Helping farmers fight pests

Posted: 16 November 2000

Author: Linda Bolido

Author Info: Linda Bolido is People & the Planet correspondent in the Philippines.

A national programme in the Philippines, to reduce over-reliance on chemical pesticides and free farmers to find more natural methods of pest control, is now being extended both in area and its range of activities. Linda Bolido reports on one successful project.

In 1993, when scientists from the University of the Philippines College of Agriculture (UPCA) went to Infanta in Quezon province, the town - although just southeast of the main Philippine island of Luzon and some 400 kilometres from Manila, the national capital - was almost inaccessible.

Roads leading to the picturesque town sandwiched by the Pacific Ocean and the rugged Sierra Madre mountain range were bad and many of the places that the scientists had to visit can only be reached on foot.

If going to Infanta was difficult enough, the other town - General Nakar - was worse. A former barangay (village) of Infanta, the town was accessible from the latter only by traversing a river which gets dangerously swollen during the wet months. Even now, General Nakar' s main road is unpaved and is just a little wider than a dirt road.Dr Jose MedinaDr Jose Medina© Linda BolidoThe UPCA scientists, led by Dr Jose R. Medina of the Department of Entomology and National Crop Protection Centre, went to Infanta and General Nakar to spread the gospel of sustainable development, specifically integrated pest management (IPM).

IPM refers to the control of biological plant diseases and destructive insects by using a combination of botanical, biological and cultural and limited amounts of chemicals. IPM practitioners use a combination of disease and pest-resistant varieties, natural predators of harmful insects and indigenous plants to keep their crops healthy and high-yielding. Philippine President Fidel Ramos describes IPM as "letting nature take care of...harmful insects."

The Infanta and General Nakar farmers reported reducing their use of pesticides by 30 to 50 per cent after almost four years of practising IPM. One farmer, with a more sizeable land, even reported a more dramatic drop - from 75 to 15 sacks in one planting season.

The project, Technology Application for Sustainable Agriculture: The Farmer-Scientist Approach, was supported by the Programme for Asian Projects, a grant programme for Asia' s Ramon Magsaysay Award winners funded by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and administered by the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation.

Six years later, the scientists seem to have learned as much as they have taught their farmer-participants.

Using grandma's advice

Benigno Candia of Infanta, 69, a fisherman turned farmer, said when he started growing rice he simply followed what others were doing. He was not even thinking about how far apart his seedlings should be from each other. Benigno CandiaBenigno Candia© Linda BolidoBut since learning about IPM he has been able to differentiate between friendly and unfriendly bugs, analyse the soil and make compost. He has saved on seedlings as he plants only one per hole instead of three or four before. Moreover, he said, Dr Medina encourages them to develop their own varieties and become farmer-breeders.

When Banelene Sollestre joined Dr Medina' s class in Infanta, the group suspected her of being a military intelligence officer. The mountains of Quezon province still shelter some communist insurgents and the military was known to keep a watchful eye on activities involving peasants. The suspicion about the young woman seemed justified as she was not even a farmer at the time, as her land was being cared for by a tenant.

Following her training, Banelene has since drawn from her grandmother' s knowledge about pest control in managing her farm' s problems. Among grandma' s advice is to provide food such as grated coconut or rice husks for the snails. When they come out to feed, the paddy can be filled with water to wash the snails away (or they can be collected and destroyed).

Banelene said when she took over her farm, the soil had become quite sticky and difficult to till. Today, the soil is healthier and her rice plants appear greener every year as she lessens use of agricultural chemicals.

Tranquilino Nakar, 62, nephew of General Nakar, a World War II hero after whom the town is named, is pleased that the things he used to do to protect his crop when he started farming at age 15 are now becoming acceptable again. He recalled that they did not use any synthetic fertiliser when he was young. As for pests, they are now again using such plants as tagbak (Kolowratia elegans), makabuhay (Tinospora sp.) and nami (Dioscorea sp.).

Lamberto Bustonera, also of Gen. Nakar town, has come up with pest sprays mixing water, kerosene and common plants like chilli which are known to cause irritation. At the same time, he also encourages the proliferation of spiders, wasps, dragonflies and other insects which he now knows to be helpful in controlling pests. He noted that before, the colour of his rice changed every planting season and his soil became increasingly rubbery. But now his grass is greener as he uses less chemical fertiliser. Green rice leaf hopperGreen rice leaf hopper used in IPM© Nigel Cattlin/Holt StudiosJaime Cortales said initially they were being laughed at by their colleagues as they reduced their use of agricultural chemicals. But now they are showing a keen interest as his cost of production dropped significantly by using fewer seedlings, and less chemical spray and other agricultural chemicals. The soil in his paddy has also become healthier. His wife, Ligaya, has another reason to welcome IPM. She said rice grown with less chemicals tastes sweeter.

Farmers in both Infanta and General Nakar have since learned that a piece of cloth dipped in a mixture of chilli or some other irritating plants, positioned so that a rodent is sure to get in contact with it as it leaves its hiding place, causes so much distress and discomfort that the animal bites itself to death.

They are now making their own compost, saving most of the farm wastes for this purpose. Some of the farmers have ducks not only for extra income but also to take care of the snails especially when they are still small.

Teodoro Panida, vice president of the Samahan ng mga Likas-Kayang Magsasaka ng Infanta (SALIKAMI or roughly Association of Sustainable Agriculture Practitioners of Infanta), is taking steps to becoming a farmer-breeder. With his paddies occasionally devastated by floods because of poor drainage, the retired military man is propagating in a small portion of his farm a seedling from his own crop which was able to withstand the rising waters.

Panida, who was part of a Philippine military contingent to Vietnam in the 1960s, said, since he started to practise IPM, his one hectare now yields 82-86 sacks of rice whereas before, when he was heavily dependent on chemicals, he could not even get 80 sacks, the government' s target yield per hectare. As production cost has significantly dropped because of fewer inputs, his increased yield has meant bigger profits.

Dr Medina says that while before, a farmer spent P5,000-8,000 (US$150-250) during the planting phase of a cropping season, IPM and other practices associated with sustainable agriculture have since reduced this to P2,500 (US$80).

But he maintains that the Philippine IPM programme' s more significant accomplishment is in encouraging greater creativity and initiative among the farmers. The farmers have gone beyond the basics the academics have taught them. Drawing from tradition, personal experience and peer advice they are developing solutions to their farm' s specific problems - some shared with others but occasionally unique.

Dr Medina said the farmers have honed their skills in analysis and decision-making, skills which they are using outside their farms such as in the associations they have formed with their peers and their relationship with the government.

Dr Jesus Binamira, co-ordinator of the Department of Agriculture' s national IPM programme, said the country' s campaign is basically aimed at enhancing the farmers' skills for making more informed decisions about their farms and their problems. "Telling them (farmers) not to use pesticides is just as bad as telling them to use the chemicals," he said.

Dr Binamira said the bottom line in IPM is the growing of a healthy crop. The national programme wants to achieve that goal by giving farmers options, empowering them to choose the solutions to their own problems.

The official said empowerment would be a more crucial measure of how well the Philippines' IPM programme has done.

Farm schools

The government launched a series of farmers' field schools (FFS) to popularise IPM at about the same time the University was starting its project in Quezon. As one such school in an upland barangay in Bacong, Negros Oriental in central Philippines, showed, farmer-trainees are first taught to identify and analyse the problems in their respective farms such as the existing pests. Later in the 14-16 week course they are provided options for solving the problems.

The participants in this particular school, ranging in age from 18 to 69 years, although farmers of long standing, knew little about bugs and worms except that they were realities of farming. For most of the farmers, it was the first time to hear that there could be an alternative to chemicals.

Nenita Calumpong, IPM facilitator, said in some Negros villages, chemical use was so severe that the farmers themselves did not even want to eat their own produce. According to the provincial agriculturist and IPM co-ordinator, chemicals accounted for 33 per cent of the cost of production of vegetable farmers.

The Philippines' national IPM programme is known as Kasakalikasan, the acronym for Kasaganaan sa Sakahan at Kalikasan which the Department says means "nature is agriculture' s bounty". It evolved from small projects launched after the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) arranged for a group of Filipinos to observe the implementation of IPM in Indonesia in the early 1980s.

A pilot field school was set up after that trip. When the national programme was launched, the school became its cornerstone.

Dr Medina, who reviewed the government's IPM programme, said the campaign had indeed helped change many farmers' views about the need for a lot of chemical inputs and had remained one of the Department of Agriculture's many ongoing activities. However, because of the way government bureaucracies are set up - where different people take care of specific areas and are protective of their turfs - IPM continues to be pursued as a programme separate from other services provided to farmers like livestock, fishery and others not directly related to rice production.

On the part of Dr Medina's team, however, the pilot programme in Quezon Province has now been brought to 10 areas from the north to the south of the country involving more than 2,000 farmers. Even more significant, instead of focusing exclusively on IPM, the programme now includes a package of technologies that will enable every member of a farming family to contribute to the family income.

"As farmers made the shift from the use of chemicals to IPM, the transition involved a drop in the family income. So the wives were upset," he noted. The team now works with various agencies of local government units to bring to farming families not just sustainable agricultural technologies but a package which includes other services that will help augment the family income, as well as meet other basic needs. The package includes skills training, water resource development, health, and community development in general.

As for the Quezon farmers, Dr Medina said they had become better informed and were feeling more empowered. When they were introduced recently by scientists to genetically modified grains, the farmers raised so many questions that had the experts going back to the "drawing boards" to find the answers. And when a company offered them free use of their agricultural products, the farmers insisted that they be used first in experimental plots where they could compare the chemicals' performance with the organic products they are currently using.