana and coffee.

“We also enhance soil fertility with compost made from [nitrogen-fixing] madre de cacao [Gliricidia sepium] and agoho [Casuarina equisetifolia] leaves, and carefully weed around the crops to prevent competition for organic fertiliser absorption,” the 62-year-old organic farmer adds.

Choosing when and where to plant is also key to agricultural productivity.

“During the rainy season, you should not plant in lowland areas to avoid the crops from being waterlogged and rotting; plant in the upland instead,” Lolita Tizon, a 66-year-old tribal leader, tells Mongabay one rainy Sunday in her lowland home. “When it’s dry season, it’s preferable to plant in the lowland because that’s where the water is.”

During the upland rice harvest, the Suludnon carefully use the kayog, a triangular blade with a wooden handle, in a quiet manner as a mark of respect for the crop, as they believe that excessive noise during harvesting can diminish yields. After the harvest, they refrain from consuming the freshly gathered rice until granted permission by their ancestors, and their initial harvest becomes a joyous occasion of gratitude, marked by an offering of animals proportional to the sise of their family.

“Their keen and close relationship with the environment has enabled them to develop, practice, and pass down these strategies across generations, which have proven invaluable for their survival and adaptation, particularly in the face of observed environmental changes,” Brillon says.

Indigenous beliefs and rituals

Anna Razel Limoso Ramirez, a cultural researcher at the University of the Philippines Visayas, says Suludnon communities value their environment deeply due to the profound influence of their worldview on their traditional and ecological knowledge.

“There exists a spiritual connection wherein every action they do is deeply rooted in their belief of interacting with the unseen guardians of those spaces,” she tells Mongabay in an instant message.

The Suludnon have a deep-rooted tradition of rice farming, intricately woven with rituals passed down from their ancestors. As part of their cultural heritage, they offer sacrifices like butchered chickens in front of the rice fields to appease the spirits called mariit. On an altar, they also present offerings like ibus (sticky rice wrapped in young coconut leaves), suman and alupi (cassava wrapped in banana leaves). These are done to seek protection for their farms, ensure a fruitful harvest, and ward off potential threats from pests and disease.

Before harvest, the Suludnon walk around the rice fields, piercing the ground with sticks at each corner, and tying turmeric with black fabric. This act serves as a protective measure, warding off malevolent spirits from entering the fields and disrupting the harvest.

“By performing this ritual, the spirits are sent away, signifying that you, as the landowner, have reclaimed the space. They will not be able to cross the boundary that you have set,” Leopoldo says. Failure to perform this, he says, may result in the spirits themselves harvesting the rice, causing losses and difficulties for the community, especially during disasters.

The Suludnon people have also honed their keen observation skills of their environment, enabling them to develop their own climate hazard indicators and warning systems.

“They can read environmental signals as their ancestors have done, and this knowledge ensures their protection from calamities and shows their resilience,” Ramirez says.

They closely observe animal behavior and changes in plant characteristics around them, Tizon says. The blooming of orange flowers on the dapdap tree (Erythrina spp.) signals the start of the rainy season, while their falling indicates the beginning of the dry season. The presence of numerous fireflies on the biri tree (Ficus cumingii) warns of potential floods and landslides.

The tribe interprets the position of the moon and other celestial bodies in relation to their farming activities, Labordo says. When the moon tilts sideways (tagilid ang buwan), it predicts an upcoming food scarcity. Periods of unusual cold presage heat waves, and vice versa, guiding them to plant crops that can withstand specific extreme environmental conditions. For instance, during excessively hot weather, they don’t cultivate water-dependent rice, corn and vegetables, Labordo says.

More support needed

The Suludnon harvest their coffee between November and December. However, when Typhoon Haiyan struck, triggering destructive landslides, their coffee trees were completely devastated. It took years to recover, and subsequent harvests still haven’t been able to match the abundance they once enjoyed.

“The newly grown coffee plants have started producing fruits, but the yield is still small, just a few,” says Adelfa. It’s a slow process. Now, we’re getting around 100 kilos, which is much lower compared to the 200 to 500 kilos we used to harvest annually before Typhoon Yolanda,” she says, while demonstrating the picking of small green coffee beans.

Forecasts of five to seven tropical cyclones hitting the Philippines in the second half of 2023 have intensified her concerns.

“Well, if I plant now and it gets destroyed anyway, I might as well hold off for now,” Adelfa says. However, she says she worries about their rice and corn that have already been planted. “But if you don’t sow, you won’t reap.”

Besides typhoons, a crop disease called bunchy top virus threatens Suludnon farms, as well as banana-growing areas across the globe. The disease is spread by aphids, something research suggests is happening at ever higher elevations due to climate change. Hevel Lazara, 35, says his family’s banana plantations are often knocked down during typhoons, while the virus has stunted the remaining stands. In the early 2000s, they used to have 3 hectares (7.4 acres) of banana plantations and harvested 1 metric ton per month, but now they only have 1 hectare (2.5 acres) left, and the yield is significantly reduced.

“You can no longer benefit from them because they die. Once the mother plant is infected, the same fate awaits the offspring. Efforts to eradicate the disease are in vain as it persists. Despite a promising growth for a few weeks, it suddenly turns yellow and wilts,” says Lazara, a father of three who now resorts to driving a motorbike taxi to support his family.

These ongoing challenges emphasise that even self-sufficient Indigenous communities like the Suludnon now require sustained government support to better navigate the increasingly hostile climate.

“While government support exists, it may not always reach everyone in the mountains immediately,” Brillon says. “Therefore, they rely on Indigenous knowledge to adapt and survive in these new environmental conditions.”

The Suludnon say they need sustainable farm inputs, support for alternative livelihoods such as raising chicken and pigs, product marketing, and market access, in addition to the university’s agricultural technology transfer assistance and the government’s farm-to-market road project.

“The government should support us farmers by providing machinery like a hand tractor, and offering assistance with fertilisers and seeds,” Adelfa says. “While we usually plant local rice seeds, having high-quality ones would be beneficial. Also, creating livelihood opportunities through crops suitable for our fields is essential.”

Brillon emphasises the need for two-way knowledge sharing to build a food-secure society in the face of climate change, where the government and civil society learn from Indigenous farmers’ practices, and farmers contribute to climate-proofing the agricultural sector through integration of their techniques into national and local plans.

“It is crucial to share this knowledge with other communities,” he says, “as the strategies and practices that work for one community may also be applicable and beneficial to others, and vice versa.”

This story was published with permission from

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