ENVIRONMENT: All-out war against land degradation

“Land is the foundation for all life-sustaining processes on the planet. It provides us with food and water. It helps us manage environmental risks such as floods and drought. It supports natural processes such as soil formation and nutrient cycling. And it offers opportunities for social and cultural activities. In economic terms, land benefits billions of people, including a large proportion that depends entirely on farming and forest products for their livelihood. For all these reasons, it’s imperative to maintain sustained and productive use of land.” – Global Environment Facility


In the early 1970s, American missionary Harold Ray Watson – then the director of the Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center (MBRLC) – received several complaints of low and declining farm income from upland farmers in barangay Kinuskusan of Bansalan, Davao del Sur.

Watson recalled that in one area, corn production had dropped from 3.5 tons per hectare to about only half a ton per hectare in a span of ten years.  Other crop yields had also dropped 60%-80% during the same period.

An agriculturist by profession, Watson did his own investigation of the situation in the area.  He came to conclusion that the main culprit for these low yields was the depletion of soil and nutrients through erosion.

“Soil erosion is an enemy to any nation – far worse than any outside enemy coming into a country a conquering it because it is an enemy you cannot see vividly,” said Watson, who received the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1985 for international understanding.  “It’s a slow creeping enemy that soon possesses the land.”

Soil erosion is one form of land degradation, considered to be a continuing serious problem in the Philippines. “Land degradation includes any form of land deterioration that affects the integrity of the ecosystem and encompasses both a reduction of land productivity and of its native biological richness and maintenance of resilience,” Dr. Zenaida M. Sumalde, a professor of economics at the University of the Philippines at Los Baños (UPLB).

As form of land degradation, soil erosion is the sternest, according to Dieldre S. Harder, a researcher with the Economy and Environment Program for Southeast Asia (EEPSEA).  “(Soil erosion) affects 63% to 76% of the country’s total land area, particularly in the upland regions,” she pointed out.

Upland areas

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 are classified as uplands.

“Around 74% of sloping upland area is cultivated for subsistence farming, which has implications on food security,” wrote Harder in her policy report which was part of the cross-country research project, “Sustainable Land Management: Adoption and Implementation Constraints.”

In terms of severity, 5.2 million hectares and 8.5 million hectares of the country’s total arable lands are severely eroded and moderately eroded, respectively, according to the report.

In 1989, the World Bank estimated the annual value of on-site fertility losses due to unsustainable upland agriculture in the country to be around US$100 million – that equal to one percent of Philippine gross domestic product per year.

Most of the uplands teemed with forests in the past.  By 1969, only 10.4 million hectares of forests were left.  This figure further decreased to about 7.5 million hectares in 1980. At the end of 1990, only 6.64 million hectares remain.

Most of those who live in the uplands belong to the “poorest of the poor.”  A study commissioned by the National Research Council reported: “The inhabitants are primarily farming families in dire poverty and insecurity.  Subsistence food production, rather than forestry, is their overriding priority.”

Food insecurity

Soil erosion threatens food production.  “We are hardly aware of this enormous loss which is progressively eroding away our most fertile soil and thus our ability to produce food for an expanding population,” the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) noted in a pastoral letter more than two decades ago.

Studies have shown that loss of a few centimeters of topsoil can reduce the productivity of good soils by 40% and poor soils by 60%.  “No other soil phenomenon is more destructive worldwide than soil erosion,” wrote Nyle C. Brady in his book, The Nature and Properties of Soil.

Soil erosion does not only affect those in the lowlands but even the coastal ecosystem.  “During rains, runoff carries eroded soil down to the rivers that deposit it in the sea.  This siltation smothers reefs and kills or drives away to inhospitable areas the fishes that feed and shelter among the corals,” explains the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), a line agency of the Department of Agriculture.

The Philippines has about 27,000 square kilometers of coral reefs.  They produce about four times more fish per unit area compared to the coastal trawl fisheries.  Unfortunately, most of them are on the verge of extinction.

Lester R. Brown and Edward C. Wolf, authors of Soil Erosion: Quiet Crisis in the World Economy, said the immediate effects of soil erosion may be economic but in the long run, its ultimate effects are social.

“When soils are depleted and crops are poorly nourished, people are often undernourished as well,” the two authors wrote.  “Failure to respond to the erosion threat will lead not only to the degradation of land, but to the degradation of life itself.”

Chemical use

In lowland agriculture, degradation due to chemical use is a serious environment concern.  Since the Green Revolution in the mid-1960s, intensive crop cultivation has resulted to increasing nutrient deficiency leading to a decline in fertilizer use efficiency over time.  “Intensification of agricultural land use without compensating investments in soil structure and fertility can lead to land degradation,” Harder wrote.

Chemical fertilizers are very popular among Filipino farmers because they increase crop yields.  But agricultural savants claim that continued use of these chemicals causes organisms present in the soil to die.  Without soil organisms, chemically saturated land will eventually lose its capacity to nourish healthy and fruitful crops, until finally the soil “dies.”

“We are facing not merely a vexing problem,” Watson said.  “We are facing certain destruction and even death if we continue to destroy the natural resources that support life on earth.”

Sustainable land management 

Recognizing the threat of land degradation to food security, the government launched several sustainable land management (SLM) practices.  These include the promotion of organic farming that was supported by the Organic Agriculture Act of 2010, the adoption of agroforestry or tree-based farming techniques popularized by the World Agroforestry Center, and contour farming that includes the Sloping Agricultural Land Technology (SALT) developed by Watson and his Filipino counterparts.

“SALT establishes a stable ecosystem,” reports Roy C. Alimoane, the current director.  “The double hedgerows of leguminous trees and shrubs between land strips prevent soil erosion and maintain water flows.”

When a hedge is 1.5 to two meters tall, it is cut back to a height of 40 centimeters and the cuttings are placed in the strips between the alleys to serve as organic fertilizer (green manure).

“The hedgerows provide permanent vegetative cover which help conserve water and soil. Likewise, they improve soil and air temperature to levels which favor growth of different agricultural crops,” Alimoane says.

A study conducted at the MBRLC showed that a farm tilled by a traditional farmer has an erosion rate of 1,162.4 metric tons per hectare per year over six years, whereas a SALT farm has an erosion rate of only 20.2 metric tons per hectare per year during the same period.


As a land-use system, agroforestry has been practiced in the Philippines since time immemorial.  It combines the planting of perennials such as forest trees and/or horticultural crops (fruit trees, coffee, cacao, and coconut, among others) in addition to cash crops (rice, corn, root crops, etc.).

The Ifugao rice terraces provide a clear example of it.  Dr. Rogelio C. Serrano, who has studied the Ifugao for a number of years, refers to their farming system as “… an ancient spatial version of the new science of agroforestry.”

Seen from a wider perspective, the totality of the upland farming system of the Ifugao consists of the payoh (rice fields), the muyong (forest) and the uma (swidden lands).  These components interact with each other, with Ifugao culture and with landscapes and ecosystems at lower elevations.

“Over the years, most attention has focused on the rice terraces themselves,” Serrano pointed out.  “It is only recently that outsiders have come to recognize and appreciate the critical roles of the muyongs in sustaining the land-use system of the Ifugao, and their lives and culture. Muyongs are an essential part of the agroforestry system in the steep mountainous region – protecting lower farmlands from runoff and erosion.”

Organic farming

One of the banner programs of the Department of Agriculture, organic agriculture is “an agricultural production system that avoid or largely excludes the use of synthetically compounded fertilizers, growth regulators, pesticides, livestock feed additives, and genetically modified organisms and products.”

Located right at the back of a mall in the heart of Victorias City, the Peñalosa Farm is one of the top agri-tourism destinations in Negros Occidental.  “We can address the problem of poverty by teaching people about farming,” said Ramon Dayrit Peñalosa, Jr., the owner of the farm.

“Mr. Organic,” the moniker Peñalosa earned for venturing into organic farming and stuck to it like a glue, really never thought of becoming an agripreneur.  When his former business, bus transport system, closed down, he was left with a property that was used before as garage and repair area for vehicles.

“We had to think of something that would make our property into something productive,” recalled organic guru and pillar of organic farming in Negros Island and Western Visayas.  “So, we tried something far off from bus lines.”

In the beginning, he planted kangkong in the property, particularly near the water-logged areas.  Later on, the whole area was swamped with kangkong.  He decided to raise pigs, which he found out to be viable.  He added more pigs and before he knew it, he was already raising 40 pigs all in all.  He thought of raising tilapia, ducks and chickens.  He planted fruit trees and vegetable crops.

From a swamp area where mechanics dumped trash to a place teeming with vegetable crops, fruit trees, herbs, ornamentals, livestock, fish and poultry today, the Peñalosa Farm has gone a long, long way indeed.


But despite the many policies the government has done and the availability of technologies to combat land degradation, implementation of various SLM seems not to be moving forward.  What must be the reasons?

So, a study was conducted by the EEPSEA in cooperation with the Economics of Land Degradation (ELD) Initiative in the Philippines along with three other countries: Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.  The aim was to evaluate past and on-going SLM projects in these countries and how can these be widely adopted to support.

The study in the Philippines showed several constraints (policy, legal, technical, social, economic and institutional) on why Filipino farmers are not adopting the projects that promote soil and water conservation measures.

According to the study, the country has several relevant policies that can address the land degradation issues.  But these are not fully implemented “due to weak enforcement” as well as there are overlapping and consistent provisions of some policies which result “in conflicting decisions and actions.”

Farmers, who are the direct beneficiaries of the projects, have some complains themselves.  Take the case of organic agriculture.  While most farmers are aware of the health benefits of this practice, they complain of decrease in yield during the conversion from inorganic to organic practices.  They also find the production of organic fertilizers and concoctions to be laborious.

Money-wise, organic farming is not profitable.  “It’s a labor-intensive undertaking and the monetary return is not that attractive as only a few people are healthy food conscious,” comments Edelito Sangco, the municipal agriculturist of Socorro, Surigao del Norte.  “If you sell in market stalls those organically-produced vegetables along with those grown inorganically, the prices are the same.”

Part of RA 10068 is a stumbling block in itself.  Section 17 specifically declares that “only third-party certification is allowed (for agricultural produce) to be labeled as organically produced.”  Farmers find this as a limiting factor to organic agriculture adoption.

In addition, the cost of certification is another limiting factor.  It ranges from P42,000 to P150,000 “depending on the number of scopes being certified” and “if certification is for an individual farmer or for a group of farmers.”

In contour farming, labor is also an issue.  The hedgerows need to be trimmed regularly in order for them not to shade the crops planted along the alleys.  Studies have shown the trimming requires more than 30 person-days per year.  Another reason: reduction of 20% to 30% of the farm area as these are occupied by hedgerows.

Low availability of planting materials for contour hedgerows also limit adoption.  Not to mention are the pests and diseases which vegetative contour barriers have been observed to host.

As for agroforestry, adoption constraints include credit sourcing from traders and/or middlemen and profitability of annual cash crops.  “Filipino Farmers these days want quick-fix or quick outputs,” says Janoz Laquihon, an agriculturist who shares some farming techniques through his radio program called “Balik Kita Sa Uma” (Back to the Farm).  “They don’t care about climate smart agriculture.”


The EEPSEA study provided some recommendations on how those constraints can be addressed.  In “Review of policies and programs: Reforms needed for the stronger implementation of sustainable land management,” written by Samuel M. Contreras and Florentino O. Tesoro, the recommendations have been laid out.

For one, it suggested that a unified land use law be made.  It must “address the complexities of problems on land use and land-related issues.”  Once realized, “this will provide the strong foundation for the effective implementation of the Comprehensive Land Use Plan (CLUP) of municipalities and cities.”

Another suggestion: strengthen SLM within the framework of existing laws.  While waiting for the enactment of a strong land use policy law, “the Department of Interior and Local Government should monitor the integration of SLM provisions in the municipal CLUP as well as implementation of SLM projects.”

Establishment of more SLM technology demonstration farms is another doable suggestion.  These technologies should be specific natural and human environments (that is, land use, nature of degradation being addressed, rainfall pattern, soils, land forms, tenure status and land holding.

More importantly, forest boundary must be delineated.  “To reduce land conflicts and conflicting land uses as well as encroachment and illegal occupancy of forestlands, a law defining the final forestland limits should be enacted,” Contreras and Tesoro suggested.

The Bible says, “For sin pays its wage… death” (Romans 6:23).  “When man sins against the earth, the wage of that sin is death or destruction,” Watson explained.  “This seems to be a universal law of God and relates to all of God’s creation.

“We face the reality of what man’s sins against the earth have caused,” Watson further added. “We see land degradation expressing itself in destruction of forests, loss of topsoil, pollution of streams and even the air we breathe.  We are facing not a mere problem; we are facing destruction and even death if we continue to destroy the natural resources that support life on our planet.”