Perched on a verdant hill where the traditional rice varieties (TRVs) of her tribe are planted, I hear her sing melodiously to the heavens for a bountiful harvest.
Her voice, resonating and calming, blends with and flavors the afternoon breeze in her village. This is their tribal song to their God. Her name is Mastine G. Tamba, the 73-year-old seed keeper of the B’laan community at the Lamlifew tribal village in Datal Tampal, Malungon, Sarangani.
Rice and the B’laan farmers
Tamba inherited the chant and the process of storing their tribe’s seeds from their elders. “
The seeds, along with their names, came from our ancestors and passed on from one generation to the next,” she said in the Visayan language.
Their ancestors taught them that it is their duty to till the soil and plant the seeds, but it is God who miraculously gives the grains. After years of growing TRVs, the seed keeper is precise in choosing the right grains for different purposes.
“When I separate the grains, I know exactly which ones will be used for seeds, for our family’s consumption, and for our visitors,” she said with certainty.
Rice is central in the lives of B’laan farmers. Each variety has a role to play, reminded Celito Terando, project manager of Sarangani’s Sulung Tribu program.
“You might wonder why a certain rice is planted in only one plot while the other one grows in a hectare. That is because we have varieties specifically intended for festivals, birthdays, weddings, and some are used as dowry – each has its precise use and value,” he educated me.
Protecting the seeds
Revering their tradition, the B’laans have their own way of preserving their seeds. Once separated from the bulk harvest, the seeds are stored for six months inside a bamboo tube locally called Tiral. Each tube is filled with a can of seeds of one variety. Tamba has lost count on how many TRVs her community is gifted with. Unfortunately, many of the varieties are gone and lost–forever.
“Some were devoured to the last grain by birds or rats,” the seed keeper of the tribe disclosed.
The list of reasons for the loss could extend to diseases, low germination rate of seeds, declining soil fertility, and climate change making the lost TRVs now only a fragment in the tribe’s memories.
“The seeds are gone and irretrievable. That’s what disheartens us as if a part of our heritage has been stolen away,” Mastine lamented.
According to Sarangani’s provincial agriculturist Jonathan Duhaylungsod, the province is 90% mountainous. Aside from the B’laans, it is also home to the T’boli and Tagakaolo ethnic groups. About 1,400ha are planted with upland rice. In a 2007 Mindanao State University study on Sarangani’s biocultural diversity, 76 traditional varieties were documented in 16 upland sites in seven municipalities.
In 2017, PhilRice’s Genetic Resources Division (GRD) researchers headed by Dr. Jonathan Niones began their quest for collecting TRVs in Sarangani for conservation, protection, and characterization.
“The province is one of our priority areas as it had no record of documented or deposited rice germplasm at our Genebank prior to our research,” said Jess Bryan Alvarino, one of the project researchers.
One reason is that TRVs in Sarangani are protected by the Indigenous Peoples Right of 1998. Collecting the seed samples required hefty documents and consultations.
Keen at preserving the TRVs, the Institute then took the necessary steps to obtain the free, prior, and informed consent as required by the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples and established memorandum of agreements with the provincial and local government units.
Collection and characterization
Since 2017, PhilRice has collected more than 100 traditional varieties from Sarangani that are being “accessioned” or documented in the Genebank.
The two seed keepers, Mastine Tamba and Alvarino, met again in July 2019 for the collection of another set of germplasm materials. Every collection, Alvarino gets at least 500g of the grains in panicles and conducts interviews to get the information about the seeds, such as their history and cultivation process.
He labels the samples with the name of the variety, year collected, place/number of collection, and name of seed source. The samples are transported to the PhiRice Genebank in Nueva Ecija for registration and seed cleaning. Once cleaned, 100g of seeds are stored in two packets (50g each) for long-term use and 200g (100g each) for short-term purpose.
Alvarino told me that the seeds for short-term use are utilized to conduct two kinds of characterization to validate their passport data: molecular (through DNA analysis) and morphological (plant morphology).
In morphological characterization, researchers study the physical and external structures of the plant, such as leaf color, plant height, number of grains per panicle, and number of tillers. The process involves planting the collected varieties in the collection site (in-situ) and at PhilRice (ex-situ) for dry and wet seasons.
As of writing, the researchers are characterizing the collected TRVs from Sarangani.
“We hope to submit application documents to the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI) for TRV registration,” Alvarino said. If approved, the BPI will grant a certificate of Plant Varietal Registry (PVR) to the donors of the TRVs.
The collected samples are safely kept inside the Genebank along with more than 16,000 germplasm collections, more than 6000 of which are TRVs. The Genebank is now housed in a new facility at PhilRice that was soft-inaugurated in 2018. Niones shared that the seeds can last up to 100 years if properly stored.
“In science, it is vital for us to collect and preserve the seeds since they become the gene pool or raw materials for rice breeders,” Niones said.
Culturally, it is important to protect the country’s genetic wealth as they are part of our national heritage.
Breeders select the best traits from TRVs and integrate them in parent lines. These become the building blocks in developing new varieties that are climate-resilient and higher-yielding.
Some TRVs collected from Sarangani have been found to be resilient to climate change.
“If not for this research, we wouldn’t have known that some of our varieties can withstand El Niño and La Niña,” Terando endorsed the initiative.
But for the B’laan community at Lamlifew village, the research has helped them preserve a part of their heritage; assured that this time around, it won’t be lost forever.