Coron, Philippines

THE URBAN AGRONOMIST

AUTHOR
Adam Moore
PHOTOGRAPHERS
Marla Tomorug
September 1, 2023
|
10 min read
Audio generated for accessibility using AI. Intonation does not express the true level of awe and stoke.

Twigs, leaves and poops. These are the three simple but magic ingredients needed to kickstart a circular economy, at least according to Busuanga’s pioneering farmer, Antonio ‘Al’ Linsangan. It's often the smallest, barely noticeable substances that yield the biggest results—making natural processes simply amazing. 

With many years of tour guiding under his belt, Al woke up to the realization that many operators (including himself) were serving up far too many imported food and beverages to traveling guests in Palawan, Philippines. This area is considered one of the most beautiful regions in the entire country, attracting a high concentration of tourists each year. And because of this, Palawan is one of those places suffering from overtourism, with little infrastructure to support surges, let alone its local communities. 

By procuring goods from abroad to support the surge, operators were hurting the local economy, reducing the opportunity to manufacture their own produce, while creating a much larger carbon footprint as a result. Cutting through a few more layers, it became apparent to Al this issue wasn’t isolated just to tourism. 

Food security for Busuanga’s residents was waning, and became particularly evident during times of extreme weather events such as typhoons and pandemics. Incidents like these wreaked havoc on the supply chains from abroad, and when access to these heavily relied upon goods became restricted, the Busuanga community suffered the most. Some instances of this have even brought them frighteningly close to starvation. With this burgeoning issue in mind, Al began to unearth its solution when he bought a plot of local land in 2012. 

Right then and there, his urban farming journey began.

Al was no stranger to stepping out of his comfort zone. Years earlier, he abandoned a city lifestyle in search of something deeper, voluntarily joining a remote tribe on the islands off mainland Coron. It was here over a period of two years that he learned how “living simply” was vital just so others could “simply live.”

While living with the tribe, resources were limited only to what could be found in the natural environment, while sustainable practices were the single most important element to ensuring the tribe’s long term survival. Quickly unwinding his former consumerism habits from his upbringing and schooling in a metropolitan setting, he was encouraged to create a fully diversified and agriculturally rich environment that allowed for maximum results, with minimum long-term impact on biodiversity. Perhaps not fully realizing it at the time, Al was slowly arming himself with the knowledge needed for his next, most important challenge.

Firmly re-integrated back into urban civilization by the time he purchased his land, Al and his small team began farming using conventional methods, including the use of soil supplements and chemical based activities to work the land. By 2016, the primary soil was starting to degrade and the cost of the chemicals and fertilizers was far too high to make what he called “Coron Farms” sustainable—not only environmentally, but also financially. Drawing upon his days living with the tribe, he decided to overhaul their farming practices, quite literally from the ground up, shifting his practices to be completely organic. 

And he rebranded his farming operation and school to “Coron Natural Farms” in the process.

 

In the realm of agriculture, conventional farming practices stand as a testament to the pursuit of maximized yields. Utilizing synthetic chemicals to nurture crops, this method is defined by its high chemical and energy inputs, aimed at increasing productivity. 

Yet, this efficiency comes at a significant environmental toll, as described by a leading body in the industry, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Conventional agriculture's propensity to alter natural environments has led to deteriorated soil quality and a sharp decline in biodiversity, revealing the hidden costs behind the bounty it produces.

On the flip side of the agricultural spectrum lies the ethos of sustainable farming, a paradigm that intertwines ecological balance with agricultural productivity. According to research conducted in 2011, as cited in Scientific Research, organic agriculture champions the vitality of soils, ecosystems and people by leaning on ecological cycles and biodiversity, tailor-made to local conditions without harmful inputs. 

This holistic approach goes beyond the cultivation of food, encompassing social, economic and environmental dimensions to forge a symbiosis between agriculture and the living landscape. In contrast to its conventional counterpart, sustainable agriculture not only supports the environment but enhances it.

This is what Al described in detail as he walked us through his pride-and-joy, Coron Natural Farms. He showed us how he transformed his operation and became the first farmer in Palawan to set up a fully operational sustainable and organic practice in the heart of tourism. 

Gathering piles of fallen leaves and twigs in a particular sequence of decay, this new process was designed entirely to mimic the actions of the forest and provided the foundation for a mulching masterstroke. Allowing chickens to graze upon the freshly produced bio-compost, served as both natural aeration for the mulch, as well as a way to add organic manure into the mix. The microbes in the mulch grow to healthy concentrations, fighting off any parasites that previously would’ve been chemically treated. 

Up to 30 vegetable types were now being harvested in as little as a 15 square meter area, and the organic mulch retained so much of the natural rainfall that there was no need to bring in any further water for farming. Not stopping there, any food waste produced would be accumulated separately in a food compost. 

It’s here that the biggest and cheapest workforce in Palawan—the 10,000 African Nightcrawler Worms— labor night and day to churn through the scraps and produce an alternate compost. And upon retirement, these worm workers make a tasty snack for the resident mulch aerating, egg laying, chickens.

Palawan, and more notably Coron, is well known on the tourist trail for its pristine and dazzling islands and waterways. But it's the aquacultures of Coron Natural Farms that are perhaps the most inspiring of them all. WIth some natural low lying areas accumulating water, the now resident ducks and their excrements create the perfect aquatic environment for fish to thrive and for Azolla plants to grow on the water’s surface (yet another food source for the hard working chickens, as well as the ducks.) 

The nutrient rich water overflow also helps the nearby rice paddies to flourish. It’s pumped through a series of cascading tubs nearby, some housing up to 3,000 fish and others being used as an alternative aqua plant farm. And so the circular economy goes, adding more layers to the process than the nearby onions being farmed. 

The more animals and plants added to the mix on the farm, the more sustainable the practices become. 

After setting up the initial stages of the aquatic environment, Al considered chopping down a dying jackfruit tree next to the newly formed ponds. They decided to let it be for a short time to see if it would produce one last round of fruit in the upcoming season. With the activity of the ducks and their bio-waste making the surrounding soil rich, not only did the tree produce fruit in season, but it now produces jackfruit consistently, year round. Another example of how natural cycles work to help regenerate ecosystems and its inhabitants. 

Coron Natural Farms offers a Farm-to-Table experience, which is all about mimicking the activities of nature to harvest high quality organic produce in the most sustainable manner possible—and then putting it right on your plate. All the while, they preserve the local practices and cultures as part of their fully immersive dining experience. 

Conscious travelers even have the option to stay on-site in the eco-accommodation overlooking the rice paddies, complete with tents designed like shells found in the region, solar powered mosquito lamps, bamboo bikes and kayaks that can be used to explore the rivers to the sea. 

Through Al’s pioneering efforts, he’s achieving what he initially set out to do by offering food security for his community. All organic produce that isn’t used as part of the farm-to-table experiences is distributed amongst the eight local farmers from the Coron Natural Farms team. This enables them to keep their own immediate families well fed with quality, fresh and healthy ingredients. 

Al's dedication to the farm goes beyond nurturing the land; he extends his sustainable practices to benefit the wider community by sharing the bounty of his produce. He's particularly proud of transforming manure, which was once an expense, into a profitable product. His frequent, lighthearted references to "poops" during our visit brought humor to our learning experience, yet underscored a profound truth: when we harness the symbiotic relationships inherent in nature, we unlock the potential for remarkable harmony between human activity and the environment.

His qualifications and contributions now extend firmly beyond those early lessons learned from tribal life and are now proudly on display at the farm. Al holds 20 framed completion and recognition certificates in relation to everything agricultural—from home gardens to biodiversity enhancement, along with social enterprise development, food security and urban farming training. 

Al founded Coron Natural Farms with a vision to transform the local paradigm of tourism and community engagement. And that’s exactly what’s happening. 

His objective was always to encourage a deeper, more enriching interaction with the land—one that educates both travelers and residents about sustainable practices. By inviting visitors to participate in volunteer programs, Al's initiative is nurturing a culture that favors intimate, holistic experiences over the traditional tourist trail. Teaching people about what really matters most when exploring the world consciously. 

This approach not only provides a refreshing alternative to the typical attractions—such as mainstream resorts and chain dining options—but it also fosters a sense of stewardship and connection to the environment. Ultimately, this model will continue to promise a more fulfilling reward for both people and the planet, as it champions working with the natural landscape rather than against it. 

During our time at the farm, Al’s enthusiasm was infectious. It was evident how much he cares when watching him explain his farming techniques and how much knowledge he draws from the environment itself. He showed us how observing the ecosystem—from the decomposition of plant matter to the nutrient cycle driven by earthworms—could inform smarter, more sustainable farming methods that benefit many, not just a few.

Al’s approach is, and always will be, about integrating with the ecosystem rather than just extracting from it. His farm is a classroom where each natural process teaches us the value of working with, rather than against, the environment. Leaving the site, we took with us not just the experience but also Al's message: coexisting with nature—from the twigs to the leaves to the poo—yields the greatest rewards. Not just for the land, but for the communities that depend on it.

If you're contemplating how to spend your next vacation, work break, gap year, or any other allocated free time, consider doing it with a purpose. Look for opportunities that are far off the typical tourist trail and actually immerse yourself in the places you explore in a way that’s sustainable, educational and beneficial. Take this opportunity to not only see breathtaking landscapes, dive incredible depths, traverse exciting paths, but also to contribute to efforts reshaping our relationship with the earth. 

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