“It’s okay, you can keep your money,” said an Aeta chieftain. “If you can give me seeds, that would be much better.”
That’s pretty much how the conversation went when Romano Santos, Seed Nation project head, and his Make a Difference (MAD) Travel team asked how they could help the indigenous community of Zambales. The eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 had devastated the once lush grasslands of the province, destroying the livelihood of the Aeta people who heavily rely on nature. Almost 30 years since the eruption, the Aetas are still dealing with the aftermath and its effect on their agricultural way of life.
Enter Seed Nation, a project offshoot of the sustainable tourism company MAD Travel. Romano admitted that coming from a Manila-centric point of view, “It was easy to expect that they’d ask for money.” Any urban citizen might say that money is the simplest way to solve most problems. But the Aeta people disagreed. They knew money could only last so long, and as a community of farmers, they understood that one seed could make all the impact in the world. It might take a while to harvest, but the fruits of their labor could provide all the food, shelter, and means of income they may need for generations to come.
And so MAD gave them ube seeds from the sisters of the Good Shepherd Convent which they planted and made into ube chips. Years later, when MAD Travel got its feet off the ground and its tours running, Seed Nation was formally launched with Romano at the helm alongside Raf Dionisio, co-founder of MAD Travel, and assisted by the collaborative effort of the entire MAD team.
Ten kilometers from the main road—which, in turn, is quite a distance from the nearest town—is 3,000 hectares of secluded land that belongs to the Aetas of Zambales. Of that land, Seed Nation aims to plant 10 hectares with fruit-bearing trees, with the rest of the land being dedicated to reforestation. The seeds are collected from restaurants and companies in partnership with Seed Nation, such as GK Enchanted Farm, Earth Kitchen, A’Toda Madre, Hillside Cafe and Juice Bar, OTO, Curator Coffee and Cocktails, and Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf (CBTL). Individuals can also send their seeds by shipping them to Seed Nation’s Quezon City office, and soon, a seed drop-off point will be made available in select CBTL branches.
“It’s not obvious, but it’s so simple.” After working out the kinks and logistics, Seed Nation found a way to make the entire process doable, which they’ve shared on their social media platforms. The entire process can be done in five minutes and the effects of saving seeds can last for decades. “Imagine you have a seed and it takes a second to throw it away. If you stop yourself and send them our way, the effect is so huge,” Romano says.
But as any farmer knows, it’s not as easy as planting and growing a seed. There are still other elements to consider, like if the fruit was ripe when picked and if the seeds were stored properly. From the donated seeds, Seed Nation still has to filter out the unusable seeds that aren’t ripe or dried properly. The rate of unusable seeds can be reduced by brushing up on their crash-course on saving seeds.
Aside from the Aetas in Zambales, Seed Nation is also in contact with the Dumagats of Rizal and Altas of Aurora to hopefully include them in their Seed Nation network and give them the means to plant more fruits in their ancestral lands.
As for the future of the project, Romano has his goals fixed on a potential seed bank that can assist communities in case natural disasters occur and damage their land. Equipped with enough seeds and a farmer’s knowledge, the seed bank could assist in not only environmental efforts, but also in disaster risk reduction management. A fruit shake booth is also up for consideration so that for every shake bought, seeds will be redirected to farmers.
Romano admits there’s still a lot left to do and learn before Seed Nation becomes the authority on all things seed-related. But like the seeds they’re collecting, it all begins with getting the roots of the idea firmly planted in the ground before the seed can grow into a tree, then trees, then a forest. Like the Aeta people they serve, Seed Nation is focused on the long term solutions of the project—and the impact it’ll leave in generations to come. As Hilary Clinton famously said, “Let our legacy be about planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.”