CAR RAFC Chairperson Balbina Ernesto talks about decision-making, challenges and her hopes for the women of agriculture in this modern age. (LC)

The Meaning of Balbina.

Balbina Apilas Ernesto is always proud of her colorful ancestry. She has a name that is interesting as the place and culture she grew up in.

Like fulfilling a prophecy, her parents chose to call her “Balbina”, an Ibaloi word which means an elder who is ready to help. Little did they know, her name will someday embody her character.

Chairperson Balbina, or Benny as she is fondly called, was born on October 29, 1940 in Irisan, Baguio City. Currently, she is the only woman chairperson of the Regional Agricultural and Fisheries Council (RAFC), leading six provinces of the Cordillera Autonomous Region (CAR).

As the youngest among the eight siblings, Balbina often remembers how beautiful the old Irisan was and how the place taught her the essence of working as a community, regardless of gender.

“In one of the barangays in the outskirts of the City of Baguio lies a beautiful valley with green grasses, abundant flowers of many kinds, water flowing clearly in a creek rich with fishes, trees sway with cold breeze. It was called “Ishisan” but the Americans can’t pronounce it so they called it, to what we know now, Irisan,” narrated the 76 years old RAFC Chairperson.

“I am very grateful that I live in Cordillera where men and women are somehow equal. There are no inhibitions here. Women work in the field, side by side with men. We are equal as we share tasks and responsibilities in the farm. When your house is far from the farm, you need to carry your products from the farm to the road,” she continued.

With her amusing personality, the Philippine Council for Agriculture and Fisheries had the chance to talk to the RAFC Chairperson about decision-making, challenges and her hopes for the women of agriculture in this modern age.


Wo-manning the Farm: Challenging the Gender-Gap

Once awarded as one of the top 10 Outstanding Women Leaders of Baguio from the City Government, Chairperson Balbina recounted her journey on becoming a partner for change and how she works for the attainment of this change.

“Being in the sector of social works and agriculture, it was clear that we have gender gap. This is very visible in the agricultural work force and how women express their thoughts about the sector’s issues,” she said.

“This is one of our advocacies, to at least tell our women to play equal role with men especially in decision-making,” she added.

With high hopes in seeing changes in women’s attitude, she said that “women should not be shy to do the farm work because woman has the same rights as man. If he will eat, you should eat, if they can earn money, you can also earn money.”

“In some of our visits to different areas near Baguio City, I saw that many women are not so much into farming. They usually say ‘nakakahiya naman’. But one time, I proved to them that there is nothing to be ashamed of farming. So I went to the farm, I shred and cut grasses. The women who saw me were all smiling. That night we had sessions explaining why I did it,” she said.

“It is very simple, you need to be a living example,” she added.

Prior to being the RAFC Chairperson, she was first Baguio City’s AFC (CAFC) Chairperson for more than eight years. Under her leadership, she requested trainings and seminars that will help the farmer- members. She believes that these trainings would improve women’s capacity.

According to Chairperson Balbina, these projects play as foundation for the future training & extension collaborations between the agricultural men and women of Baguio City and the Agricultural and Training Institute in CAR through the city’s Barangay- or Community-based Organizations.

Chairperson Balbina listens during the interview. (LC)

“Women are equally important as men in agriculture because number one: we are very patient, number two: we are skilled, and number three: we do things systematically,” she said.

Chairperson Balbina also raised her concern that women should speak up their minds during meetings, however she clarified that she understands that there are decisions made between married couples, and usually the father speaks about it in forums.

“With this kind of set-up, I am sure that the wives have already given their opinions prior to the meeting. What we need to improve is, I think bit by bit through gender trainings, for the wives to develop their speaking skills in meetings to generate advocacies and policies that will influence decisions and will affect the lives of their families,” she said firmly.

The only woman who speaks

As a RAFC Chairperson, she meets with other chairpersons from 15 regions when the need arises.

When asked about how she deal with this situation knowing that she’s the only woman RAFC Chairperson, she cracked a wide smile and said “If you look at it on the positive side, I can say that ‘I am the only woman who speaks’”.

She admitted that she is not much talkative during RAFC meetings. “As a newbie, I do not say much because I observe. When everyone is talking about their accomplishments, I listen carefully and see if this will be applicable to my area. But when I know that something is not right and they are only wasting the time, pinapakita ko na hindi dapat ganito.”

In her first year as a RAFC Chairperson, she admitted that there are so many challenges.

She would hear concerns in the MAFCs that there was discrimination in terms of meeting attendance.

“Only two or three women were attending the meetings and the rest are men because after the meeting, they would drink. Sadly, Cordillera women will not assert it to the men.

However, when I saw this, I encouraged the men to meet and discuss about important matters that women can also participate and refrain from drinking after the meeting.”

She also added that it is an irony that one of the challenges that they need to deal with is volunteerism itself.

As a RAFC Chairperson, she admitted that there are many challenges along the way but she is determined to face it and improve things. (LC)

“Aside from inspiring, not only men but also more women to join farming, discussion and decision-making, in case of Baguio City, we are advocating urban gardening; we face the truth that we get little support from the government,” she confessed.

“Being an AFC Volunteer-Partner is not an easy task. There will always be hesitations to those who will hear what we do, even our new members, considering their financial status. They would sometimes ask me: ‘Magkano ba ang sweldo mo dyan?’ Sabi ko ‘Wala. Kapag may taong lumapit sa akin at nagthank you, yun ang sweldo ko’,” she said with a smile.

Women in Agriculture: A Daughter, a Mother, a Farmer

Chairperson Balbina disclosed that volunteers of AFCs in CAR are mostly composed of housewives. Aside from the regular meetings and resolutions that they need to take care, she also needs to think of how these women will tend their households and their family members.

“This is why I challenge every woman in the AFC and in the agricultural industry to be entrepreneurs, so that at the end of the day, they will have money to buy a kilo of fish for their family. And have an hour to volunteer,” she said.

Aside from being an entrepreneur, Chairperson Balbina believed that women farmers should be teachers and organizers. “Women are skilled, intelligent and once they worked on their shyness, they can be the best entrepreneurs,” she said.

To her, due recognition and involvement of farmers in the AFC are her ultimate goals for the region.

“I am hoping that many would be inspired to join the AFC because I am old now, I cannot carry a kaban of rice anymore. I think they can help me to carry it,” she said in a symbolic manner.

Chairperson Balbina with Agnes Maslian of Baguio City CAFC.

“More than eight years ago, we have been working through meetings, information dissemination, educational trainings, and lakbay-aral, now the City of Baguio has started to recognize a bit of us. They gave us space to meet with other farmers. I think this is a good start,” she said positively.

Over the years, Chairperson Balbina has became the elder who is willing to help and now she is inspiring more women in the agricultural industry to cope with the shifts brought by the modernization of the sector.

The influence of technology and the improvement of educational system changed farming in Cordillera over the years.

“We parents like our children to be educated so they will not be working in the farms as hard as we did. We can now send our children to schools, to agricultural schools, to blend our traditional knowledge of farming to what the technology and modernization offer,” she explained.

With her high aspiration to be an effective partner for change for the women in agriculture, Chairperson Balbina knows there is a reason why she grew up in Cordillera, where men and women work hand in hand to benefit the whole community.

Culture is a big factor in creating awareness that men and women are equal. Chairperson Balbina is doing her task to bridge and extend her voice to the women in the agricultural industry to break from the culture that is hindering them to speak. #PartnerforChange #BilangBabae – JC