MADAMBA, LANAO DEL SUR, March 24, 2006 (MALAYA) Nauman Tomanto shifts his weight carefully, as he negotiates the length of a floating, moss-covered bamboo walkway while carrying a Styrofoam box filled with tilapia fingerlings. Reaching the far end of the narrow walkway, Tomanto lowers the box and releases the baby fish into one of the six fish cages lining the lush green waters of Lake Uyaan. He then signals to two stocky men to bring in the next batch of fingerlings, as the team rushes to complete its stocking cycle.

"I never imagined we would one day be venturing into tilapia production," Tomanto said, as he surveyed the fish cages he and his men have built over the past three years since his group began tilapia production.

"Our hard work is finally bearing fruit. This is a dream come true for my people," said Tomanto, who is chairman of the Uyaan National Unit Command Farmers’ Association (UNUCFA), a cooperative composed of more than 100 members living in the remote, upland village of Barangay Uyaan.

In his present surroundings, it is difficult to imagine that Tomanto, a slightly-built, soft-spoken man in his mid-40s, was once a field commander of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) which roamed the jungles of Lanao del Sur to elude government forces.

At the age of 12, Tomanto was carrying an M-16, patrolling the highlands of Lanao del Sur. He was only 13 years old when he fought his first gun battle. After undergoing intensive military tactics training in his later teens, he was designated to head a logistics support group, which was in charge of food and ammunition.

From 1983 to 1993, he was the team leader of the MNLF’s Second Satellite Command. He became a demolitions expert after undergoing a one-year training course in Malaysia in 1992. Thereafter, Tomanto headed the Urban Mujahideen Operative for three years.

"It was a very difficult time for us combatants and our families, as most of our time was spent eluding government troops. My men and I were also wary of local officials whenever we made stopovers, as they might turn us in. We survived in the jungle eating mostly wild fruits," Tomanto recalled.

The signing of the 1996 peace agreement between the government and the MNLF was a major turning point in his life.

After laying down their arms, Tomanto and his comrades settled near the shores of Lake Uyaan and started a new life as corn farmers. With financial and technical assistance from USAID’s Livelihood Enhancement and Peace (LEAP) Program, Tomanto organized the UNUCFA, which slowly unleashed the cooperative, productive spirit of his people.

Tomanto recalled that after their first corn harvest in 2000, more than 20 co-op members were able to purchase farm animals such as carabaos and cows, as well as household appliances. This trend of increased disposable income has continued, and most members are now able to send their children to school, while a few with sufficient savings have undertaken sweeping home improvements.

"The economic well-being of my people improved greatly after the signing of the peace agreement. With their earnings, they are now able to buy most of the things they need," he said, with pride in his voice.

In 2003, USAID’s Targeted Commodity Expansion Program (TCEP) introduced Tomanto and his men to tilapia production. TCEP, which is implemented by USAID’s Growth with Equity in Mindanao (GEM) Program under the oversight of the Mindanao Economic Development Council (MEDCo), assists LEAP graduates to diversify into high value commodities such as vegetables, cardaba bananas, grouper, prawns and tilapia.

"We saw the community’s huge potential in the area for tilapia production. With its proximity to the Lake Uyaan, we knew that it would not be difficult for Tomanto and his men to jump start production," said Adel Oviedo, TCEP Team Leader, who was part of the group that surveyed the community.

UNUCFA started production with two 5 x 20 fish cages. As part of its technical assistance, TCEP helped to link the cooperative with a buyer in Marawi, thus guaranteeing a ready market for the commodity. Tilapia is a prized fish in Marawi,

and its price can go as high as P120 per kilo, especially during the Ramadan season.

Oviedo explained that tilapia production is ideal for small-scale entrepreneurs, as it does not require a substantial investment. "Fish cage or fish pond construction requires minimum start-up capital," he said, adding that feeds take up the bulk of production costs, and the returns on small investments are substantial.

For instance, a 10m x 20m x 3.5m fish cage with a stocking density of 10 pieces of tilapia per cubic meter, has a projected annual yield of 1,920 kilos. Even at a selling price of P50 per kilo, a farmer can earn as much as P20,000 a year, after production and labor costs are deducted.

As demand for UNUCFA’s tilapia increased, Tomanto saw the need to expand production. However, the cooperative’s earnings were not sufficient to underwrite the cost of its expansion plans.

Tomanto approached Oviedo and discussed with him the possibility of obtaining a loan. Oviedo explained that loan approval would not be easy, considering that the cooperative had yet to develop a financial track record.

"But I couldn’t turn down chairman Tomanto because I could see that he was really determined to succeed and provide a better life for his people," Oviedo said.

With technical assistance from TCEP, UNUCFA drafted a project proposal, which Oviedo submitted to the PhilAm Foundation for possible funding. PhilAm Foundation is the corporate social arm of the US-owned American Insurance Group, Inc. (AIG), which is committed to poverty alleviation in the countryside through the promotion of productivity improvement technologies, micro-enterprises and other income generating projects.

UNUCFA’s big break came in November 2003 when PhilAm Foundation approved the asso-ciation’s proposal and granted a loan of P240,000 which funded the construction of 15 fish cages, stocked with 15,000 fingerlings.

Maximillian Ventura, president of Phil Am Foundation, flew from Manila to witness the stocking cycle, and was amazed at the zeal and determination showed by Tomanto and his men.

"When I met chairman Tomanto and talked to him, I knew that granting the loan to UNUCFA was a good investment decision" said Ventura.

UNUCFA’s tilapia production area now spans 1.3 hectares. The cooperative plans to expand the existing area by another hectare once it saves sufficient funds.

A typical day for Tomanto begins as early as 5 a.m., when co-op members visit his house to ask for assistance and advice. By 8 a.m., he is in his office, checking on the previous day’s sales records. As UNUCFA’s chairman, most of Tomanto’s working hours are spent supervising the day-to-day operations of the cooperative.

UNUCFA has also been a recipient of additional USAID assistance. For example, under the LEAP Program, the association received post harvest facilities including a grains warehouse, a solar dryer, and a corn sheller. Due to Tomanto’s determined leadership, UNUCFA was also able to construct a sari-sari store and to acquire a rice thresher, using the funds generated from the cooperative’s various livelihood activities.

Taking stock of the many blessings he and his community are now enjoying, Tomanto said that his journey from "arms to farms" was well worth the trip. (GEM Program)

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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