Agriculture Undersecretary Berna Romulo Puyat focuses on the needs of women, calamity victims, and other disadvantaged groups, whether they’re looking for funding, livelihood—or even beauty tips

Bernadette Fatima Romulo Puyat, undersecretary for special concerns at the Department of Agriculture (DA), tells a very funny story about one of her travels to the hinterlands of Mindanao, speaking with Manobo tribeswomen.

“After our discussion on what they needed for their cacao production, I opened the floor for questions. To my surprise, after asking about the assistance our agency could extend to them, they asked me next, ‘Ano po ang beauty secret ninyo?’ Hahaha!” she says with a snicker, amused at the retelling.

Most of the women, toiling for hours under the harsh sun, their skin tanned to a dark brown, asked her how they could lighten their complexion. The questions are not totally a surprise, if you think about it, as Berna, delicate and fragile-looking, has a fair complexion.

It just goes to show that her visits to the countryside are never boring, she says, still chuckling at the story. One can’t be a one-trick pony where women are concerned. Berna says discussions with women in the rural areas encompass issues with their families, especially their husbands, aside from trying to learn how to improve their livelihoods.

“And you know, in all agriculture work, there is really a high participation of women,” she stresses. No crop is harvested and processed, nor any farm-based product made, without passing through the hands of women, whether it be selling their husbands’ caught fish in the market, drying the palay under the sun, or weaving piña fiber into fabric.

And the DA, with some P3.5 billion in its kitty allocated this year specifically for Gender and Development (GAD), directs all government agencies and LGUs, under RA 8522, to set aside a minimum amount of five percent to be used for programs, projects, and activities designed to address gender issues, in accordance with RA 7192 or the Women in Development and Nation Building Law. Under the Magna Carta of Women RA 9710, the DA recognizes the role of women in food production and provides women the right to protection and security in times of disasters, calamities, and other crisis situations.

Trained as an economist at the University of the Philippines, Berna never thought she’d end up in a job which took her away from the comforts of home. “Among my siblings, I am the one who hates going out,” she says in her sweet little-girl voice. She is second to the youngest in the brood of five of former Foreign Affairs Secretary and ex-Senator Alberto Romulo and his wife, Lovely Romulo neé Tecson.

“My ultimate dream was to be a housewife, just like my mom. I never wanted to enter public service. I didn’t have a good experience growing up; as early as nine years old, I was already campaigning (first for her granduncle Carlos, and then her father who ran for Assemblyman in 1984  and Senator in 1987). And this was usually during summer; normal kids would go to the beach, but we would spend our summers campaigning. In politics or public service, you have to always put your game face on, so I really hated it.”

Still, it was public service that she ended up in. She taught economics at the government-run UP School of Economics for 14 years, molding young people’s minds. “The salary was low, but I liked teaching because I felt I made a difference.”

She later joined the Macapagal Arroyo government in 2005 as consultant to the powerful Presidential Management Staff (PMS). “It was boring at the PMS. Your work consisted of coordinating with the Cabinet and following up on instructions to them from the President.”

Her boss then at the PMS, Arthur Yap, asked her if she wanted to join him at the DA, which he was later to head as Secretary. “I asked him what I would do there, and he answered, ‘Bahala ka.’ In other words, “Make yourself relevant.” In a way, she said, it really piqued her interest because it was something her father didn’t know anything about, as his expertise lay elsewhere. “Somehow you want to be known for your own accomplishments, and not because you’re a child of so and so,” Berna says.

cotabato farmers

Her father, though, made her promise to stay away from farm-to-market road projects, biddings, and the like; as a lawmaker who had looked into controversial projects of government agencies, he wanted to make sure his daughter would not be touched by any questionable fund releases or projects.

When Berna first started her work at the DA, she took care of the foreign grants, and made sure they all properly went to projects vitally needed by the farmers. “I loved negotiating with the foreign governments, the way we were able to get the grants, then channeling them to the farmers. Ang saya-saya nila when we’re able to help them.”

Aside from taking care of the women farmers, her scope of work now also includes promoting organic agriculture, cooperatives, urban gardening and indigenous peoples, childrens and senior citizens, and granting of scholarship for the youth who wish to take agricultural courses. One of her latest projects was hooking up Mangyan farmers in Oriental Mindoro who were producing calamansi with Destileria Limtuaco, which used the calamansi rinds for its recently launched digestif, Manille Liqueur de Calamansi. Another recent trip took her to Tacloban, where she distributed vegetable seedlings and farm implements to survivors of Typhoon Yolanda. The next project involves setting up processing facilities for them.

One of her pet projects now is promoting cacao production. Berna discovered that most of the stages of cacao production involve women, from the bagging to the picking, breaking of pods, fermentation, and sorting of the seeds. Besides, there is a great demand for Philippine cacao, not just domestically but also worldwide.

To promote cacao production nationwide, especially in non-traditional cacao growing regions, Berna had to be hands-on, and literally got her hands dirty to learn the trade, from planting to processing and marketing of the product.

In her provincial sorties, people are often amazed at how much she knows about agriculture, because she doesn’t look like the type who’s done any actual farming—not even gardening, given her fair complexion. But once she starts talking about cacao varieties, planting techniques like grafting, and processing technologies like fermentation and drying, and shows pictures to demonstrate the technologies, everyone is convinced.

Berna has also started to create awareness and interest in agriculture through her almost weekly provincial sorties, visiting farms all around the country. She posts pictures of farmers, cooperatives, and their produce on social media, and has gotten quite a bit of a following. “I’d like more people to get into agriculture to increase food production, and to generate employment and livelihood for women,” she says.

“This job gives you fulfillment,” says Berna proudly. “I enjoy it; nothing beats being right there in the provinces, no one really knows you, and yet you’re helping a lot of people.”

Berna says she makes sure she stays home on Sundays, though, when she has lunch with her kids—Vito and Maia, now 18 and 17 years old—then dinner with the Romulo brood, which includes her siblings Mons, Lupe, Roman (now married to former Valenzuela City councilor Shalani Soledad), and Erwin, along with their respective families.

Widowed at age 40 (her husband was lawyer David Puyat, who died of a sudden heart attack while playing football in 2010), Berna faces the prospect of being an empty nester soon now that her kids are of college age. She says she’s not closing her doors to another possible relationship, and does go out on dates once in a while. “But I’m not looking for love,” she stresses, content with the thought that she will find someone if it’s meant to be.

In the meantime, Berna channels her passion to her children and her work, serving those in the countryside who need government help the most. She will go out armed with seeds, processing facilities, and yes, a few beauty tips here and there. AD

This article is originally published on Asian Dragon Magazine May-June 2014.

[Photograph: Kai Huang]

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