Evolving Farming Systems in Northern Mindanao, Philippines
A research location in Claveria, Northern Mindanao, Philippines, was selected in 1984 as representative of the problem complex of acid upland environments in the region (Magbanua and Garrity 1990). Intensive on-farm research has been done on sustainable upland farming systems for strongly acidic soils.
The agroecosystems in the northern Mindanao uplands were under dense humid dipterocarp forest until the early 20th century. Swidden agriculture was practiced on a very limited portion of the land. As substantial areas of the old-growth timber were harvested by logging companies, small-scale farmers from the central Philippine islands, followed the logging operations. Dry season burning, in association with swidden farming, converted large areas into grasslands. Farmers cultivated upland rice and maize in a grass fallow rotation on the flatter areas. Coffee, coconuts and perennial fruit trees were planted on small areas during the 1950-70 period. The area of these perennials increased from 4 to 30% of the land area between 1967 and 1988 (Garrity and Agustin, 1995). Market tomatoes became an important crop in the 1970s. The area of annual cropland doubled between 1967 and 1988, reaching 41% of the total area (Garrity and Agustin, 1995). The previously scattered cultivated areas had coalesced into extensive contiguous zones of tilled land.
During the 40 years (1949-1988), the area under field crops increased five-fold. In the 1980s maize was the dominant crop, cultivated twice annually with local open-pollinated varieties, unfertilized. Farm sizes averaged 3.0 ha (Mandac et al 1986). The fallow rotation system was evolving into continuous cultivation due to intense pressure for land. The clean cultivated fields tilled with animal power, extending to the steepest slopes (>40%), but there was no evidence of contour farming or significant use of conservation practices. Erosion rates were excessive, typically in the range of 60-200 t/ha/yr (Garrity et al 1993). Extensive farmer surveys established that farmers were aware of the gravity of the situation. They were observing rapidly declining maize yields and were concerned about the consequences (Fujisaka and Garrity, 1989). It was evident that practical conservation farming options were needed for the range of slopes and farmer circumstances.
There was much debate in the research team as to whether the serious degradation in land quality would be contained in time to prevent much of the farmland to be ruined beyond productive use. Trends in land use and farming practices during the past decade have supported a much more positive scenario. There has been widespread adoption by about 1000 farmers of contour farming based on natural vegetative strips. Fertilizer use, which was practiced on less than 10% of the farms in 1984 (Mandac et al, 1986) reached over 90% of farms by 1998. Hybrid maize cultivars replaced local varieties to a similar extent. Maize yields, which had ranged between 1-2 tons/ ha in 1984, had increased to between 2 and 3 tons/ha, depending on land quality and management practices. Equally dramatic was an accelerated shift toward smallholder timber and fruit tree production systems. This was a market-driven phenomenon facilitated by strong productivity increases in maize and other annual crops, enabling large parts of many farms to be released from food production to more profitable, and environmentally sustainable tree-based systems.
Adaptation and adoption of contour buffer strips
The paper “Contour farming based on natural vegetative strips: Expanding the scope for increased food crop production on sloping lands in Asia” reviewed pieces of evidence that natural vegetative strips are a land-conserving technology that has the potential to make a substantial contribution to tropical food production in the coming decades. But where do natural vegetative strips fall on the spectrum of ‘conventional’ versus ‘alternative’ agriculture? They may be seen as an alternative agricultural practice in the sense that they are an innovation-based wholly upon resources internal to the farm. And they are an embodiment of the application of agroecological principles to the challenge of evolving simple, practical, no-external input solutions for soil conservation. But it may also be claimed that Natural vegetative strips (NVS) reinforce conventional approaches, as they tend to indirectly stimulate the use of commercial fertilizers and commercial cultivars.
NVS is neither an ‘alternative’ or ‘conventional’ approach. They may be employed by farmers practicing low-input, biological farming, or by farmers practicing high-input conventional agriculture. They are conducive to the use of fertilizers, reduced tillage, organic matter recycling, green manures, and cover crops, and other manurial practices. And they are one example of many that are discussed in the companion papers that cannot be defined unambiguously as alternative or conventional. Likely, an agreement will not be reached on how much alternative agriculture can increase the world’s food supply. But most would likely agree that there are many fruitful pathways by which the application of agroecological knowledge to the development and refinement of farming practices will contribute to this goal. And that there is scope for combining ecological knowledge synergistically with much of the proven experience generated through advances in chemistry (fertilizers, pesticides), genetics (new varieties) and engineering (tools, equipment).
In this context, it is important to stress that human capital is a fundamental resource in creating and adapting solutions to the myriad farming environments of the tropics. In particular, the potential of farmer-led organizations, such as Landcare in the Philippines, has not been given the attention it deserves for transforming both agricultural extension and research. We must move beyond the ideological clash of ‘alternative’ versus ‘conventional’ to explore the rich common ground they share. Then we can fully attack the central issue, which is how to guide decision-makers toward a greater balanced investment in the full range of solutions to increase agricultural production and sustainability.