Women farmers and “Angels of the Earth”
Results of pilot studies in the Philippines are showing that earthworms can increase yields from vegetable-agroforestry and that vermiculture is a not just a suitable but also a gender-responsive technology for the region. This is according to a study conducted by Ma. Elena Chiong-Javier and others, published in Holding their own: Smallholder Marketing, Production and Women Issues in Philippine Agroforestry, by the De La Salle University, the Philippines, in 2012.
The benefits of earthworms are well known and well documented. A major component of soil fauna, they help cycle soil nutrients—a critical function that is essential to life on earth. Earthworms incorporate plant and animal matter into the soil and line their burrows with a mucus that enhances the activity of other beneficial soil organisms. Accelerating the mineralization of the soil, as well as aerating and mixing it, these tireless tillers produce castings that are a rich source of vital plant nutrients. Any wonder then that the ancient Chinese referred to earthworms as "Angels of the earth"?
In agricultural societies women play a key role in food security and poverty alleviation. Often, though, it is men who are targeted for technology training and dissemination. Technology development has, therefore, been neither gender-neutral nor gender-sensitive. Yet giving women access to technology can have dramatic life-changing effects on them and those they support. Whether or not women have access to life-transforming agricultural technology has become a measure of gender-equitable development. Of late, two closely-related technologies—vermiculture and vermicomposting—are increasingly becoming associated with this form of development, as they target and bring changes in the status and welfare of not only men, but also of women.
Vermiculture is the science of breeding and propagation of earthworms for sustainable solid waste management and sustainable agriculture or organic farming. Vermicomposting is the process by which earthworms convert organic wastes into humus-like material known as vermicompost, vermicast or vermicastings. The potential of vemicomposting for managing solid wastes, improving soil fertility and safeguarding human health have been investigated in the past. However, how gender-responsive this technology is for women farmers in integrated vegetable-agroforestry systems is an open question. Little is documented about the impacts of vermicomposting on small-scale farmers—especially women-farmers in South East Asia who have adopted the technology. Now, a group of authors including World Agroforestry Centre’s Augustin Mercado, present the vermicomposting experiences of a small group of Filipino women farmers, to address that gap.
The World Agroforestry Centre, along with other project partners including local institutions in Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam conducted the pilot vermicomposting study in Songco, in Lantapan, a municipality noted for the production of commercial, temperate vegetables. Here, most vegetable producers are from poor smallholder households, and women are mainly responsible for marketing farm products and purchasing farm input like fertilizers and pesticides. Responding to the need of women farmers for cost-saving fertilizer inputs, a pilot vermicomposting project using earthworms of the African nightcrawler species (Eudrilus eugeniae) was started with 10 women farmers.
Most of the participants in the study were only vaguely aware of the purposes and value of vermicasting. The project subsidized their training and provided them with starter kits composed of two kilos of earthworms and some canvas and netting for the vermibeds. The women were to provide vermibeds, substrates, and care and maintenance. Technical training was conducted by the World Agroforestry Centre.
Around five months after the commencement of the project, most of the women farmers reported promising results. The technology was not only easy for women to adopt, but it had also harnessed the interest and participation of spouses and children. The use of vermicast over commercial fertilizer had generated savings that could be channelled to pay for other pressing household needs. Household waste was being effectively managed, and women generated additional income from the sale of earthworms and vermicast. Most importantly, there was improved soil fertility and plant quality.
A number of implications and challenges are also highlighted in the publication. Although the women received uniform inputs and training, there was a wide variance in the results—possibly caused by differences in actual vermicomposting practices, and differences in substrate (raw material) preparation. Standardizing women's vermicomposting practices to attain maximum potential gain for both women and the environment is a key challenge. In spite of that, however, vermicomposting remains promising as a gender-responsive technology for rural women farmers—meeting their social, economic and food-security needs, and boosting their self-confidence and personal worth.
With a low initial capital outlay, yet many beneficial returns for both people and the environment, this is a promising venture for small scale farmers.