Hers is a genuine gesture of empathy, goodwill, and desire to help a marginalized community in a foreign land.
Chieko Takemi, 80, a Japanese national, first visited Leyte in 1987 as a journalist who researched on the potential pollution hazard of a local copper refinery. Japan had experienced early on an environmental disaster due to copper mining, and Chieko, a staunch environmentalist, did not want the same thing to happen in the Philippines.
During her visit, she also saw the difficult situation of tenant-farmers in Leyte, i.e., they did not have their own resources to farm e.g., land, planting materials, other inputs, and draft (work) carabaos. As a rule, the landowners deduct the costs related to the use of these resources from the share of the tenants. Thus, the tenant-farmers only earn a meager income.
Forming the Carabao Family
Chieko wanted to help the impoverished farmers in Leyte, a personal calling, which she also alluded to as a moral obligation to Filipinos by the Japanese people because of what happened during World War II. Thus, she and a Japanese pastor-friend consulted the locals in Leyte on the possible assistance that they could give.
“I accompanied Chieko and her pastor-friend in asking some residents of Burauen, Leyte what they needed, and they said they wanted carabaos”, recalled Cosmiana Lopez, 82, a former pastor of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP), who became Chieko’s trusted friend in Leyte.
Thereafter, Chieko and colleagues formed a group composed of ten officers together with members of UCCP. As requested by the locals, they planned on donating carabaos, being the traditional ally of Filipino farmers for farm works, for carrying heavy loads, and even for carrying sick persons to the hospital, as road conditions were poor and other means of transport were not available in those times.
The newly formed group held meetings in the villages to promote the carabao dispersal program and interviewed possible recipients of carabaos. The poorest of the poor were prioritized.
The group eventually registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2003, as an association called “Leyte Carabao Family”, which was later renamed as “Leyte Carabao Family Center for Rural Development”. Today, the group is simply called “Carabao Family”, which has a logo of a farmer and his son riding a carabao. To the group, the carabao symbolizes power, understanding, and caring for the people.
Fundraising and Distribution of Carabaos
Chieko went back to Japan and invited other Japanese friends to join the Carabao Family by way of donating 200 yen (Php94) a month or 2,400 yen (Php1,100) a year, as a membership fee for each individual. It is said to be equivalent to saving one cup of coffee a month in Japan. Accumulated membership fees were used to purchase carabaos and ploughs for farmer-beneficiaries in Leyte. The only responsibility expected of the beneficiaries was to show that the carabaos were still alive and used for farming each time Chieko visits Leyte, which is once or twice a year.
“We have a simple rule in carabao dispersal, that is, a qualified group of 15-16 farmer-members in a selected barangay receives four head of carabaos, which means, one carabao for every four beneficiaries”, Cosmiana said. Ten pure native female carabaos were initially dispersed in Burauen, Ormoc, and Palo. If the donated carabao gives birth, then the recipient would give the calf to another farmer-group (“passing it on” policy). Carabao dispersal of this arrangement, which started in eastern Leyte, soon proliferated all over the province. For the past 30 years, the Carabao Family has already donated over 100 carabaos in various parts of Leyte.
“Upon SEC registration, we attempted to contact the beneficiaries because our plan was to monitor the carabaos, provide further assistance when needed, and find out if the lives of the beneficiaries really improved”, Timothy “Tim” Lopez, Cosmiana’s son, said. They wanted to prepare a report for the appreciation of carabao donors in Japan but they could not trace and contact anymore some of the recipients. Nonetheless, a few would send photos of themselves and the carabaos, which are good indications.
A Haven for Carabao Family
It was in 2002 when Chieko and her colleagues bought a 6-ha farm land in Kananga, Leyte, where they built a house, which also serves as a center for the Carabao Family. This is where they gather neighbors and friends during meetings and other events and build relationship with them. One of the outcomes of these gatherings was the planting of 100 mango trees in the area through a sponsorship program, again with the assistance of Chieko’s friends in Japan. Tim, serves as farm manager and supervised the establishment and upkeep of the mango plantation.
It was in 2013 when super typhoon Yolanda devastated Leyte. As a result, many farmer-beneficiaries of the Carabao Family fled the province. Sadly, some recipients and donated carabaos were among the casualties. The whereabouts of any surviving donated carabaos are unknown following the typhoon and exodus of many beneficiaries. Likewise, the mango plantation was almost wiped out by the typhoon. Only one mango tree survived the calamity and is now bearing fruits. In such trying times, Chieko and her colleagues were not disheartened. Instead, they relied on valued relationships with Japanese and local partners. Together, they always find a new resolve to pursue their vision for the Carabao Family.
Current Situation and Future Plans
As an aftermath of typhoon Yolanda and partly because of farm mechanization and decreasing number of supporters in Japan (many of which have become too old or have already passed away), the number of carabaos being donated by the Carabao Family has now declined. Nonetheless, local partners in Kananga have endeavored to maintain the 6-ha farm land. Meanwhile, Chieko has continued doing publicity campaign in Japan to raise fund for a planned community center and shelter in Kananga, which she called “Project KAIBIGAN”.
According to a Japanese architect who designed the envisaged structure, it will be made of an underground concrete shelter for storage and evacuation and an upper or roof part, which is made of native or traditional materials, where farmers and children gather together to talk and learn from each other, particularly about traditional or organic agriculture.
Chieko is more inclined on growing high value crops like mango, papaya, and pineapple in the area. Meanwhile, she sees the important role of carabaos as work animals during land cultivation and hauling of produce.
Engagement with PCC
Chieko has heard of PCC many years ago when she visited Visayas State University (VSU) in Baybay, Leyte. However, she was not interested that time in carabao crossbreeding or carabao dairying. Instead, she is more into conserving and utilizing the native carabaos as work animals for traditional agriculture and food production. To her, farm mechanization is not sustainable and has brought serious problems in Japan, as big companies have now monopolized its food supply. She does not like similar fate to happen at least in Leyte.
Nonetheless, upon recent meeting with Dr. Ivy Lopez, OIC-Center Director of PCC at VSU, Chieko and her group are now open to possible collaboration with PCC along the area of crossbreeding and, later, enterprise development.
From all indications, the Carabao Family is on track in pursuing yet bigger and nobler purpose in the future. It has subsisted for three decades, thanks to Chieko’s vision and network of committed enablers and participants, which she endears as a “family”.