ENVIRONMENT: Rescuing uplands from destruction

Geographically, the Philippines is an upland country because 60% of its 30 million hectares are classified as such.

The uplands are rolling to steep areas where both agriculture and forestry are practiced on slopes ranging 18% upward.

Uplands also include table lands and plateaus lying at higher elevations not normally suited to wet rice unless some form of terracing and groundwater exist.

The upland provinces include Benguet, Mountain Province, Ifugao, Kalinga-Apayao, Antique, Eastern and Northern Samar, Southern Leyte, Basilan, Agusan del Norte and Sur, Bukidnon, Surigao del Sur, Davao Oriental, Compostela Valley, Davao Occidental and Zamboanga del Sur.

Uplanders – which comprised about 30% of the country’s total population with almost half of them living within forests – are often referred to as the “poorest of the poor” in the Philippine society since they survive below the poverty line.

Poverty is reflected in their houses made of bamboo, tree barks and cogon thatch roofs.  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.

Upland inhabitants are primarily poor farming families with an insecure land tenure.  “The upland farmer faces a very dark future unless something can be done for him soon,” says Roy C. Alimoane, the director of the Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center (MBRLC) in Kinuskusan, Bansalan, Davao del Sur.

The upland farmer, Alimoane believes, is “the least educated, least paid, least healthy, least hopeful, and most neglected (in terms of) agricultural development of all people in the Philippines.”

With recent attempts at industrialization, most uplanders are pushed farther to more fragile areas.  “In the Philippines, cultivation moves up the hillsides and toward higher elevations at the expense of the remaining forests,” pointed out Dr. Dennis P. Garrity, former director-general of the Bogor-based International Center for Research in Agroforestry in Indonesia.  “Cultivation is seen frequently on mountain slopes.”

A study commissioned by the National Research Council Project – entitled “Agricultural Sustainability and the Environment in the Humid Tropics” – found out that subsistence food production, rather than forestry, is their over-riding priority.

It’s no wonder why “most of the country’s once rich forests are gone,” according to the UN 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, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization published data that 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 a booklet published by ESSC.

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.

The once-upon-a-time forested areas when cultivated by uplanders become fragile.  The steep slopes, loose soil and torrential rainfall all the more make the area susceptible to landslides, mudflows, debris torrents and other forms of soil mass movements, experts claim.

“If the present rate of population growth in the uplands persists, the corresponding expansion of upland cultivation may result into further degradation of watersheds, increased soil erosion, flooding, sedimentation and siltation whose effect will be felt in the lowlands as well,” reports the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

Denuded forest lands are believed to experience 100 tons of soil loss per year against less than eight tons per year from natural forests.  The Philippines has nine million hectares classified as eroded soil.

Some years back, the DENR said in 13 provinces, more than 50% of the total land area were eroded.  Soil loss ranges from 50 to 300 tons per hectare per year.  These rates signify five times the maximum soil loss levels for any type of soil.

In Mindanao, the five provinces of Davao made it to the DENR list: Davao del Sur, Davao del Norte, Davao Oriental, Compostela Valley and Davao Occidental.

Other provinces in Mindanao included in the list were: Misamis Oriental, Bukidnon, Lanao del Sur, Zamboanga del Norte, Zamboanga del Sur, North Cotabato, and South Cotabato.

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

Watson, who developed sustainable upland farming systems, said 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.”

According the American missionary, “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 mountain.”

Most studies show that the eroded soil finds it way into the waterways, and 20% of the eroded ends up silting or contaminating rivers, coral reefs and mangrove swamps.

“The upland (area) is the ecological and social frontier where the battle for (the) future survival of the Filipino society will be fought,” Dr. Percy E. Sajise, of the University of the Philippines at Los Baños, said at that time.

“We must help fight this battle not because of any ideology or creed but primarily because we must assure the survival of the coming generation of Filipinos,” pointed out Dr. Sajise, whose pioneering work and contribution in the field of ecology are considered a breakthrough in providing solutions to pressing environmental problems.

“Let us not assign this responsibility to future generations or look around for somebody whom we should blame… when we ourselves can do something about it,” he added. — (To be concluded)