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

“FOR the wages of sin,” says the Holy Bible, “is death” (Romans 6:23). 

“When man sins against the earth, the wage of that sin is death or destruction.  This seems to be a universal law of God and relates to all of God’s creation,” Harold R. Watson, then the director of the Davao-based Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center (MBRLC), told this author.

“We face the reality of what man’s sins against the earth have caused,” he explained.  “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.”

Before deforestation and soil erosion in the Philippines became so apparent, some people laughed at the American agricultural missionary.  “They told me, ‘We’re never going to run out of trees!’”

“When I got here, I had no idea what the problems were up in the hills,” recalled Watson, who came to the Philippines in the early 1960s.  “Farming looked pretty good on the surface.”

Soon, he discovered that the problem was the surface:  It was washing away.  Loggers were hauling trees out of the once-lush mountains, leaving behind naked hillsides.  Tribal people and migrants were using kaingin methods to clear and farm the uplands, and topsoil was fast disappearing.  The result:  low production, hunger and hopelessness.

“Erosion is not an invisible disease stalking the land in search of soil to destroy, but is, in fact, a foreseeable ecological response to inappropriate land use and management,” said soil scientist T.F. Shaxson.

As such, soil conservation is not a negative activity, involving huge expenses and small returns.  As Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations puts it:  “Soil conservation is positive: even in the short term, it results in substantial increases in agri­cultural production and, in the long term, it ensures the contin­ued productivity of the most important natural resources.”

The causes of soil erosion are well-known.  So are the techniques with which to combat it.  Soil conservation has been regarded as an important science since the devastating effects of wind erosion became apparent in the United States in the 1930s.  Over the decades, an array of techniques available to control erosion has been steadily developed and expanded.

Sloping Agricultural Land Technology

In the Philippines, one of the most advanced erosion controls is the Sloping Agricultural Land Technology (SALT) developed by the MBRLC. “SALT greatly reduces the risk of drought, landslides, floods, the silting over of low-lying land, and wind erosion, all of which are linked to the radical transformation of the natural environment and the destruction of the mountain forests,” said Jethro Adang, the current MBRLC director.  “It also replaces ugly eroded and denuded slopes with the luxuriant beauty of abundant vegetation.”

SALT also helps control soil erosion.  A study conducted at the MBRLC farm showed that a farm tilled in the traditional manner erodes at the rate of 1,163.4 metric tons per hectare per year.  A SALT farm erodes at the rate of only 20.2 metric tons per hectare per year in the same period.

The rate of soil loss in a SALT farm is 3.4 metric tons per hectare per year, which is within the tolerable range.  Most soil scientists place acceptable soil loss limits for tropical coun­tries like the Philippines within the range of 10 to 12 metric tons per hectare per year.  The non-SALT farm has an annual soil loss rate of 194.3 metric tons per hectare per year.

How SALT came to be is a story in itself. Watson, who was given a Ramon Magsaysay Award for “encouraging international utilization of SALT” kept on experimenting, searching for something simple and practical method that could help stem the tide of topsoil washing down the mountainsides in the southern part of the Philippines.

One day, he gathered his staff to brainstorm.  “We decided to start with what we knew,” Watson recalled.  “We could run a contour or a terrace line, but how could we keep it there?  Suppose we took this ‘miracle plant’ (Leucaena leucocephala, locally known as “ipil-ipil”) people had been talking about growing in the flatlands and put it around the terrace in hedgerows.  If it’s a legume, we would be enriching the soil.  Then we’d take the leaves of this plant and put them back on the soil.  We knew that one line wouldn’t hold the soil, so we said, ‘Let’s make a double line.’”

They got excited.  If the method worked, it would stop erosion, rebuild soil and increase crop yield.   Within an afternoon, the basic theory of SALT – came into existence.  “The principle of SALT is the same as that used by the Ifugao tribes three years ago,” said Palmer, who has a master’s degree in agriculture from the Murray State University.  “All we are doing is suggesting using ipil-ipil trees instead of rocks.”

The SALT scheme still requires careful management of the space between the rows of trees.  A combination of permanent, semi-permanent, and annual crops is recommended so as to rebuild the ecosystem and maximize yields while enabling farmers to organize their work time efficiently.

In the SALT farm, one finds a mix of permanent crops, cereals, and vegetables.  Every third strip of available land is normally devoted to permanent crops.  A combination of various cereals and vegetables are planted on the remaining two strips of land.  Each have its own specific area so that there can be a seasonal rotation. 

“Crop rotation helps to preserve the regenerative properties of the soil and avoid the problems of infertility typical of traditional agricultural practices,” explained Palmer on the importance of regular rotation of crops.

Being simple, applicable, low-cost and timely, the SALT system has drawn a lot of attention from officials in the Philippines and from other countries, particularly those in Asia and Africa.  Even those from industrialized countries like the Netherlands, Denmark, France, United States, Japan, and Australia have traveled to MBRLC to see SALT in action.

“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,” he said after accepting the Nobel Prize of Asia.  “I call on people everywhere to help stem the tide of this wave of destruction while there is still time.  When a nation loses the capability to feed, clothe, and shelter itself, it loses the capability to chart its own destiny.”

The success of SALT has given birth to three more systems:  Simple Agro-Livestock Technology (SALT), a system which inte­grates livestock raising into the SALT system; Sustainable Agroforest Land Technology (SALT 3), a combination of food-wood production; and Small Agrofruit Livelihood Technology (SALT 4), where fruits and trees are planted together in the same area.  

“All the SALT systems can help restore productivity to eroded lands,” Adang said.  “They can also be employed in newly opened lands to prevent soil erosion.”

He urged that Filipinos who do farming in the uplands and sloping areas must help protect the soil from erosion.

“If the soil is not well cared for, a country can never develop a sound agricultural base,” the FAO reminded.  “And without that, national development plans rarely succeed.  Soil conservation effectively increases today’s agricultural yields while insuring the well-being of future generations.” – ###