As rice prices continue to soar, indigenous people in Sarangani look at toxic yam

Rommel Rebollido

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As rice prices continue to soar, indigenous people in Sarangani look at toxic yam
'Kayos,' a toxic wild yam, serves as a lifesaver and last-resort staple when food is scarce in some highland communities in Sarangani

SARANGANI, Philippines – “If only copra can be eaten…” 

Junjun Ganoy, an ethnic Tagakaulo farmhand and young father of two, said this to express his frustration about the soaring rice prices.

“Sa kabarato sa kopras, lisud mi maka-apas sa presyo sa bugas (With copra so cheap, it is difficult for us to afford rice),” he said.

Copra, the dried coconut kernel, is produced by drying the inner meat after removing the husk and water. It is then processed into coconut oil, which is widely used in cooking, cosmetics, and industry due to its high smoke point and moisturizing qualities.

Ganoy’s cousin, Amo Malbulan, nodded in agreement, noting that President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s campaign promise to make rice affordable at P20 per kilogram is turning into a joke. I

Person, Adult, Male
COPRA. A Tagakaulo tribe farm worker unloads sacks of copra at a drop-off point, where a buyer then picks them up. Rommel Rebollido/Rappler

Instead of copra, it is the price of rice that continues to rise, Malbulan said.

The current copra farm gate price ranges from P17 to P24 per kilogram, significantly lower than the P42 per kilogram price from early last year. In contrast, local rice prices have surged by more than 10 pesos in recent weeks, now ranging from P54 to P58 for the imported varieties.

“Basin presyo sa kopras, dili bugas ang gisaad nga himuon tig P20 (Perhaps what was promised to go down was the copra price, not that of rice),” Malbulan said, laughing.

The cousins, both with their own families, reside with relatives in a small house in Barangay Nagpan, Malungon town, Sarangani. They do not have a fixed income and rely solely on menial jobs on the farm.

A day’s work earns them around P200 each, such as assisting with crop harvesting or transporting bags of copra uphill on horseback to a spot where a buyer collects them.

There are days when their services are not needed, resulting in no earnings for that day. Yet Ganoy and Malbulan consider themselves luckier than other laborers in the city.

Toxic alternative

The cousins believe that while they may not be able to eat what they desire, they will never go hungry living in the countryside.

“Mokaon man gani og kayos kon magkinaunsa, libre pa (Worse comes to worst, there is wild yam and it is free),” said Dong Nol, who left his job due to poor pay as a road maintenance crew for a government agency.

“They only pay me P2,500 for three weeks of work, not enough to feed my family and myself because they assigned me to a faraway town,” Nol explained.

The kayos (Dioscorea hispida) that Nol referred to is a toxic tuber that many indigenous people in Mindanao turn to as a last-resort staple.

Among the indigenous tribes in southern Mindanao, the poisonous wild yam serves as a lifesaver, especially in times of drought when food is scarce in highland communities.

It also played a role in saving guerrillas during World War II. Tribal elders said that kayos was used to poison abusive Japanese soldiers, who mistakenly ate the tuber thinking it was cassava.

Worth the risk

Given the toxic substances in wild yam, preparing it as food requires great skill and a tedious process. Women elders typically perform the preparation, searching for it in the forest, peeling it, and discarding the rind to prevent harm to others and animals.

Downstream along the banks of Mat’eo River at Sitio Rancho in Nagpan, holes are dug to fit baskets of thinly sliced kayos that remain in running water for at least three days. The process is intended to wash off toxins before the yam is dried in the sun, pounded, and boiled, according to sitio leader Sonny Valiente, a mixed Blaan and Ilocano.

When cooked, kayos resembles cassava suman and often paired with grated coconut.

Now, with El Nino and rice prices continuing to increase, kayos could be a saving grace for indigenous people who lack the money to buy the usual staple, Valiente said. –

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