New hope for the upland farmer

Posted: 9 December 2002

Author: Henrylito D. Tacio

The population of the Philippines, now about 80 million, is set to double by 2050, according to UN projections - with many more poor farmers being forced to try and scrape a living from the once-forested uplands. But greater use of a sloping land farming method could help increase yields and reduce erosion on upland farms, wherever they are found. Henrylito Tacio reports.

Geographically, 60 per cent of the Philippines consists of rolling to steep areas, where farming and forestry are practised on slopes of 18 degrees or more. The 25 million people who live there are often referred to as "the poorest of the poor."

Upland farming in Davaousing SALT techniques.© Henrylito TacioTheir poverty is reflected in their houses made of bamboo and tree barks, with thatched rooves. Their sources of water are either mountain springs or streams. The upland farmer rarely finishes 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 struggle

Inhabitants of upland regions are primarily poor farming families with insecure land tenure. "The upland farmer faces a very dark future unless something can be done for him very soon," said Harold Ray Watson, former director of the Davao-based Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center (MBRLC), a small church-related non-governmental organisation. "He 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 industrialisation, 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," said Dennis P. Garrity, Regional Co-ordinator of the International Center for Research in Agroforestry based in Bogor, Indonesia. "Cultivation is seen frequently on mountain peaks."

This explains why the country's forests are fast disappearing. The total forest cover shrank from 10.5 million hectares in 1968 to 6.1 million hectares in 1991. The remaining old-growth forest covered less than a million hectares in 1991 and possibly as little as 700,000 hectares today.

Soil loss

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

Soil erosion is a major problem facing many of the country's upland farmers. The Philippines has nine million hectares classified as eroded soil. Soil loss ranges from 50 to 300 tons per hectare per year. These rates signify five to 30 times the maximum soil loss levels for any type of soil.

With such grim figures, is there hope for the marginalised uplanders? "In the past, there may have been none," says Steve Musen, the new MBRLC head. "Today, we have Sloping Agricultural Land Technology and its modifications." SALT is a package technology on soil conservation and food production, integrating different soil conservation measures in one setting.

Soil solution

"Basically, SALT is a method of growing field and permanent crops in 3-metre to 5-metre-wide bands between contoured rows of nitrogen-fixing trees and shrubs like Flemingia macrophylla, Desmodium rensonii and Leucaena leucocephala," Musen explains. The trees and shrubs are thickly planted in double rows to make hedgerows. When a hedge is 1.5 to 2 metres tall, it is cut down to about 40 centimetres and the leftover cuttings are placed in alleyways to serve as organic fertilizers. SALT farmingContoured bands of nitrogen-fixing shrubs, with crop litter in between to serve as organic fertiliser, Davao, The Phillipines.© John RowleySALT is also a diversified farming system, says Musen. "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 with 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.SALT was developed on a marginal site in Kinuskusan, Bansalan, Davao del Sur. In 1971, the Baptist Center started to employ contour terraces in the sloping areas of the farm. Through informal meetings the Center's staff were able to understand their farming problems. Traditionally dependent on one-crop farming, upland farmers expressed the need for better distribution of food and income throughout the year and diminishing yields. The farmers also complained of diminishing incomes and yields.

It became evident to MBRLC that the main problem facing the farmers was soil erosion. They needed to find a way to far the slopeland while, at the same time, conserving topsoil and improving productivity.From testing different intercropping schemes and observing Leucaena-based farming systems in Hawaii and at the center, the SALT was finally verified and completed in 1978. Since then, other techniques followed: 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 crops.

Simple technology

All the SALT techniques have the one thing in common: simple, applicable, low-cost and timely methods of farming uplands. These technologies are developed for farmers with few tools, little capital and little knowledge in agriculture. Contour lines are laid by using an A-frame that any farmer can make and use. A farmer can grow varieties of crops he is familiar with and old-farming patterns can be used in the SALT system. If farmers leave the SALT farm, like some tribal groups in Mindanao do, the nitrogen-fixing trees and shrubs 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 from the trees and shrubs and there is no erosion to contend with. In addition, the trees may be harvested for firewood or charcoal.

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

Since its introduction, SALT has changed thousands of lives in Mindanao. In 1985, it brought its founder, Harold Watson the coveted Ramon Magsaysay Award for International Understanding - often called the "Nobel Prize of Asia." Other prizes followed, including a citation from then President Corazon Aquino in 1989 and a World Food Day Silver Medal from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in 1991.

Through its sister organisation, the Asian Rural Life Development Foundation, workers from the MBRLC have taught SALT methods all over Asia. More than 3,000 people from Asia, Africa, Europe, the Middle East and South America have come to the Center for training. "If SALT were applied in all the tropical uplands damaged by soil erosion, the lives of half a billion poor people could be improved," Musen said.

Henrylito D. Tacio is an awarding-winning environmental journalist based in Manila, and People & the Planet correspondent in The Philippines.