Walking underneath the canopy of trees at Benny Chargualaf Sr.’s farm is like taking a stroll through a forest of food. Coconut trees, banana trees, and papaya trees are not in rows, but carefully-placed clusters, to allow the sunlight to filter through so that younger trees can take root. This man-made forest looks natural, but it is the culmination of symbiotic relations between the trees, the land, and Benny Sr. and his family who have tended to it for twenty-five years.
A retired fireman, Benny Sr. started his agroforesty farm in Inarajan in 1995 starting with low maintenance trees such as coconuts, bananas, and betel nut to provide food for his family. He knew that these trees, even if neglected, will still produce fruits for when he and his family needed it. Originally intending to plant just for his family’s consumption, his farm had produced so much that they started to sell their excess.
As we toured the farm, Benny Sr. pointed out the differences between bananas and papayas, distinguishing the variety he ate as a child to the ones that were imported as seeds from off-island. The trees remind him of people he has met before, those who had given him seeds, and the families and people who had given food.
Benny Sr. has taught his son, Benny Jr., and his grandson “Baby Benny” how to tend to the forest by following him. While Benny Jr. is a teacher and Baby Benny a high school student, they dedicate the mornings, afternoons, and weekends at the farm. Besides harvesting from the trees that grow in abundance, they care for the plants using sustainable and natural methods. For example, they use the old branches of banana trees as natural compost by leaving them nestled to the base of the trees. They avoid spraying pesticides, instead opting to grow other types of trees that seem to resist disease. They collect coconut husks to give to those who will repurpose them.
Importantly, as the rhino beetle plague has hit the island, the Chargualaf family fights to save the coconut tree on island. They take special care of those which have been hit by rhino beetles, placing insect traps and introducing chickens that feed on the larvae. And for every tree that goes down, they say, they plant three more.
Farming is not new to the Chargualaf family. It is in their blood. Benny Sr.’s parents and grandparents were farmers and fisherman too. “We survive by farming and planting” Benny Sr. tell us. He remembers growing up helping at the farm by hand – pulling weeds, planting, harvesting. He remembers how his family transported water in trucks from main Inarajan village to the farm, filled buckets with water, and then watering their plants by hand. They also fished the waters for food. Still today, Benny Sr. says he eats fish three times a day. “Fishing is my passion. Farming is what keeps me going.”
The benefits of the farm span the generations. Benny Jr. says that the exposure to the farm encourages his children to eat healthier. His kids would rather have fresh coconut water than drink soda. The farm also connects his children to the earth, the value of hard work, their families both in the past and present, and their culture.