Food culture

feet heads bbqcommon sight on street barbecues: chicken feet, chicken heads, pig intestines, unidentified, chicken intestines, blood cubes, unidentified.  photo credit

Philippines has a wonderfully blood-and-guts food culture. One breakfast was chicken heads, chicken intestines and chicken feet, pig’s intestines, and cubes of congealed pig’s blood, all barbecued on skewers. I saw whole baby chickens (or they might have been ducks) skewered at one street stall, but didn’t get a chance to try them.

On my first day I ate balut, an egg with a partially-developed duck inside. It tasted like egg, but crunchy.

Soup made from pig’s blood is my new favourite meal.

Meals consist of fish, chicken or pork, either stewed or fried, sometimes with vegetables, and always with a mountain of rice. Vegetable dishes generally have some meat in them, often liver.

Not at all vegetarian-friendly, but perfect for my GAPS diet. I could always eat everything on offer at a caranderia (canteen), as rice was always served separately, and no-one was offended that I didn’t eat it.

A cup of broth (either pork or fish) is always served with the meal.

I found it interesting that no-one keeps food at home. There is no pantry, no spice rack, no refrigerator. When preparing a meal, every ingredient will be bought from the market in exactly the quantity that is needed for that meal, even cooking oil, salt and spices. There are very few grocery stores. Fresh food is mostly bought from the market, or from street vendors with hand-carts. Home-made cooked food is available on nearly every street. Cooking pots are lined up on a counter, and customers lift the lids to see what is in each, and make their selection. The food is dispensed into a small plastic bag.

Packaged snacks are sold at sari-sari stores, a tiny shop with a range of items.

The most common snack is fresh roasted peanuts.

Butchers don’t sell the plastic-wrapped products I’m accustomed to in Australia, but have pieces of animals hanging from hooks above their market stalls, which they cut to order. Livers, intestines, and trotters hang between the customer and the butcher. The counter is a chopping block. There is no refrigeration.

Food is real here, not the heavily-processed wheat-based food-like substances that are all that’s available in Australia. I arrive home craving chicken feet, and miss having all this amazing food available on the street, at any time of day.

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Local economies

There are very few grocery stores and big shops in the Philippines, and on the island of Marinduque I saw none at all. People mostly shop at markets, and from streetside stalls and mobile vendors. Many people operate a small business from home. Walking along a residential street, I see signs offering haircuts, cooked food, purified water, ice and ice candy. Barbecues are set up on the footpath, cooking meat on skewers to order.

Most homes don’t have refrigerators, washing machines, computers or cars. One house on a neighbourhood will have a freezer, and offer ice for sale, and home-made ice candy or ice cream. One will have a few computers in their front room, often full of young boys playing computer games, but also used by neighbours to write emails and print documents. One will take in laundry, although most people do their own laundry by hand, in a bucket. Transport is by bus, jeepney, taxi or tricycle, a motorbike taxi with a sidecar. A jeepney takes around 20 passengers on bench seats, and has a set route. Each vehicle is privately owned, so supply matches demand. Only a tiny percentage of vehicles on the road are private cars. The city is not designed to accommodate them. There are no car parks, and no space in residential neighbourhoods to keep a car.

Mobile vendors with hand carts sell snacks, cut fruit, toys and household items. Vendors jump on and off buses, selling peanuts, chips and cold drinks to passengers.


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Mining Marinduque


Signs bearing these words are common on Marinduque. The signs are nailed to trees, on fences and shelters, and the slogan is painted in large letters on the front wall of a school.

This is a community of resistance. There is no way a mining company could convince anyone here that they would benefit from the activity.

IMG_0261In 1993, the tailings dam from the Marcopper mine, in the central highlands of Marinduque, overflowed into the Boac River. The town of Mogpog was flooded with toxic materials. Two children died, as well as livestock and millions of creatures who lived in and near the river. The river was declared biologically dead, and may never recover. None of the residents of Mogpog, or the fishers or farmers whose livelihoods were destroyed by the incident, received any compensation. The disaster was called an accident, and the mining company was not held accountable.

Mining began in the 1960s, by Marcopper Mining Corporation, managed by Placer Dome, and secretly part-owned by Ferdinand Marcos. Despite objections from the community and NGOs, mining continued for 30 years. Tailings from the mine were continually dumped into Calacan Bay, damaging the reef and seagrass, and causing metal contamination chronic lead poisoning in those—humans and sealife—who live in and by the bay.

In 1996, a second disaster occurred, as a drainage tunnel from the mine’s waste disposal pit cracked, causing flash flooding and spilling over a million cubic metres of mine tailings into rivers. The Philippines president declared the province of Marinduque a ‘State of Calamity’.

People in Marinduque are fishers and farmers, completely dependent on the land, rivers and sea for their food and livelihood. The disasters left many people in a state of near-starvation.

Toxic waste from the tailings dam continues to overflow into the Boac River. People buy in drinking water, as the river water is undrinkable.

Randy took us to the highlands to see the mine, and meet a former worker who could show us around. We saw the abandoned mining camp and equipment, and the remains of Mount San Antonio. The rest of the mountain has gone down river in the tailings. The person we had planned to meet wasn’t home, so we didn’t get to see the mine close up.

The Marinduque community are taking legal action against the mine, but have many factors against them. The case is being heard in Nevada, so the courts have limited awareness of how local people are affected. The lawyers representing the community give them little information about how the case is progressing. Judgements on how much compensation should be given are made by the US Geological Survey, not an organisation that is aware of local conditions. The mining companies constantly change their names and ownership, to avoid liability. They also argue that they should not be held accountable for an accident, which they claim is caused by rainfall patterns rather than engineering. When the municipal government is compensated, the money doesn’t necessarily go to the people affected.

Placer Dome abandoned the mine in 1997, and no longer operates in the Philippines, so not subject to legal action under Philippine law. The province of Marinduque is taking legal action in Nevada, as they are unlikely to be successful in Canada, where Barrick Gold, the company that bought Placer Dome, is based.

The Philippine government is not supporting the province, as it sees the legal action as being against its ‘open for business’ policy.

Barrick Gold has offered a $20million compensation, on the condition that they are not held accountable for the disaster. The community has vowed not to accept the conditions.

University researchers looking into bioremediation have received threats from the mining company. Scientists don’t study the contamination any more, because of the threats. For the mining companies, this lack of scientific evidence of contamination is used to show that no crime has been committed on their part.

A community organisation, Marinduque Council for Environmental Concerns (MaCEC) formed for community organising against the mine. The promise of compensation money has compromised the vision of the organisation, which has changed course from its original aim, and now focuses on planning Disaster Risk Management.

I’m going to end by quoting MaCEC’s new strategy, which is brilliantly awful. This is evidence enough of how vested interests co-opt and misdirect the energy of environmental organisations.

MaCEC has its battle cry which serves as its inspirational wisdom as it continuously commits itself to make a difference in the small-island province of Marinduque. The battle cry also serves as the summary of its own programs and strategic interventions:  “HEAR and AF(F)IRM to LEAP the RIDGE and REACH our DREAM!”

  1. Human rights Engagement & Advocacy for Reclaiming environmental justice program (HEAR)
  2. Disaster Risk & Enhanced Alternative livelihood Management program (DREAM)
  3. Restoring Integrity of Development Governance for community Empowerment program (RIDGE)
  4. Leaders’ Enhanced Accountability and Participation program for lay empowerment (LEAP)
  5. Administrative, Financial & Institutional Re-engineered Management program (AFIRM)
  6. Retooling Employees to Achieve Competence and proper Housekeeping program (REACH)





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I’m riding on top of a jeepney in the hot sun, holding tight to the roof-rack with one hand, and my hat with the other. We pass through rice fields, coconut and banana plantations, and rural villages, beside beaches and streams, and look down over rocky coastlines. There are six of us on this leg of the infotour, on Marinduque Island.

We’ve been invited here by Randy Nobleza, who lectures at the college, and aims to introduce his students to radical ideas.

A three-hour ferry ride from Luzon, Marinduque is culturally isolated, and young people are rarely exposed to alternative thinking. Randy is seen as an eccentric by his colleagues and students, so invites friends and activists to come speak at the college about their activities and politics.

Although they retain many traditions, Marinduque’s young people are Manila-focussed, and often don’t value their unique culture.

Yesterday we spoke and Boac and Gasan campuses of Marinduque State College, to students of business and fisheries, and now we’re on our way to Torrijos, to speak with agriculture students.

For the fisheries students, organising to stop the destruction of ecosystems is vital to their livelihood. Mining and commercial fishing have both impacted fish habitat in local waters. The students and staff ask lots of questions about what they can do, and how they can work together with Mobile Anarchist School.

As we are preparing to present to the business and communications students, the power goes out, and the format spontaneously changes to a discussion circle. The power supply was managed by the mining company, so since the mining company stopped operating, power has been unreliable.

At the end of the presentation, we are honoured with traditional music and dancing, while flower petals are thrown over us, and wicker crowns placed on our heads. As we have shared our stories with them, they are sharing their traditions with us, which includes treating us like kings and queens. I can’t help laughing at the idea of treating a bunch of anarchists like kings and queens.


After the presentation at the agriculture school, we spend the night with relatives of one of the activists on the tour. They have a farm in the hills, with coconuts, chickens, and fruit trees. They’ve noticed that since a cell-phone tower was erected nearby, the fruit doesn’t grow so well, and butterflies can’t reproduce.



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I want to show you the pictures. Pictures of crumpled steel, fallen trees and powerlines, tarps and tents, people queueing for rations, smashed cars. The words ‘help us, we need food’ spray painted on walls and roads. But pictures can’t describe what it’s really like. My observations of Tacloban are all from a bus window on the way through to San Miguel, so I can’t describe what it’s really like either. I want to tell you what I saw.


It’s been six months since Typhoon Yolanda hit Leyte and neighbouring islands.

Tarps, bearing names like Rotary and Unicef, replace missing roofs, or are used for makeshift shelters.

White tents, with the names of international aid agencies in big letters on their sides, line the roadside, housing those whose homes have been destroyed completely.

Yet it’s not enough. All the aid could never be enough. People all over the world are contributing to the relief effort, but people here still can’t afford to rebuild, and will be living under canvas until the canvas falls apart. Some have no shelter at all.

A school building, missing its roof, has the word HELP painted on the front wall in large letters.

A factory has been reduced to twisted steel girders.

Lumber yards have sprung up, selling lengths of fallen coconut trees for timber-framed huts.

Beach sand is being used to make bricks for rebuilding.

Chainsaws, sharpening, battery charging services and loans are booming businesses.

Some houses and businesses have been re-connected to the power supply, but others are lit by candles.

A new cemetery, for those who didn’t survive, is full of visitors.

The airport is under a newly-repaired iron roof, with no walls, and no automated security screening. The check-in counters are under tarps, staffed by people sitting at old school desks with laptops. Announcements about departing flights are made with a megaphone.

Most school buildings are beyond repair. In the schoolyards are marquees and temporary buildings (bearing the name Taiwan Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation), where classes are going on. In these circumstances, wouldn’t children gain more from learning to build huts, weave thatch roofs, cook, and plant food gardens? Surely a lot more useful and relevant than maths and English.

The World Food Program has a new, multi-storey office building, while everyone around lives and works under tarps, and many don’t even have that. People living nearby don’t have enough food, yet the WFP prioritises this building. Their funders quite probably profit directly from this construction.

New suburban subdivisions have been built, in a city where most people have always lived in tiny bamboo huts, and aren’t getting any help to rebuild their traditional shelters. The subdivisions are probably on land cleared of such huts, rendering more people homeless.

A new compound belonging to a pharmaceutical company has appeared. The signs on the front wall declare that this is private property, and claim that this business is assisting the victims, but it looks more like stealing their land and expanding business at their expense.

Banks and an upmarket car dealership have new buildings. The cars are probably being sold to aid agencies. Most local people wouldn’t have the money or need for a car.

The impacts of disaster capitalism are visible throughout the city. Corporate invasion and theft from people who are not able to defend themselves.

The response is causing more of a disaster than the event it is responding to.

It’s called a natural disaster, but to the natural world there’s no disaster. It’s only a disaster to industrial infrastructure, and the people and economies that have come to depend on this infrastructure. To communities living in shelters made of natural materials, growing food in polycultures, the impact would be minimal. Huts can be rebuilt easily, from fallen coconut trees, with roofs made of palm thatch. Root crops remain in the ground, and regrow themselves, after a storm, so this method of food production is much less vulnerable than rice fields. Forested land recovers more quickly than cleared land.

Building resilient communities, independent of centralised infrastructure–electricity grid, global food distribution, jobs with foreign companies–would mean that storms would have a lot less impact. However, as foreign corporations have no qualms about killing people to exploit and steal, such communities would struggle to maintain their autonomy.

Efforts towards community sufficiency, with polycultural gardens based on root crops—cassava, sweet potato, yam, taro—and traditional building methods, independent of the electricity grid, are a small step to be prepared for the inevitable further storms. Another step would be to take down the centralised infrastructure.

Having strong relationships within the neighbourhood is essential, but when a disaster impacts a whole region, bonds with people from outside, who can come help, or accommodate refugees, is also vital.


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San Miguel

When millions of people have lost their homes, families, livelihoods, and everything they own, and corrupt governments and aid agencies make the situation worse, what can a you do?

Since Supertyphoon Yolanda hit the central Philippines in September 2013, a group of activists from Manila have been on three missions to assist an affected in community in San Miguel, Leyte.

I joined them on the third mission. (Read more about the first and second missions.)

The typhoon caused thousands of deaths and injuries, damaged two million houses (many of these were destroyed completely) and affected 12million people.

San Miguel is a village 60km from the city of Tacloban, and suffered badly in the typhoon. One of the activists has family in this village, who can host the group and introduce them to the community.

Motivated by an ethic of mutual aid and autonomy, the group have gathered donations of food, medicine, and money, to support these missions.

Mobile Anarchist School is a small network with limited resources, yet with good organisation and committed people, its achievements are impressive.

The first two missions focussed on distributing food and medicine, recharging cellphones and flashlights with solar power, and games and activities for children. For the third mission, our activities are free haircuts, games for children, storytelling, Food Not Bombs (a free meal for all the children), film screening, and a fire dance performance. Since the power has been restored, there is no longer the need for charging. However, people have retreated to their homes and televisions, rather than spending the evenings together in the streets. Activities that bring people together are one way to continue a culture of mutual aid and community, that was essential after the storm.


Over three days, we ran these activities in three neighbourhoods in the village. We spend the mornings preparing food for the free meal, and one volunteer, who is a barber, gives haircuts. In the afternoon, when the children come home from school, the neighbourhood activities begin. The children love the games, storytelling and fire dancing. After the free meal, a short film about the previous two missions is screened in the street. When a volunteer begins playing a bamboo flute, children gather around close to listen. Under a multicoloured umbrella, and illuminated only with a flashlight, the scene is magical.

Nearly all the children lost their homes in the storm, many have lost family members. Playing games, telling stories and dancing feels like such a small contribution to the relief effort, when so many people are still without homes. But for a community that has experienced such trauma, just knowing that there are people who care, who bring in some fun and games, and aren’t expecting anything in return, can mean a lot.

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Hermit crabs scuttle across the sand. Each has its own unique shell. Pieces of coral clink together as the waves gently wash them around. I snorkel the reef, and see blue and orange spotted sea stars. A clam shell half a metre wide. Spiky black urchins, with spikes as long as my fingers. I walk along the beach and around the headland, there are caves in the cliffs, and the rainforest hangs down from above. Fishermen go out in brightly coloured wooden rowboats, then drag them back up the beach.

We cook on an open fire, under a shelter made of palm thatch. I sit at the water’s edge, a fried fish in one hand, and a sweet potato in the other. The best breakfast ever. I feel like I could stay here forever, eating coconuts, bananas, fish and sweet potatoes.

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