The following text was presented by Ms. Sylvia Miclat, Executive Director of the Institute of Environmental Science for Social Change (ESSC), as one of the speakers during the Laudato Si’ dialogue activity at Aloisiuskolleg organized by Ecojesuit as a COP23 Fiji-Bonn side event

Good morning. I am Sylvia Miclat, and I am part of the Ecojesuit team gathered here in your beautiful city to learn from the global process taking place that’s reckoning with climate change and its impact on people and the planet.

But we at Ecojesuit are also reckoning with another change that’s substantially altering the biophysical and socioeconomic landscapes, such as those in the Philippine uplands, and it is land-use change.

Land-use change is another human-driven phenomenon compromising ecosystem services, biodiversity and their habitat, and for the many who are poor in the uplands, their food security and socioeconomic stability. Land-use change has been defined as arguably the most pervasive socioeconomic force driving changes and degradation of ecosystems. Corporate agriculture, along with deforestation, urban development, and other human activities are land-use changes that have substantially altered the Earth’s landscape.

I come from the Philippines, from the other side of the world, from Asia Pacific, where I work with about 30 others at the Environmental Science for Social Change, a Jesuit research organization.  Integrating the social and biophysical, we work with communities and local governments to assist and accompany better land and water use planning, watershed resource management and forest cover analysis, disaster risk reduction, upland youth development in technical skills and value formation, and other activities that promote both environmental sustainability and social justice. Our main work is in the uplands of northern Mindanao where we have engaged and related with communities of Upper Pulangi on cultural resource management, ancestral domain planning, and culture-based education where we help run indigenous schools from Kinder to Grade 10.

Corn production in the uplands

The uplands is home to many of the Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral domains were logged in an earlier era.  In many areas, they have moved to higher lands to avoid conflict and the influx of migrant farmers, and live next to the last remaining forests of the Philippines.  Lands cleared of the original forest cover have been burned and Imperatagrass dominates with a marginal agriculture of corn, root crops, and small gardens of the migrants. 

Corn as a food staple has been the basic extensive agriculture. In recent years with the availability of fertilizers and pesticides, farm areas have become much more intensive areas for corn used in the animal feeds industry.  In the Philippines, 70% of all corn produced is the yellow GMO variety, almost all of which goes directly to livestock feed production, not to feed people.

Farmers engaged in corn production are among the poorest in the agriculture sector.It is also in the corn sector where being food poor (or subsistence poor) is highest at 37%.  Households with corn as their main source of livelihood also have the greatest deprivation from basic amenities such as potable water and electricity.

With the steady growth of the corn sector for animal feeds nationwide, the high poverty incidence of farmers engaged in this crop seems to contradict the high productivity being enjoyed by the corn industry as a whole. It is apparent therefore that those who are gaining from this agricultural activity are not the smallholder farmers.

Corporate driven-agriculture and GT-corn

In recent decades, a form of corporate-driven agriculture has emerged that is built upon the use of the herbicide glyphosate, a product originally developed by Monsanto and now the most widely-used agri-chemical in the world.

The introduction of glyphosate tolerant corn has drastically reduced the need for manual weeding in corn plots, which translates to less physical work for the farmer and eliminates the need for hiring extra labor to weed the crop — clearly a net savings overall.

Although there are clearly major advantages brought about by glyphosate and the farming technology that has evolved around it, glyphosate does not come without threats. One of the primary issues raised by concerned groups and scientists worldwide is the potential detrimental health impacts of prolonged glyphosate exposure and ingestion.  Glyphosate is banned in several countries but our farmers in the Philippines mix this herbicide with bare hands.

GMO technology does not come cheap. The normal cost of planting one hectare of GMO corn ranges from €550 to €585 depending on the quality of the seeds used and includes all necessary inputs and related costs for a successful harvest such as seeds, fertilizers, glyphosate, and labor for planting, applications of fertilizers, and spraying glyphosate. The potential profit from a very successful harvest coupled with a very good market price for corn is almost thrice the initial investment. This is enough to entice any corn farmer to invest in such a potentially profitable activity.

But a poor farmer with access to only 1-2 hectares of land will normally not be able to afford such a hefty investment even if potential returns are high.  To market the technology, traders and financiers with special terms from seed and fertilizer companies provide farmers the needed capital to encourage a buy-in. The financing normally covers all inputs — seeds, glyphosate, and fertilizers — as well as labor costs in planting, spraying, harvesting, shelling, and drying, with farmers obliged to selling their crops to the financiers directly.

This has turned out to be a major success in that the farmers are easily able to get loans for corn planting, but with interests ranging from 5%-10% per month to 20%-40%, in a 4-month cropping cycle.

But in the uplands, there are many risks in farming and the farmer absorbs all the losses. Risk factors include weather conditions during the cropping cycle, pests, and market prices at harvest time. Should any of these factors adversely affect the harvest, it is the farmer who shoulders the brunt of the crop failure and is forced to pay the financier the amount loaned plus interest.  Farmers are then thrust into a cycle of debt that increasingly gets more difficult to escape from. The farmer’s livestock, possessions, and land are eventually assumed by the creditors if they still have balances they need to pay. The most adversely affected in this system are the poorest farmers with landholdings of two hectares and below, who eventually end up as farm labor for the financiers who take over their land until they are able to pay their debts.

These developments have significantly changed the way we have done agriculture in a relatively short span of only 20 years and all this sounds too good to be true, raising questions that there needs to have been a stricter application of the precautionary principle before allowing such a widespread shift from traditional agricultural practices.

Understanding the drivers of land use change

The economic exploitation of small corn farmers appears to be widespread in the Philippines, but to gain a better understanding of the extent and magnitude of this phenomenon, we have engaged with Belgian university partners, Université de Namur and Université Catholique de Louvain, with support from the Belgian government, to implement the LUCID project.

This project was formulated to investigate the socio-economic dynamics and social justice implications of corn cultivation in the Philippines and document the extent of its reach and its rate of expansion in the uplands to give a better idea of how much of the uplands and its forests are at threat.

It is the intention to bring the questions we are raising, the concerns that communities and local farmers are raising, and the results of this investigation to the national corn board in our country, the agriculture department, and other stakeholders and facilitate a dialogue that must bring about change as we cannot accept the present situation as acceptable. Globally, we want to communicate, collaborate and network with others who are pursuing the same questions and seeking answers and actions.

Thank you.

Land-use change in the Philippine uplands and the cost of corn production to the land and to small farmers
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