AGRITRENDS: Rescuing uplands from total annihilation

“At first, everything was fine,” Manang Graciana recalled. “We had enough and almost everything was affordable. We practiced slash-and-burn farming. Land was fertile and the use of fertilizer was not that popular then.”

This was in the 1970s. But twenty years later, farmers in the area noticed that the produce from their farms declined considerably. This was evidenced in the farm of Buencamino Talabucon, a former jeepney driver. He decided to become a farmer when a distant relative allowed him to till the 1.5-hectare land on the slopes of a mountain.

With very little knowledge on farming, Talabucon cleared one-fourth hectare which was planted to corn. Initially, the harvest was good. Eventually though, production significantly plummeted.

“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, considered them as “neglected.”

“The upland farmer faces a very dark future unless something can be done for him very soon,” observed Harold R. Watson, then the director of MBRLC. “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 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.

Studies of malnutrition in the uplands of Palawan, for instance, showed second- and third-degree malnutrition among children. In Mount Banahaw, Luzon, children were not only malnourished but also had triple infection of internal parasites – due to the lack of sanitary facilities and health services.

Sloping Agricultural Land Technology.
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 percent. About 60 percent of the country’s total land area of 30 million hectares is considered uplands.

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

Most uplanders belong to the category “small farmers,” according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). And small farmers constitute “at least 70 percent 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,” the UN food agency said, “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 farm – but not for long. This was when globalization and commercialization entered the equation. In Mindanao, for instance, when commercial agricultural plantations of banana and pineapple expanded, poorer farmers were pushed onto marginal lands.

“As effective control of agricultural land becomes more concentrated in the hands of wealthier farmers and corporations, small farms are becoming smaller,” the NCRP-commissioned study found out.

In a national conference on research in the uplands in 1983, Dr. Percy E. Sajise, one of the most respected ecologists in the country, decried: “The upland is the ecological and social frontier where the battle for future survival of the Filipino society will be fought… We must help fight this battle now… (to) assure the survival of the coming generation. Let us not assign this responsibility to future generations or look around for somebody whom we should blame for these mistakes when we ourselves can do something about it.”

To control erosion and help fertilize the farm, hedgerows of different nitrogen fixing shrubs can be planted in the farm.
In response to the situation, governments and research organizations have implemented many upland development projects. The objective is to put a stop to upland degradation and to alleviate the plight of upland farmers.

That was the aim of Upland Sustainable Agroforestry Development (USAD), which was initiated in Agusan del Sur by then governor Adolph Edward “Eddiebong” G. Plaza in 2013 after Typhoon Pablo ravaged the province.

“We launched the program, confident that I can kill three birds with one stone: recover quickly from calamities, protect the environment, and fight poverty,” said Plaza, who is now a representative of the second district of Agusan del Sur, in a privileged speech delivered on August 10, 2022.

USAD is the centerpiece program of the provincial government of Agusan del Sur whose objective is to uplift the standard of living of farmers living in upland areas. In 2021, USAD was chosen as one of the Top 10 Outstanding Local Governance Programs in the country.

“We conceptualized and launched the USAD Program… riding on a critical paradigm shift,” Plaza explained. “We shifted our thinking from planting crops to growing people. Instead of subsisting on a dole-out strategy and the bureaucratic norm of distributing assistance, we pushed for the empowerment of individuals and communities for greater productivity and sustainability.”

More often than not, local governments merely give out seeds, tools and farm equipment to affected farmers. Instead of doing so, “we gave the upland farmers comprehensive support anchored on accountability, assisted by science, and nurtured by the provincial government,” Plaza pointed out.

Farmers who joined the program are called “farmer-enrollees.” “They were identified through a selection process based on the recent community-based monitoring system data,” said Prochina.

Upland communities with high poverty incidence and farmers with below the poverty threshold are prioritized with the program.

As members, farmers have the following privileges: receive farm inputs and materials from planting up to production stage and undergo capacity development in terms of training, seminars, and benchmarking, among others. They are also provided with market linkages for their produce.

As enrollees, however, farmers have some responsibilities. Aside from their willingness to be part of the program, they should be willing to make a counterpart for the maintenance and sustainability of the project given to them.

They have also to follow the production technologies introduced to them. In addition, they should not, in any way, do something that could damage and harm the given project. In case the farmer enrollee needs to sell or dispose of the given project, he or she needs to consult and inform the focal person-charge first.

“The farmer-enrollees are our development partners, not beneficiaries of a dole-out,” Plaza stressed.

Since its inception, there are now 5,615 farmer enrollees.

“Success is anchored on our earnest belief that as dwellers and stewards of our planet, it is incumbent upon all of us to protect and conserve our natural resources, our forests, and the environment,” Plaza said.

Non-governmental organizations are also doing their part. MBRLC, for instance, has developed an upland farming system called Sloping Agricultural Land Technology (SALT). As a simple agroforestry scheme, SALT can easily be adopted by upland marginal farmers. Simply put, it is a sustainable growing of trees and cash crops on contoured terraces along the hillsides.

“SALT is a diversified farming system,” said Jethro P. Adang, the second Filipino director of MBRLC. Rows of permanent crops like coffee, cacao, citrus and other 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 some harvest throughout the year.

“The principle of SALT is the same as that used by the Ifugao tribes,” said Adang. “All we are doing is suggesting using different nitrogen-fixing trees and shrubs instead of rocks.”

Examples of these trees and shrubs are ipil-ipil, madre de cacao and those introduced species like flemingia, rensonii, and indigofera. The leaves of these species can be used as fertilizer for the crops. They also help control erosion, a primary problem in the uplands.

SALT was developed on a marginal site in barangay Kinuskusan. In 1971, the MBRLC started to employ contour terraces in sloping areas of the farm. Dialogues with local upland farmers acquainted the center with farm problems and needs which gave the impetus to work out a relevant and appropriate upland farming system.

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

The SALT technology has received various citations and recognitions from government agencies like the Department of Agriculture, Department of Science and Technology, and Department of Environment and Natural Resources and Presidential Citation from Cory Aquino. Watson himself was bestowed the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for international understanding for promoting the system in Asia.

The success of SALT ushered in the development of three more variants: Simple Agro-Livestock Technology (SALT 2), Sustainable Agroforest Land Technology (SALT 3) and Small Agrofruit Livelihood Technology (SALT 4).

In SALT 2, goat raising is introduced into the original SALT system. SALT 3 is the center’s small-scale reforestation program. In SALT 4, different fruits – like durian, rambutan, and mangosteen – are planted along with cash and field crops.

The SALT systems are now being promoted as a sustainable farming system all over Asia. “Sri Lanka and the Philippines lead other Asian nations in the use of SALT in the uplands,” Adang said.

Other countries where the SALT systems are catching on include Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, India, China, Nepal, and Mongolia. Several African countries are also beginning to institute SALT, according to Adang. – ###


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