Rumour has it that Rasid Naim's tangy potion of garlic, ginger, turmeric and vinegar can do wonders for a sagging male libido. It smells like the perfect dip for grilled Imelda fish, a staple dish in rural Mindanao, the large southern Philippine island. In fact the yellowish concoction is a triple-action pesticide, herbicide and fungicide, known as organic herbal nutrient, or OHN. While its Viagra-like qualities remain unproven, OHN has made the 28-year-old farmer something of a local hero in his village of Lasangan. The original recipe called for beer and gin, clear no-nos for a Muslim community. So Rasid experimented. 'We tried coconut juice and vinegar and it worked,' he says with a grin. As well as adapting recipes, Rasid has proved the organic approach can not only provide a cleaner, more cost-effective alternative to synthetic inputs, but potentially prove a panacea to a host of problems bedevilling the Moro people, the majority in the troubled Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. Shaken by decades of conflict, the long marginalised Moro are struggling against a harmless-looking bug that is devastating rice crops. Desperate attempts to deal with it only stoke their dependence on conventional synthetic pesticides and fertilisers, which in turn pollute the land and water, take a toll on farmers' health and lock communities into a crippling spiral of debt. Some 20km from Lasangan, farmer Kupi Kalido speaks for his hamlet but tells a story familiar across central Mindanao. 'Since 2001 all our harvests have failed,' says the 50-year-old. 'We've had to live on root crops.' Kupi trudges into his rice field to identify the culprit. Parting the stems he picks a dozen black bugs, each the size of a ladybird. The creatures have already sucked the life out of the stalks and their sticky excretions have burnt the ears of grain to withered husks. It is harvest time but this crop is unsalvageable. The Malaysian black bug arrived from Borneo in the late 1970s but it is only in the last decade that it has established itself in central Mindanao. 'Before the black bugs we got 120 sacks of rice per hectare,' says Kupi. 'Now we can hardly get 40. Sometimes it's as little as 20.' Some farmers relate how they managed to successfully stave them off with pesticides until the eve of the harvest - when the chemicals risk poisoning the grain - only to see swarms descend and destroy their entire crop. 'Black bugs are the number one problem here,' says Ziga Kali, administrator for General Salipada K. Pendatun, the municipality which, with support from British charity Oxfam, is piloting the organic project. 'They have driven so many families into poverty. They attack everything except fruit trees - even vegetables.' While the bug infestation is widespread in the Philippines, it is Mindanao that is worst hit and the Moro who are least equipped to deal with it. Experts point to a number of techniques that have proved effective - light traps, leaving fields fallow, increased irrigation - but all require resources that few Moro farmers possess. A minority numbering some 4 million, the Moro have long been the poorest of the country's rural poor despite ancestral claims to its most bountiful land. Their grievances date back to the early 20th century when US colonisers finally defeated Moro armed resistance and grafted Mindanao on to the archipelagic state. Since then fortunes have been made from mining, timber, fishing and agribusiness. The world's largest pineapple plantation, owned by US firm Dole, competes with another behemoth belonging to Del Monte. Australian investors recently began work on the largest undeveloped gold and copper field in Southeast Asia. Residents of Mindanao bemoan the fact that taxes from these multibillion-dollar ventures go straight to Manila, bypassing their needy communities. Land grabs - be they by the land-owning elite, multinationals or poor Christian farmers from elsewhere in the archipelago - have shunted the Moro on to what is now a fragment of their former home. In the early 1970s, frustration boiled over into an armed separatist struggle that has simmered ever since. War means fields lie fallow or crops go unharvested. Rice reserves - the Asian farmer's age-old safety net in times of hardship - are lost or rapidly exhausted, leaving communities helpless and hungry. Without a long-term solution to the bugs, farmers often resort in desperation to a quick synthetic fix bought on credit from traders all too willing to accept farmers' land as collateral. 'If the black bugs appear on your land, you have no choice but to buy the necessary pesticide from traders,' says Lasangan farmer and village official Mely Pinagayaw. 'Otherwise you lose everything.' But the traders prove almost as voracious a foe as the bugs. Representing the grass-roots end of what in the Philippines is a multibillion-dollar agri-business, local traders form a cast-iron cartel. They lend fertiliser, pesticides and capital and take repayment in rice, but at prices well below the market rate and with exorbitant monthly interest. A failure to repay means possession of farmers' land until they can. But without land the farmer has no means of generating income. 'It is a contract of adhesion,' says Kupi Kalido. 'They make the rules, take it or leave it.' He has already lost five hectares - half his land - to the traders; his neighbour Abdul has lost 10 hectares. Instability in the area means a dearth of investment, and jobs away from the rice paddies are scarce. In such a climate of gloom everyone suffers. Of around 100 high- school-age children in Kupi Kalido's hamlet, only 20 now attend school. The organic approach offers no miracle cure. Rasid Naim admits that organic harvests are smaller than those produced with synthetic ones, although in time organic fertilisers can be expected to replenish the soil rather than deplete it. 'After harvesting using chemicals nothing would be left after paying off debts to traders,' he says. 'With the organic approach the harvest is less but there is at least something remaining.' Nor is OHN a quick fix for the black bug problem. It does not kill the bugs - it merely drives them away - and heavily infested fields must be sprayed at least once a week. But crucially it can be produced by the farmer from home-grown ingredients and carries none of the litany of health problems - such as skin conditions and lung and liver complaints - that farmers blame on the synthetic alternatives. Proponents of the organic approach say it changes the rural power equation by putting the farmer back in control of his crops. 'The important thing is the participation of the farmer,' says Francis Morales, co-founder of the Metsa Foundation, the group that supplied the organic recipes to Lasangan and five other pilot villages in the municipality. 'The point is it that it can't be too expensive for the farmer. It's got to be easily made by the farmer, and used and experimented with by the farmer.' Two years ago, Rasid Naim was one of only two farmers in Lasangan to join the Oxfam project and start producing his own fertilisers and pesticides from mostly home-grown ingredients. With the savings he has made he has been able to pay off his debts and buy an extra plot of land. His neighbours were at first sceptical that the new approach could withstand the black bugs; now 20 have followed his example. The project has grabbed the attention of farmers further afield as well as the local government, which is setting up an organic co-operative to include every village in the municipality. 'We're looking at this as a solution to the problems of the farmers,' says Juynodin Kali, agriculture chairman for General Salipada K. Pendatun. 'If we go organic, perhaps we can bring back the days before synthetic farming when you could catch fish in the rice fields.' Could organic farming also help promote peace in this troubled corner? While the government in Manila periodically paints Muslim Mindanao as a hotbed of Islamic terrorism, the reality on the ground feels a lot different. Few women strictly adhere to the headscarf, and inter-marriage between Christian and Muslims is common. 'The conflict in Mindanao is not entirely caused by ethnic or cultural/religious differences,' says Jeremy Inocian, operations manager of Oxfam's Mindanao Rights and Governance Programme. 'Poverty has already taken its grip with more and more political groups/forces competing for the same resource: land. In central Mindanao, war is still the only option among some of the poor Moro... it may not be the best option but for them it is the only workable chance to claim what they have lost. What do they have to lose?' If organic methods can break the cycle of debt and allow farmers to gain modest but sustainable profits from their land, then the answer may be a stable livelihood. As things stand, poverty leads to desperation of a kind that could merely perpetuate the violence of the past. 'We'd be happy to go into battle anywhere,' admits one of Kupi Kalido's neighbours. 'We would fight for anyone as long as we are paid.' 'More secure livelihoods can help build peace in Mindanao,' says a representative of a US-funded development project, who did not want to be named. 'Conflict arises when certain groups don't have food to eat. They then go to places where farmers are harvesting and harass them, forcing them to hand over their produce.' Despite the enthusiasm of farmers and some political will at a local level, an organic future is far from assured. Government funding for numerous social programmes in the region is on hold after a row with Manila over a missing chunk of funds, and prospects of state support for the organic co-operative look slim. Larger political forces also remain in favour of the agricultural status quo. 'Several municipalities support organic farming but the problem is now that it is not being supported at provincial and national levels,' says Mr Inocian. 'Philippine suppliers of chemical fertilisers and pesticides are dominated by trans-national corporations who constitute one of the country's most powerful lobby groups,' he says. For farmers such as Rasid Naim, the transition from a synthetic to organic approach has been a successful one. 'Organic farming has a future here,' he says. 'It will definitely uplift the farmers.' But without funds for training and even modest start-up capital, it is a future that could elude many of his debt-laden cousins. An organic approach may yet rescue the Moro of Mindanao, but like much else in their troubled history, it is likely to be a struggle.