24 May, 2019

A Love Affair with African  Nightcrawlers

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BAGUIO CITY, Philippines, 13 February (Tebtebba Indigenous Information Service) – Sister Alice Sobreviñas and Moren Macay, a young information technology graduate, share something in common. Both have fallen in love with Eugene. 

“I’ve met and made many friends after I’ve fallen with Eugene,” said Sister Alice, a 71-year old Benedictine nun.

Eugene is short for Eudrilus euginiae, the scientific name for a species of earthworm also known as ANC or “African nightcrawler.” This earthworm species, which is noted for its efficiency in composting, was introduced into the Philippines by Dr. Rafael D. Guerrero III, the acknowledged father of vermiculture in the country, via West Germany, the original cocoons courtesy of Dr. Otto Graff. But the origin of this species is West Africa, and, according to Graff, is now widely distributed in both tropical and subtropical countries worldwide. 

Vermiculture is the process of raising earthworms and harvesting the organic material they produce.

Sister Alice and Macay encountered Eugene through Michael Cagas, a vermiculture expert from Laguna province, 65 kms. south of Manila, Philippines.

After nine members of the Traditional Knowledge Network or TKN went on a study tour to Laguna in February 2009, Judy Cariño of Tebtebba invited Cagas to the northern Philippine city of Baguio to train TKN members on vermiculture in June 2009. TKN is an informal network of indigenous leaders and bearers of traditional knowledge organized by Tebtebba, an international indigenous institution dealing with indigenous peoples’ issues and concerns.

During the two-day training, Sister Alice, Macay and the other enthusiasts learned about how to raise the earthworms. They learned about the needs, behavior, mating patterns, and life cycle of the African nightcrawler, which is very much like the Philippine native earthworm, in size and color. 

But unlike the native earthworm, Eugene is flat-bellied, does not burrow into the ground, and prefers to stay on the surface.

As Cagas spoke and showed the proper care of the earthworms, Sister Alice was struck by the expert’s sincerity and passion. “He spoke from his heart,” she wrote in the book, Stories of  Eugene, the Earthworm. Published by Tebtebba in 2012, the book compiles the stories of 14 enthusiasts, who have adopted Eugene as their backyard and farm friend.

The book details how vermiculture enthusiasts are helping Baguio—a city of 400,000—manage and reduce at the household level the city’s daily 200 tons of solid wastes, 40 percent of which is compostable.

“What mattered to him (Cagas) was having the proper attitude towards the worms; to relate with them; and to treat them not as separate from oneself, but a part of the self,” said Sister Alice. “I was fascinated to learn that the earthworms needed a proper home, a proper bed with a proper blanket, and that they must be fed with sufficient food, that they are like a family and community.”

A vermi bed or home for the worms can be a sack, a hollow-blocked enclosure on the ground, a flower pot and other materials. Beddings for the worms are any compostable materials, which are absorbent, moist, and aerated or that which can allow air to circulate. These can be banana stalks, twigs, horse or cow dung, twigs, grass, hays, dried leaves, corrugated cardboard, coconut husks, and fruit and vegetable peelings.

After Cagas’ training in June 2009, Sister Alice started first with two vermi beds at the garden of the backyard of the more than a hectare St. Scholastica Convent. In no time, the earthworms reproduced and in 2012 Sister Alice and a worker were maintaining 16 vermi beds, four sacks and a worm bin for the office kitchenette. 

The vermicast (worm castings) and compost from these beds have nurtured Sister Alice’s organic garden, which she called “Seven Healing Gardens of Eden.” Growing robustly at the nun’s garden are romaine lettuce, beans and various herbs such as parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, basil and other crops. 

But towards the end of 2012, Sister Alice had to relocate to Tanay, Rizal province, 52 kms. east of Manila. Still, “my love affair with Eugene continues,” she said.

In Tanay, Sister Alice expects to establish more vermi beds. Food for Eugene would be sufficient there as the nuns have a carabao (water buffalo) and five goats, whose dung could feed the earthworms, which, in turn produce high-quality vermicast and vermicompost. There are also enough grasses, decayed leaves, and other organic materials for the voracious African night- crawlers.

From the 10-hectare property, there also would be enough gardens for Sister Alice. And she looks forward to sharing to the indigenous Dumagat her skill in organic farming and vermiculture, which, she hopes, will help improve their lives. 

In the past, the Dumagat, who used to live mainly by hunting and gathering, were concentrated in the coastal areas of Aurora and Quezon provinces in Southern Luzon. But with the coming of migrant settlers into their territory, the Dumagat were soon pushed into the mountains and dispersed in small groups. 


From IT to worms 

Macay, on the other hand, could have pursued a career in the information technology field, which he studied. “But after my encounter with Eugene, I decided to be an organic farmer, help share with others about the blessings of Eugene, and set up an organic restaurant one of these days,” he said.

Macay’s perspective differs from other Filipino youths who pursue college and hunt jobs later. The 20-year old youth from Loakan village of Baguio City seeks to help generate jobs while advocating for something, which, he says, can help his home city a better place to live in. 

“If you are stuck in a company, you are held in the neck by your boss. So there won’t be any room for innovative and creative initiatives,” he said.

True to his innovative and creative spirit, Macay says he continues to find new and appropriate ways to grow and propagate Eugene. 

Macay first experimented on using sacks to grow and raise his worms. But ants, centipedes and rats feasted on Macay’s earthworms. Undaunted, Macay did not give up and sought ways to solve the pest problem.

And while contemplating about some ways to solve the problem, Macay was invited by Cagas for further training. Cagas encouraged Macay to spend his summer in Laguna and learn more about vermiculture or the raising of the ANC earthworms and their use in organic farming.

Macay discovered from a worker of Cagas how to protect the precious earthworms through organic pesticides made out of the purified liquid from worm beds. Processing the organic pesticides is part of an advance course in vermiculture, all of which Macay learned hands-on during that 2009 summer in Laguna.

Probably encouraged by the dedicated interest of his young disciple, Cagas again invited Macay to Laguna for an advance vermiculture course in the summer of 2010. “I grabbed this opportunity to learn more,” said Macay.

There, Macay learned how make other biotechnologically-processed organic products called EM2 (a deodorizer and composting agent which can neutralize the foul smell of pig manure and other wastes), EM3 (a foliar fertilizer), and EM4 (an organic substance that enhances good soil microbes). 


Managing solid wastes

While in Laguna, Macay came to learn and appreciate how vermiculture has been applied to help reduce and manage the solid wastes there, 40 percent of which are biodegradables. 

He saw how vermiculture helped local governments reduce and manage their wastes. He saw how it was widely practiced in Bae, San Pablo, Santa Cruz and other towns in Laguna. 

“You can’t find a cluster of 100 houses, which do not have vermi (ANC earthworm) beds,” he noted. “Farmers, businessmen, professionals and also the poorest of the poor are all growing (ANC) earthworms. Many do it as their main livelihood while others do it for their secondary income.”

Income from vermiculture comes from the sale of vermicast or worm castings, vermi tea (worm tea or the processed liquid from worm beds), and other biotechnologically-processed products, which enhance growth of crops in organic farms.

Armed with his vermiculture know-how, Macay had just established a demonstration and training center at their residence in Loakan. 

During the center’s launching last January 25, some local officials, professionals, non-government organization workers, and housewives came to listen to how a species of earthworm can help households reduce and manage their wastes.

In June 2012, Macay embarked on an organic farm in Gumatdang village in Itogon town. With the help of two workers, he cultivated 300 square meters and planted lettuce. 

“The farm can also serve as a demonstration site for vermiculture and healthy farming,” he said.

He envisions the hectare-farm as a source of organic vegetables for a restaurant, which he plans to establish later.

Since 2011, the Baguio City Environment and Parks Management Office (CEPMO) has tapped the services of Macay to train residents in at least eight barangays (villages) about vermiculture. 

Engineer Moises Lozano of CEPMO was particularly tasked to help solve the river and air pollution caused by backyard hog raisers. He said CEPMO has been inviting Macay to train residents about vermiculture, which, he said, has “created positive results.”

Instead of being flushed out into creeks and other waterways, pig manure is used to feed the ANC earthworms. Lozano found out that pig manure sprayed with biotechnology processed vermi products such as EM2 does not stink.

Lozano says his office will continue to tap Macay’s skills as there are 120 more barangays or villages to learn about vermiculture. 


Passing leadership to the young 

The Baguio Vermi Growers or BVG, which was initiated by the Traditional Knowledge Network (TKN), was formerly headed by Sister Alice. 

“When I came to Baguio in 2009, I was met with the stink of uncollected garbage,” said Sister Alice. “So I immediately responded to Judy’s (Cariño) invitation to this vermiculture training and we later envisioned that from our city’s garbage we will be cultivating gardens.”

Since Sister Alice would be assigned to Tanay, Rizal, she would like to pass on the BVG’s leadership. So last January 25 she passed on the leadership of the BVG to Macay. Assisting Macay in leading BVG is Christopher Pukayon, a 25-year old electrician who shifted to vermiculture as his main livelihood.

Through his vermiculture training, Pukayon has helped manage the solid wastes of the Good Shepherd Convent, also in Baguio City, which include peelings from strawberries and ube (a root crop). The convent is known for its strawberry and ube jam products.

“Through young leaders like Macay and Pukayon, the future of what the BVG can do for the city is bright,” said Sister Alice. “For my part, I will spread the good news of Eugene to the indigenous Dumagats.” 


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