Banana, coffee, rubber trees
By Jonas Erhardt and Nele Bünner
Highland regions in developing countries are often particularly poor. The topographical conditions impede agricultural development. Infrastructure and access to commercial and trading centres tend to be inadequate. In addition, population growth and the timber industry put pressure on natural resources.
These issues are familiar in the Philippines uplands, where a quarter of the national population currently lives. Poverty levels are above the national average. For most people in the mountain regions, small-scale agriculture is the only source of income. Large-scale landlords own most of the lowlands, and the population is growing fast. A land reform was started 20 years ago, but, due to the lack of political will, has not had much impact. The pressure to exploit marginal upland territories is growing accordingly.
Deforestation in the uplands has been proceeding rapidly since the 1950s. The main responsibility lies with big timber companies. However, internal migrants, who develop the forest to arable land, also play a role. According to estimates, only about seven percent of the Philippines uplands still have a forest cover.
Rapid deforestation has serious impacts on eco-systems. For instance, erosion puts the economic livelihood of farmers in hill areas at risk. Moreover, environmental catastrophes are becoming more likely: For example, heavy rains in deforested areas are increasingly causing lowland floods. In December, almost 1,500 people lost their lives because of flooding in northern Mindanao.
The situation is similar in many other tropical countries. The natural balance of mountain ecosystems is very important, but it is in jeopardy. Rivers supply drinking water, and forests protect the soil and climate. Since agroforestry meets ecological and social requirements, it is considered a promising approach for the development of such regions (see box).
In the Philippines, fighting deforestation has been a priority of the national Department of Environment and Natural Resources in the past twenty years. Large parts of the highland regions are officially declared to be “forest land” and are owned by the state. Major legal restrictions apply to their use.
Such legislation, however, does not prevent migration and economic exploitation of all areas concerned. Many farmers are exploiting the land illegally. Increasingly restrictive laws, moreover, have made them even more sceptical about sustainable land use (such as planting trees), because they do not know how long they will be allowed to farm the land.
A conflict of interests is raging in the Philippines uplands. To many, the eradication of poverty and hunger seems incompatible with ecological sustainability, even though both principles are internationally acknowledged and part of the Millennium Development Goals. Nonetheless, agroforestry is a way to reconcile both aspirations. The Centre for Rural Development (SLE) in Berlin has been commissioned by the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) and the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) to analyse the challenges and assess the potential of agroforestry in the southern Leyte and in northern Mindanao. Agroforestry systems should result in greater economic benefits than conventional agriculture, in order to be attractive in socio-economic terms. They do not only generate seasonal revenues (from annual agricultural crops or fruit trees), but also provide long-term revenues (from selling timber). Obviously, the risk of crop losses through pests and disease must be controlled.
Agroforestry also provides more environmental benefits than conventional agriculture. For farmers, the most important aspects are better soil quality and erosion protection. Both serve sustainable, long-term livelihood. Government agencies such as the Philippines’ Department of Environment and Natural Resources, in turn, are especially interested in water retention and carbon capture.
According to the SLE study, agroforestry systems are based on a variety of crops and, depending on local contexts, have potential for environmental protection and development:
– Timber-based systems combine environmental and socio-economic aspects in a very efficient way, and are most promising in terms of environmental protection as well as market revenues. Due to locally specific conditions, however, this potential remains largely untapped. One reason is that restrictive forest protection policies create high bureaucratic obstacles even for cutting down trees legally in sustainable agroforestry systems. Furthermore, middlemen pay small-scale producers only relatively low prices. Since these producers have no substantial market information and lack transport options, they depend on the middlemen. Timber production, moreover, requires large areas, and pays off only in the long term. Many small-scale producers do not have much land, and cannot forgo short-term earnings.
– Systems based on rubber trees are more lucrative. Once trees are five years old, natural rubber can be harvested every two weeks. ICRAF (the International Centre for Research in Agroforestry, today known as the World Agroforestry Centre) and Landcare, a farmers’ organisation, offer the appropriate training. In addition, these systems store almost as much carbon as timber plantations.
– Coconut and banana trees do not contribute as much to environmental protection as the other approaches to agroforestry, and they typically yield only small earnings. However, they generate income several times a year, and the methods of cultivation are widely understood. In clever combination with other trees, these crops can contribute to lasting success.
Different systems may lead to quite divergent results even if they are based on similar combinations of crops. Appropriate management matters very much. Relevant measures include weed control, rejuvenation of the tree population (especially in the case of coconut) and self-propagation of high-quality seed and plant stock. Similarly important is the use of home-made cost-efficient fertilisers and crop protection products such as vermicomposting (worm composting systems) or chicken dung.
In view of income poverty and the lack of cultivable land, it is very important that smallholders generate sufficient income from the first year they start to switch to sustainable agroforestry. Annual crops must be planted until perennial crops can be harvested. Farmers need assistance during the transition phase, so they can make the most of every relevant phase.
The study of agroforestry in upland regions in the Philippines has shown that agroforestry is beneficial even in challenging circumstances. Small plots, even on steep slopes, can provide an acceptable livelihood. At the same time, agroforestry has environmental advantages because it sequesters carbon and protects soils.
However, success depends on good management. It is not enough to combine perennial and annual crops and to propagate this approach as the universal solution for fighting soil erosion and generating higher incomes. Capacity building for farmers is necessary. Without appropriate training programmes, it is impossible to initiate sustainable comprehensive development in ecologically sensitive regions.