For the past three decades, a Japanese nongovernmental organization has been supporting farmers in the Philippines by providing them with the workhorse of Southeast Asia: the water buffalo.

To date, Carabao Family has donated around 100 of the animals to farmers on Leyte Island, where they use them to plow the earth. The carabao is a water buffalo native to the Philippines.

“Providing tractors may be one option, but if they break down then technology for making repairs and parts become necessary,” said freelance journalist Chieko Takemi, who organizes the program. “In contrast, water buffaloes help the farmers with feed and water, and they reproduce themselves.”

Takemi, 77, started the NGO in 1987 after visiting Leyte with a friend and seeing how farmers suffered in poverty, due in part to the legacy of colonial rule that still affected the agrarian system there.

“They didn’t have their own houses or land,” Takemi said. “They cultivated landowners’ farms, and depended on the landowners’ seeds, tools and water buffaloes.

“If the farmers had their own buffaloes — a mainstay of traditional agriculture — they would be able to cut back on what they paid landowners in rent, if only a little,” she said.

Soon after its founding, the NGO urged the Japanese public to donate ¥200 a month toward the water buffaloes. “In those days, coffee shops usually charged around ¥200 a cup, and we hoped to get as many people as possible to join us by having them give up a cup of coffee a month,” Takemi explained.

With the ¥2,400 ($21) annual membership fee left unchanged over the past 30 years, Carabao Family currently has about 60 donors. As it costs around ¥60,000 to purchase a water buffalo, there were years when the NGO could donate only one animal.

“Despite the annual ups and downs in the size of the donations we receive, our staff and I have visited Leyte regularly to hand over the money directly and to make sure the buffaloes go to the local farmers,” Takemi said.

“We also keep talking with the farmers to see if they face fresh challenges,” she added.

In November 2013, Leyte was badly damaged by supertyphoon Haiyan, locally known as Yolanda, which caused massive loss of life and devastated properties and infrastructure.

To mark the 30th anniversary of its founding, Carabao Family is planning to build a community center on Leyte that can also be used as a shelter in case of emergencies.

Designed by a Japanese architect, the building will consist of a semi-basement made from reinforced concrete and an upper structure made from local natural materials, such as bamboo, abaca and rattan.

The basement section will be used to store food but can serve as an evacuation shelter in case of natural disasters, while the upper part will be a place where people can meet and work.

The center will be built at what is being called the Carabao Family farm — a 6-hectare plot purchased by the NGO in the municipality of Kananga.

Carabao Family is seeking donations for the project, while calling on corporations to provide cement, iron frames, rope, timber and canvas.

In addition to donating buffaloes, the NGO organizes study tours to the Philippines so that participants can learn how the country suffered during World War II and how past tragedies continued to burden communities well after the war ended.

“We have heard what war survivors have to say, so we can share an understanding of history beyond borders,” Takemi said.

On her numerous visits to the Philippines, Takemi has encountered former “comfort women” forced into Japanese wartime brothels there.

To keep their voices alive, she directed a documentary film called “Katarugan! Justice for Lolas!” in 2011, in which former comfort women testified about their experiences and the hardships they suffered as a result. “Katarugan” means justice and “lola” means grandmother in Tagalog.

An English-version of the film has been screened in several parts of the world.

Looking back on Carabao Family’s 30-year ties with Leyte, Takemi said, “A 10-year-old boy we met at the start of the campaign has become a 40-year-old farm manager there. I believe now we can pass the torch to such people.”

The manager lives on the farm with his family where he operates the NGO’s facility.

“It is great that we have spent these years together, and we will continue making efforts to jointly overcome the poverty caused by social and historical structures,” Takemi said ahead of her next visit to Leyte for a reunion with farmers in August.

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