ENVIRONMENT: Rescuing uplands from destruction

Second of two parts

Most uplanders belong to the category “small farmers.”  And “small farmers,” according to the Food and Agriculture Organization 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 rural areas.”

In the Philippines, about 30% of the total population live in the uplands, defined as “rolling to steep lands, with slopes ranging upward from 18%.”

“The effects of population pressure on upland resources is magnified because of the high growth rate and intense poverty,” said Ma. Victoria O. Espaldon, who used to be with the Institute of Environmental Science and Management at the University of the Philippines at Los Baños.

Lack of opportunities for income and livelihood stimulate people to migrate from the lowlands to inhospitable upland areas.

“As a result of intensified cultivation of areas which are traditionally used extensively by shifting cultivators, there is soil degradation, pollution, loss of genetic diversity, and declining agricultural productivity,” Espaldon said.

Another expert also said: “The uplands are fragile areas, and when they get overloaded, they just can’t take it.  Some people move and get trapped into something worse – urban slums, squatting, prostitution, drugs, you name it.”

All these results are due to man’s folly.  “When man sins against the earth, the wage of that sin is death or destruction,” explained Harold Ray Watson, the 1985 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for peace and international understanding.  “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,” he said further.  “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 the earth.”

Watson got the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award – touted to be the Nobel Prize of Asia – for encouraging international utilization of Sloping Agricultural Land Technology (SALT) which he and Filipino counterparts developed at the foothills of Mount Apo.

“The principle of SALT is the same as that used by the Ifugao tribes,” said Roy C. Alimoane, who is now the director of the Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center (MBRLC).  “All we are doing is using trees and shrubs instead of rocks.”

SALT is a package technology on soil conservation and food production, integrating different soil conservation measures in one setting.

Basically, SALT is a method of growing field and permanent crops in 3-meter to 5-meter wide bands between contoured rows of nitrogen fixing trees and shrubs (NFTS) like “Flemingia macrophylla,” “Desmodium rensonii,” “Indigofera anil” and “Leucaena leucocephala.”  All are introduced species, except the latter which is known locally as “ipil-ipil.”

“The NFTS are thickly planted in double rows to make hedgerows,” Alimoane explains.  “When a hedge is 1.5 to 2 meters tall, it is cut down to about 40 centimeters and the cuttings are placed in alleyways to serve as organic fertilizers to crops.”

SALT is actually a diversified farming system practiced in one hectare.  Rows of permanent crops like coffee, cacao, citrus and other small-growing fruit trees are dispersed throughout the farm plot.

The strips not occupied by permanent crops are planted alternately to cereals (corn, upland rice, sorghum, etc.) or other crops (sweet potato, melon, pineapple, etc.) and legumes (soybean, mung bean, peanut, etc.).  This cyclical cropping provides the farmer harvest throughout the year.

“Crop rotation helps to preserve the regenerative properties of the soil and avoid the problems of infertility typical of traditional agricultural practices,” Alimoane says.

SALT was developed on a marginal site in Kinuskusan, Bansalan, Davao del Sur.  In 1971, the MBRLC started to employ contour terraces in the sloping areas of the farm.  Dialogues with local upland farmers acquainted the center’s agricultural experts with farm problems and needs which gave impetus to efforts find relevant and appropriate upland farming systems.

From testing different intercropping schemes and observing ipil-ipil-based farming systems in Hawaii and at the center, the SALT was finally verified and completed in 1978.

A study conducted at the MBRLC has shown that SALT system can curb soil erosion.  A SALT farm has an average soil loss of 4.83 tons per hectare per year.  In comparison, the traditional upland farming system registered an average soil loss of 101.69 tons per hectare per year.

The success of SALT led to the creation of other techniques: Simple Agro-Livestock Technology (SALT 2), in which goat raising is introduced into the system; Sustainable Agroforest Land Technology (SALT 3), a food-wood combination of farming; and Small Agrofruit Livelihood Technology (SALT 4), where fruits are grown together with other agricultural crops.

All the SALT techniques have one thing in common: simple, applicable, low-cost and timely methods of farming uplands.  They are technologies developed for small farmers with few tools, little capital and little knowledge in agriculture.

Contour lines are run using an A-frame transit that any farmer can make and use.  A farmer can grow varieties of crops he is familiar with and old-farming practices can be used in the SALT farm.

If farmers leave the SALT farm, like some tribal groups in Mindanao do, the NTFS will continue to grow and overshadow the crop area.  By the time the land is reverted to cultivation, the soil has been enriched already by the large amount of leaves of the NFTS and there is no erosion to contend with.  In addition, the trees may be harvested for firewood or charcoal purposes.

“Many of us who live and work among the hilly land farmers and upland tribal groups in Asia are sounding the alarm to the problems of deforestation and soil erosion,” said Watson when he received his Ramon Magsaysay Award.  “I call on people everywhere to help stem the tide of this wave of destruction while there is still time.”

He ended his speech with these words: “When a nation loses the capability to feed, clothe, and shelter itself, it loses the capability to chart its own destiny.”

Thirty-three years have already passed since Watson said those words.  It seems no one listening!