AGRITRENDS: Waging war against quiet crisis (Second of Three Parts) 

Poorest of the poor.” “Marginalized.”  “Illiterate.” These are some of the terms used to describe the upland farmers in the Philippines.   But the Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center (MBRLC), a non-government organization based in Kinuskusan, Bansalan, Davao del Sur depicted them as “neglected.”

“The upland farmer faces a very dark future unless something can be done for him very soon,” said Jethro Adang, the new MBRLC director.  “He is the least educated, least paid, least healthy, least hopeful, and most neglected agricultural development of all people in the Philippines.”

Uplanders are referred to as the “poorest of the poor” in the Philippine society since they survive below the poverty line level.  The impoverished situation is reflected in their houses made of bamboo, tree bark and cogon thatch roofing.  Their sources of water are either mountain springs or streams.

In terms of education, the upland farmer rarely finishes grade school.  Studies show that he either drops out after the third grade or does not even attempt to enter school.  His wife, like himself, fares no better.

In the Philippine context, the uplands are rolling to steep lands, with slopes ranging upward from 18%.  About 60% of the country’s total land area of 30 million hectares is upland, which serve as home for 17.8 million Filipinos.  About 8.5 million people reside in public forest lands, including 5.95 million members of the indigenous cultural communities and 2.55 million migrants from lowland groups.

“The inhabitants are primarily farming families in dire poverty and insecurity,” said a study commissioned by the National Research Council Project (NRCP) on Agricultural Sustainability and the Environment in the Humid Tropics.  “Subsistence food production, rather than forestry, is their overriding priority.”

Small farmers

Most uplanders belong to the category “small farmers.”  And “small farmers,” according to the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, constitute “at least 70%” of the over three-quarters of the world’s population living in the developing world, primarily in the rural areas.

“Even with reasonable amounts of fertile land,” said the UN specialized agency, “most face serious obstacles – the lack of appropriate technology and agricultural inputs, inadequate marketing facilities and poor community services such as sanitation, medical care and education.  The result is widespread poverty and malnutrition, and all their attendant miseries.”

In the past, most of these small farmers owned modest lots to till – but not for long.  This was when globalization and commercialization took place.  In Mindanao, for instance, when commercial agricultural plantations of banana and pineapple expanded, poorer farmers were pushed onto marginal land.  Commercialization and concentration of agricultural lands in lowland areas in Leyte has decreased the land available for poor farmers, and forced to initiate farming in upland areas.

“As effective control of agricultural land becomes more concentrated in the hands of wealthier farmers and corporations, small farms are become smaller,” said the NRCP-commissioned study.

As a result, the uplands become the “last frontier” for these farmers.  This has been echoed by Charles Castro in his 1984 paper, Uplands and Uplanders: In Search for New Perspectives:

“Even if the Philippine government poured all of its resources, money and talent expanding the carrying capacity of the lowlands, it would still become all too clear that the next focus for rural development efforts will have to be the uplands.  For it is in the uplands where supplementary and additional food sources will be grown.  It is in the uplands which will give Filipinos temporary elbow room for the land shortage. 

“It is in the uplands where landless rural people will find a new option in fighting rural poverty.  It is in the uplands where alternatives for fossil fuel requirements may be produced.  It is in the uplands where consequently new problems of tenure, social justice, and human rights will be fought, and it is in the uplands where the long-term viability of resources needed by the densely populated areas – such as irrigation water, timber, and coastal and fishery resources – can be established.”

Unfortunately, the country’s uplands are on the verge of total destruction.  “Most of the uplands in the Philippines have long been subjected to unregulated logging, squatting and kaingin (slash-and-burn farming),” says Jon Jeffrey Palmer, the new director of MBRLC.

Soil erosion

As a result, the country now experiences droughts and floods every year, not to mention the declining fertility of these areas.  Degradation of the upland areas is further aggravated by rugged terrain and heavy rainfall which brings about rapid soil erosion.

“Soil erosion is an enemy to any nation – far worse than any outside enemy coming into a country and conquering it because it’s an enemy you cannot see vividly,” deplored Harold R. Watson, the first MBRLC director who received the 1985 Ramon Magsaysay Award for international understanding. “It’s a slow creeping enemy that soon possess the land.”

For developing countries like the Philippines, soil erosion is among the most chronic environmental and economic burdens.   “Erosion is a double disaster:  a vital resource disappears from where it is desperately needed only to be dumped where it is equally unwanted,” said the Nobel Prize-winning Norman E. Borlaug.

And erosion is literally costing the earth.  The soil it carries off now totals 20 billion tons a year worldwide, FAO claims.  This represents the equivalent loss of between 5 million and 7 million hectares of arable land.

Watson, for his part, warned that soil erosion will imperil the country’s food supply in the coming years.  “Land is not being remade,” he averred.  “Soil is made by God and put here for man to use, not for one generation but forever.  It takes thousands of years to build one inch of topsoil but only one good strong rain to remove one inch from unprotected soil on the slopes of mountains.”

Deforestation

The former American agricultural missionary cited deforestation as one of the primary culprits of soil erosion.  “Strip away the trees and expose the soil to the full force of tropical rain and sun, and the soils deteriorate rapidly,” he decried.

“Hillside stripped of their protective covering of vegetation are rapidly eroding, depositing huge amounts of silt into downstream reservoirs and river valleys,” Noel D. Vietmeyer wrote in the foreword of Vetiver Grass:  A thin green line against erosion.  “Floods are becoming more frequent – and more severe.”

Tropical rainforests cover just 7% of the planet’s land area.  But they are being cut at a staggering rate, a report from the Nairobi-based United Nations Environment Program said.  Reliable figures for deforestation rates are difficult to obtain but one estimate is 4.6 million hectares a year.

Ooi Jin Bee, a geographer at the National University of Singapore and author of Depletion of the Forest Resource in the Philippines, commented that “the once forest-rich Philippines is on its way to becoming the first country in Asia to achieve the dubious distinction of complete deforestation by the year 2000.”

Fortunately, the forecast didn’t happen.  But as Filipinos continue to deforest its forest resources, they may wake up one day without trees anymore. (To be concluded)