How Indigenous Knowledge Can Contribute to Food Security

On the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples we look back at the DEPP Innovation Labs project in the Philippines. Enhancing Traditional Food Source Management is one of the 40 innovative solutions supported by Philippines TUKLAS…

Rya Ducusin


Time to read: 7 minutes

Area of work:

Norma Mondragon still remembers Yolanda as if it was just yesterday.

"The winds blew away our roof. We ran to find shelter in higher ground, but we couldn't sleep in the shivering cold and rain," Norma recalled. "We lost a lot, but we were fortunate to survive."


Norma is a member of the Tagbanwa Indigenous Peoples (IPs), who have lived in Palawan's Calamianes group of islands for centuries. With their small islands isolated due to Typhoon Yolanda, Tagbanwa communities had to wait for two weeks to receive much-needed emergency relief in 2013.

"During the first few days after Yolanda, we had to eat boiled bananas. We did not prepare enough for the storm because everything happened suddenly. It would have been better if we had our traditional root crops, kurot and burot, to eat", said Norma.

As the intensity and frequency of natural disasters continue to increase, so does the possibility of insufficient food supplies for the Tagbanwa. Given their increasing marginalisation by lowland settler-migrants, as well as the decreasing attraction of traditional culture for the younger generation, it is clear that the Tagbanwa way of life is under peril.

In recognition of this threat, The SAMDHANA Institute has partnered with TUKLAS Innovation Labs to help improve the management of traditional food sources in Tagbanwa island communities. The project aimed to increase food security among Tagbanwa as part of their overall disaster risk reduction (DRR) efforts.


THE SPIRIT OF Togetherness


For the many tourists which visit every year, the Calamianes is paradise on earth. Its beauty is untouched, pristine, and a sight for jaded eyes. The seas are clear, seemingly a reflection of the spirit of the Tagbanwa whose lives are intertwined with its generosity. The mountains and its verdant trees serve as witness to man and nature breathing in mystical harmony.  

 But for all its praises, Calamianes’ vulnerabilities were laid open to the world by what seems to be the strongest typhoon they have ever experienced. 

The SAMDHANA Institute is a non-profit organisation that has long been involved in making sustainable development work among indigenous peoples. “Samdhana” in Sanskrit, means “a peaceful coming together”. Serving as their point person for this project is Shane Naguit, a social development worker who has advocated for IP rights since the 1990s. She has even learned to speak Tagbanwa in the years that she has spent in Palawan.


"From 2015 to 2016, we have helped address the Tagbanwa communities' vulnerabilities and capacities”, Shane said. SAMDHANA assisted the people in doing risk assessments, creating DRRM committees, and crafting their DRR plans. During the process, what they saw was the value placed by the Tagbanwa on food security.

"This was understandable because, in addition to arriving late, the relief goods they received after Yolanda were neither culturally appropriate nor healthy", Shane explained.

The initial drafts of the DRR plans, however, only listed planting as an action step. When the SAMDHANA team heard that TUKLAS was providing grants for innovative disaster preparedness projects, they immediately developed a proposal on developing additional food security measures.


Capacity and vulnerability



The TUKLAS-supported project was implemented in four ancestral domains of the Tagbanwa: Depellengued, Calawit-Quezon, and Panlaitan-San Isidro. Lying across the usual path of typhoons, these island communities are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change such as saltwater intrusion and storm surges. The people are engaged mostly in farming and fishing for their livelihood.

Despite their vulnerabilities, the Tagbanwa enjoy several advantages as well. Their people are well-organised, with their collective vision outlined in the Ancestral Domain Sustainable Development and Protection Plan (ADSDPP). All projects with the communities have to be in accord with the spirit of the ADSDPP. Non-profit groups like SAMDHANA have to ensure that projects not only comply with the spirit of the ADSDPP, but also secure Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) from residents before moving forward.


Exhibiting success


Michelle Calis, an active youth participant and volunteer from Depelengued, recalls, "I attended a seminar where staff from JASMS (Jose Abad Santos Memorial School, one of SAMDHANA's academe partners) taught us how to interview our elders. From these elders, we learned about the food they grew up with and how we can bring them back to use". In a way, documentation can be seen as part of the timeless storytelling process of the Tagbanwa, renewing the old traditions for the new generations.

To showcase the fruits of their research and innovation, a Tagbanwa Food Festival was held at the Coron Town Fiesta. Food items, processed from traditional crops like burot and kurot, were prepared by the Tagbanwa women. These items were all sold out, mostly to non-IP buyers who were interested in trying Tagbanwa traditional food.

Floriane Rasonable, a Grade 10 student from Panlaitan-San Isidro, noted that the TUKLAS project have helped her be more sociable and outgoing. “Whenever I go to other Tagbanwa communities, I am able to share what I learned in trainings that I attended”, she said.


Planting seeds


Initially, the Tagbanwa wanted to establish a central location where seeds for all their crops can be stored. But such a plan would render their indigenous knowledge and products vulnerable to theft and cultural appropriation by outsiders. It would also defeat the purpose of ensuring immediate accessibility of local crops to households during disasters.

They eventually settled for requiring every Tagbanwa home to have their yards planted with root crops. Norma noted that "When disaster comes, we have our food right in front of us". The four Tagbanwa island communities also decided to disseminate seeds which only grow in one island to ensure that all areas have the needed crops.

In partnership with experts from JASMS and the Philippine Women's University, SAMDHANA has begun work on 'Edukasyon Mula sa Kalooban.' This module, which will be under the Social Studies subject, promotes the teaching of Tagbanwa culture - its songs, dances, folklore, and of course its traditional food. The module is still being developed, but the communities hope that piloting and teacher training can be done in time for the new school year.

"Many of my fellow Tagbanwa youth are shy to be associated with our native traditions", said Michelle. "But if we don't take care of our heritage, who else will?"


Looking up


Moving forward, the Tagbanwa are looking to prioritise the processing of kurot. "This root crop has long been processed into flour by the Tagbanwa. But given IPs' lack of modern equipment, the quality and shelf life of kurot flour could still be improved", shared Shane. 

She outlined several steps the community is looking to take. One is to work with a flour making consultant or a researcher from the Department of Science and Technology (DOST).


For her part, Norma shared that one of their community leaders, Ramil Agnes, who owns a bakery is looking to switch to kurot flour in the future. "We will now be able to have kurot cakes and cookies. This will be a big help to our families' livelihood," she said.

Their project with TUKLAS may have ended, but Shane reiterated that SAMDHANA will continue to work with the Tagbanwa.

"Because of their strong connection to the environment, indigenous peoples have developed a well-rounded approach to issues such as conservation and healthy living. It is only right that we assist them in strengthening that point of view not only among themselves but even outside of the Calamianes", she said.



Enhancing Traditional Food Source Management is one of the 40 innovative solutions supported by Philippines TUKLAS Innovation Labs that help communities better prepare for disasters.

The project is implemented by a consortium of four non-governmental organisations: Plan International Philippines, Action Against Hunger, CARE Philippines, and the Citizens' Disaster Response Center.

It is part of the Disasters & Emergencies Preparedness Programme (DEPP) Innovation Labs, a programme that is funded with UK aid from the UK government, and managed collaboratively by the Start Network and the Communications with Disaster Affected Communities (CDAC) Network.

Learn more about DEPP Innovation Labs.