Yes, farming with trees is possible!

“To be poor and be without trees is to be the most starved human being in the world. To be poor and have trees is to be completely rich in ways that money can never buy.” — Clarissa Pinkola Estés, author of The Faithful Gardener: A Wise Tale About That Which Can Never Die


If the Philippines will not do something drastic now, it would be the first country in Asia to completely lose its forest cover soon.  Cebu is a case in point: It has a “zero-forest cover,” said environment officials.

“Most of the country’s once rich forests are gone,” says the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) study entitled, “Sustainable Forest Management.”

“We have lost most of our forest of old over the past 50 years and, along with them, many of the ecological services they provide,” deplores Peter Walpole, executive director of the Environmental Science for Social Change (ESSC).

In the 1920s, forest still covered 18 million hectares of 60% of the country’s total land area of 30 million hectares.  It went down to 50% (15 million hectares) in the 1950s.  In 1963, FAO published data placed forest cover of the country at 40% (12 million hectares).

By 1970s, the forest cover shrunk to 34% (10.2 million hectares).  From 1977 to 1980, deforestation reached an all-time high — over 300,000 hectares a year, according to an ESSC-published booklet.

In 1987, the Swedish Space Corporation put forest cover in the country at 23% (6.9 million hectares).  “At the end of the 1980s, out of the 34 major islands that had been very densely forested at the beginning of the century, 24 islands had now less than 10% forest cover,” the ESSC publication said.

In the 1990s, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources reported that the country had only 800,000 hectares (2.7%) primary forest cover.  Residual forest was placed at 4.7 million hectares.

“Where have all our forests gone?” asked Roy C. Alimoane, the director of the Davao-based Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center (MBRLC).  “Why are we losing our trees at a very fast rate?”

The ever-growing population can be partly blamed.  “The most likely causes were the increase in population — up from about 500,000 in 152 to around seven million in 1900,” the ESSC publication surmised.  Today, the Philippines is home to more than 100 million Filipinos.

“This was accompanied by the spread of commercial crops (abaca, tobacco and sugarcane) and by growth of pasture lands for cattle raising as the Philippines became part of the world economy,” the publication continued.

But logging — both legal and illegal — is seen as the primary culprit.  “An important source of deforestation has been the dramatic expansion of destructive logging,” wrote Robert Repetto in The Forest for the Trees? Government Policies and the Misuse of Forest Resources.

The logging boomed in the late 1960s.  “Logging concession areas increased from 4.5 million hectares to 11.6 million hectares, covering more than one-third of the entire country,” the ESSC publication reported.  “Timber companies owned by the traditional elite, the Philippine military, and politicians cornered the logging contracts.”

According to Repetto, annual outputs averaging 10 million cubic meters were maintained until 1974, “when depletion, world recession, and competition from other log-exporting countries forced a reduction.”

Declines continued over the next decade, and by 1984 the harvest had returned to the pre-boo level of 3.8 million cubic meters.

“Logging is more than an ecological problem,” the book, Saving the Earth, published by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, surmised. “It is a social, political and economic dilemma as well.  At the root of the malaise are stupendous profits and the ease with which they can be raked in.”

Upland migration and agricultural expansion had also contributed to the fast disappearance of the country’s forest cover.  “Some 80,000 to 120,000 families cleared an estimated 2.3 million hectares of forest land,” Repetto wrote.  “The spread of shifting cultivation largely reflects population growth and the economy’s failure to provide employment alternatives for the country’s rural poor.”

The ESSC believes that had all these factors been carried out in a manner that contributed to the overall development of the country, “the majority of the people could have been benefited.”

However, historical land classification indicates that only very few people — less than 500 individuals or corporations — had held access rights to most of the country’s forest resources.  “This figure highlights the injustice,” the ESSC publication points out.

The ESSC thinks the responsibility for the present sad state of the Philippine forest rests with past administrations.  “There has been a near total failure on the part of the government to recognize the sociocultural and ecological values of the forests,” it says, adding that they failed “to recognize any value except short-term economic gain.”

The ESSC also fears that this “short-term economic gain” thinking may also be “repeated in the drive to adopt mining as the answer to our economic development.” In the Philippines, mining operations are oftentimes located in ancestral land, forest land, and even prime agricultural land.

But the destruction caused by deforestation are already written on the wall.  “Deforestation has left upper watersheds unprotected, destabilizing river flows, with significant effects on fish population and agriculture,” Repetto wrote.  “The implications for hydroelectric projects and irrigation facilities have already become apparent in Luzon, where anticipated lifetimes of important reservoirs have been cut in half by sedimentation.”

Tall acacia trees ready for harvesting.

According to Dr. Rodel D. Lasco, a member of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, deforestation is one of the leading causes of greenhouse gas emissions. “Ten billion to 12 billion tons of carbon dioxide are released per year due to deforestation, that is loss of forest, as well as through agriculture, such as livestock, soil and nutrient management,” he pointed out.

Most of the deforestation happens in the uplands, where 60% of the country’s total land area is classified as such.  With the population continues to boom, the forests that cover the uplands may soon be gone.

But wait, the Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center (MBRLC) Foundation, Inc. in Kinuskusan, Bansalan, Davao del Sur has discovered a farming system where trees and crops can be planted together.  It’s called Sustainable Agroforest Land Technology or SALT 3. The model it has developed occupies a land area of two hectares.

Farmers can plant one hectare to different trees and another hectare to various agricultural crops,” explains Roy C. Alimoane, the center’s director.  “The crops provide income for the farmer and his family while waiting for the trees to grow.”

Actually, SALT 3 is another variant of the SALT systems, which the MBRLC is noted for.  For encouraging international utilization of the one-hectare SALT 1 (Sloping Agricultural Land Technology) model, former director Harold R. Watson received the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for peace and international understanding in 1985.

SALT 2 (Simple Agro-Livestock Technology) is the integration of goats into the SALT system.  Designed for only half a hectare, 12 does are raised together in one house situated in the middle of the farm with one buck living in an adjacent shed.

In SALT 3, one-hectare is developed for various agricultural crops.  Following the SALT 1 system, different nitrogen-fixing trees and shrubs (like the local “ipil-ipil” and “kakawate” and introduced species such as Flemingia macrophylla, Desmodium rensonii, and Indigofera anil) are planted in double rows, following their natural contour.

“The principle of SALT is the same as that used by the Ifugao tribes in Mountain Province,” Alimoane explains.  “All we are doing is using various nitrogen fixing trees and shrubs instead of rocks.”

When the rows of vegetation are 1.5 to 2 meters tall, they are cut back to about 40 centimeters and the tops are piled in the 3-5 meter alleys where crops are growing.  “The leaves of the shrubs make very good nitrogen-rich fertilizer and also add organic matter of the soil,” Alimoane points out.

In the SALT scheme, you find a mix of permanent crops, cereals and vegetables.  Every third strip of available land is normally devoted to permanent crops like cacao and coffee.  A combination of various cereals (corn, upland rice, and sorghum) and vegetables (string beans, cucumber, squash, etc.) are planted on the remaining two strips of land.

MBRLC recommends crop rotation.  For instance, those strips planted with cereals earlier are planted with peanuts or winged beans in the next cropping.  “Crop rotation helps to preserve the regenerative properties of the soil and avoid the problems of infertility typical of traditional agricultural practices,” Alimoane says.

Multistory cropping may also be practiced (planting black pepper, corn, and lanzones together in one hedge).   In waterlogged areas, gabi, kangkong and other water-loving crops are planted.  “We all do these to make use of all the available spaces of the farm,” Alimoane says.

“Some of the crops should be planted to feed the farmer’s family, while other crops are grown for sale, so family income is well spread out over the season,” says Alimoane.  “Every week or every month, there’s always something to harvest.  The system can, in fact, raise the family income threefold.”

However, MBRLC encourages that only one hectare is planted to crops.  This is where the farmer will concentrate more as years go by.  However, the upper portion of the farm is allotted to various trees, which are – as much as possible – native to the area.

Alimoane talked about “tree time zones” of 1-5, 6-10, 11-15 and 16-20 years, within which progressively more valuable products are harvested.  Some very valuable trees could be left longer, and he dubs this “the grandchildren project.”  As he explains it: “You plant trees not for yourself but for your grandchildren.”

Among the tree species planted in the SALT 3 model farm are bamboo, Sesbania sesban, “ipil-ipil,” Acacia auriculiformis and A. mangiumSwietenia macrophyllaPterocarpus indicus (more popularly known as narra), and Samanea saman (rattan is planted below it).   Some of these are planted basically for fuelwood while others are for furniture purposes.

SALT 3 is MBRLC’s contribution in saving the planet earth.  It urges Filipinos to plant trees – even at the end of the world, so goes a saying.  American President Theodore Roosevelt once reminded: “A person without children would face a hopeless future; a country without trees is almost as helpless.”