Feature Story

Sustainable Land Management enhances soil productivity and profitability in the Philippines

September 4, 2019

People carrying crops on their heads
As in many parts of the world, the negative impacts of unpredictable and extreme climatic conditions are now recurrent, more frequent and intense in the Philippine's Bukidnon province. Photo: BSWM-UNDP-GEF5 SLM Project.

Rosita Adalim is a farmer outside of Malaybalay City, in the Philippines’ Bukidnon Province.

Home to the biggest pineapple plantation in the world, Bukidnon Province is also the top cattle producer in the region. Known as the 'Food Basket of Mindanao,' Bukidnon is a farming economy, and therefore a major producer of rice, maize, and sugarcane. Bukidnon also boasts rich biodiversity and a vast array of endemic species of flora and fauna.

Recently, accelerating development has led to increasing pressures on the land. Population growth, weak land use planning, industrialisation, and unsustainable land use have all taken a toll on the country’s natural resources, while erratic storms have ravaged its coasts.

As in many parts of the world, the negative impacts of unpredictable and extreme climatic conditions are now recurrent, more frequent and intense in Bukidnon.

Today, '[t]hree out of every 4 hectares of land have been altered from their natural states and the productivity of about 1 in every 4 hectares of land is declining. Poor land health is on the rise, and is impacting 3.2 billion people all over the world.'

Saving the forest to save ourselves

In the Philippines, deforestation and land use change have reduced forest cover from about 90 per cent in the 16th century, to 70 per cent by 1900, and about 23 per cent at present. Forest land currently covers ≈25.5% of total land; total degraded lands in the Philippines are estimated at 132,275km2, affecting over 33 million Filipinos.

Filipino landscape

Land degradation, exacerbating climate change and biodiversity loss makes adaptation imperative.

Communities that are heavily reliant on the land will need support to become resilient in the face of environmental, socioeconomic, and climatic pressures.

Unintended consequences

For Rosita, like many of the farmers in her community, she relies on subsistence corn cultivation and she knows that a healthy soil is the foundation for both agricultural productivity and functioning ecosystems.

But the intensive cultivation of yellow maize in Rosita’s community has required taking over sloping forest lands - with unintended consequences. 

In an area with limited access to land and lack of information about the impact of unsustainable farming practices, farming these often steeply sloped protected forest areas has unintentionally resulted in varying forms and degrees of soil erosion, with their attendant impacts on soil fertility.

Enhancing resilience of land and people

Reversing land degradation and its outcomes while accelerating positive achievements for people and for ecosystems, the UNDP-supported, Global Environment Facility (GEF)-financed project, Sustainable Land Management Practices to Address Land Degradation and Mitigate Effects of Drought (‘SLM project’), implemented by the Bureau of Soils and Water Management (BSWM), has put forward community solutions benefitting farmers and the soil.

Turning plans into action

The SLM Project is aligned with BSWM’s vision of establishing a technology and policy environment that will ensure the attainment of vibrant rural areas characterised by sustainable agriculture and fishery productivity. These efforts are also helping to promote the judicious use of the country’s soil and water resources.

Measuring diameter of stalk

Through the SLM Project, BSWM implemented interventions to enhance climate-resilient and sustainable land management practices among local farmers. These interventions are helping to achieve sustainable agriculture and agroforestry development. Additionally, the adoption of diverse crops on farms offers a regular source of earnings.

Sustainability germinates

The SLM technologies and best practices that were developed and implemented in the two project sites in Bukidnon and Leyte Provinces will be replicated in other agricultural localities in the country.

Government entities at the national and local level have committed to mainstreaming SLM into their development and land use plans. This will guide policies and regulations that will be developed and implement by local governments hereafter.

Fertile soil is a must for long-term, productive agriculture, and is intrinsically connected to the wellbeing of people, the environment and biodiversity.

Rosita has watched various invasive weeds appear at various times during her 10 years of farming.

She said that each appearance of new invasive weeds was a signal for her to change her fertiliser application, with each successive episode increasing ‘soil acidity and declining soil fertility’. From this decade long experience, she learnt that various types of weeds are good indicators of soil fertility and that the correct mix of soil biodiversity is important to avoid damage from pests and pathogens.

Through the project, Rosita became one of the SLM Project’s 'farmer-cooperators,' and an expert on adaptive research on soil carbon and soil health. The project identified and trained local farmers like Rosita who in turn became champions and leaders to help demonstrate and teach sustainable and adaptive land management practices to their fellow farmers.

'Seminars on SLM helped improve my farming practices. I learned to adopt contour farming to prevent soil erosion especially in slope lands similar to my farm, which also restores soil fertility. I discovered that applying burnt maize stover (dagami) to the soil along the contour lines greatly contributed to soil fertilisation and corn growth. Also, burnt dagami controls the presence of whiteflies and other pests.'

Colour dosen't lie

Colour is the bio-indicator of plant wellness. For plants, green = healthy, and when soil has life it should be brown to dark brown or black. Understanding this rainbow of life empowers farmers to detect soil health. 

‘Before the SLM (Project), I did not understand why there was uneven growth of rice plants on my farm: one area still green and unripe, and another ready for harvesting. The training on soil fertility taught me to get a closer look at my land management practices and how I treat my soil. Now that I know how to manage my farm’s soil fertility, you will see the uniform growth of the rice plants. No more patches of yellow and green grains, just balanced colour wherever you will look.’ Lorenzo Caca, Farmer-Cooperator/Mentor, Leyte 

Lorenzo Caca and the community of small farm holders in Leyte Province are reliant on rice production, with limited knowledge of the mechanics of soil fertility depletion and climate change-induced land degradation. They also lacked financial resources for adopting improved rice production technologies.

The project worked to establish a farmer-to-farmer co-learning mechanism where experienced and advanced local farmers are helping and mentoring smaller and less advanced farmers. The mechanism has also strengthened the use of science-enhanced and community-based adaptive land management practices in wetland rice farming communities.

For Lorenzo Caca his farm yield more than doubled to 8,600kg/hectares of unhusked rice.

The increase in yield can be attributed to the adoption of SLM plus Adaptive Land Management, which taught farmers the proper application of site-specific nutrients at the proper time in appropriate amounts. 

Knowledge sharing leads to discovery and innovation

Through the introduction of a more participatory and evidence-based tool for monitoring and assessing land degradation, local farmers are now able to be more proactive and dedicated at addressing land degradation in their own farmland.

Their traditional practices, which often rely on mental historical records of the state of plant and soil conditions, are now supplemented by picture-supported spatial and temporal documents using hand-held cameras.

These are helpful in providing records of complex relationships between seasonal land degradation, crop growth, and soil moisture conditions. For their part, national and local governments, are now equipped with practical tools to incorporate SLM practices into land use and development plans, as well as in the development of adaptive mapping tools in addressing land degradation.

Saving land, rehabilitating soil, securing livelihoods and food security

Farmers such as Caca and Rosita are local champions who serve as mentors for other farmers in their own locales, demonstrating and teaching them sustainable and adaptive land management practices. This illustrates how, in practice, restoring life through SLM practices does indeed sustain life and improve livelihoods.

Filipino woman with corn

The SLM project results are aligned with the Philippines commitment to the global  United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) 2018-2030 goals.

Established in 1994, the UNCCD is the sole legally binding international agreement linking environment and development to sustainable land management. UNCCD is promoting investment in the land to unlock opportunities for change, deliver hope and action, and help build a more sustainable path for the future.

The Philippines' Department of Agriculture Secretary, Dr. William D. Dar, is promoting a new way of thinking about land productivity and prosperity. Working to achieve a delicate balance, this new way of thinking is guided by the mantra of 'Ani, Kita' (Tagalog for 'production' and 'income', respectively) - which references the twin objectives of sustainability and profits. This concept is an important part of the Philippines' government's support for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and a guiding principle for the SLM project.

Advancing the Philippines’ efforts towards achieving the Agenda 2030 and its SDGs, the SLM project has contributed specifically towards SDG 1 on povertySDG 2 on zero hungerSDG 3 on good health and well-being, SDG 13 on climate action and SDG 15 on life on land among others.

This piece was originally posted by UNDP Ecosystems and Biodiversity on Exposure. Photos: BSWM-UNDP-GEF5 SLM Project.