Text and photos by Andres F. Ignacio, PhD
One of the most striking features of Bukidnon that frequently impresses its visitors is its breathtaking mountain landscape — with some areas still covered with forest, though most are dominated by grasslands and crops such as corn, pineapple, and sugarcane. The scenery elicits a sense of awe and wonder at the beauty of nature, though it also deceptively conceals so many risks and difficulties for the people living in and around these areas. From a scientific and ecosystems point of view, this landscape is awash with contradictions — how can such grandeur contain so many difficulties for its people?
It’s been almost 30 years since ESSC’s first engagement in the protection of the Bukidnon environment, starting with the Bukidnon 13 — a group of farmers from the Municipality of San Fernando who staged a fast in 1989 at the DENR central office in Manila, calling for a total log ban in Bukidnon. They had been experiencing an alarming rate of environmental degradation due to rampant deforestation in the province which peaked in the late 1970s, leaving in its wake a trail of destruction in the form of upland erosion, siltation of rivers, and increasing severity and frequency of flooding. ESSC provided technical support to the fasters in the form of maps and geographic analysis of the problems that the community was facing. The result of the protest was the successful imposition of a total logging moratorium in the province in 1990 which immediately halted the deforestation. However the environmental repercussions of the denudation was just beginning to manifest itself by then and the trajectory towards degradation had already been set and was well on its way.
The importance of ecological services
Forests and other similar life sustaining resources provide what are called ecological or ecosystem services — life support services derived from nature that we need to survive. These services include clean water for domestic, agricultural, and recreational use; soil stability and productivity; forest and agricultural biodiversity; clean air; etc. Given the landscape of Bukidnon, forests are crucial for provision, protection, and sustenance for its people.
With the clearing of the forests in Bukidnon, rapid changes in the environment began to take place. Logged over forest areas were eventually cleared for farming by migrants while the traditional inhabitants of these forest areas, the indigenous people of Bukidnon, were pushed further up the mountains where the last patches of the primary forest remained. IP culture traditionally evolved a sustainable system of agriculture and livelihood based on resources provided by the forests. But as forests dwindled and lowland agricultural practices began to expand into traditionally forested areas, the environment ultimately changed adversely affecting the traditional IP way of life resulting in the marginalization of IP communities throughout the province.
Rivers drain the land of water that enters in the form of rain. These areas are called watersheds and are distinctly defined by ridges or elevated points on the land. The state of rivers usually indicate the corresponding state of the watersheds they drain watersheds are normally drained by deep-channeled meandering rivers that generally maintain a constant and stable flow throughout the year. Rivers of denuded watersheds on the other hand are typically wide and shallow, frequently flood during heavy rains, and dry up during the summer months. Water is easily flushed out of the system and not stored for release during the dry months. This typically spells disaster for low-lying areas that experience floods during the rainy season and drought during the dry season.
In 2010 the ESSC conducted a nationwide assessment of forests and uplands in the Philippines based 2002 satellite images. An integral part of that initiative included the delineation of upland areas based data from the Space Shuttle. The findings revealed that around 59% of the approximately 905,000 ha total area of Bukidnon is upland (~534,000 ha) and that only 35% of that remained forested (~189,000 ha). This means that almost two thirds of the Bukidnon uplands are denuded, which is a cause for concern not only for communities living in these mountainous areas, but also for those who reside downstream in the floodplains of the watersheds.
The struggle to survive
According to the latest land cover update of Bukidnon conducted by ESSC in 2005, around 16.4% (164,000 ha) of the province is devoted to agriculture, the largest of which is corn (7.3% or roughly 66,400 ha), making it the second largest corn producing province in the Philippines. Most corn is planted in the rolling to hilly upland areas since prime agricultural land is normally planted to rice and other high value crops.
In 2009, the incidence of poverty among agricultural households was 57%, which was thrice (17%) that of non-agricultural households (Reyes et al. 2012). Households with heads that were primarily engaged in corn growing had the highest comparative poverty incidence at 64% compared to other crop growers. In addition to this, it was also in the corn sector where being food poor (or subsistence poor) was highest at 37%. It then followed that households with corn as their main source of livelihood had the greatest deprivation from basic amenities such as potable water and electricity. What these figures basically show is that farmers engaged in corn production are among the poorest in the agriculture sector.
With the steady growth of corn sector nationwide since the early 2000s, 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. Apparently those who are gaining from this agricultural activity are not the smallholder farmers themselves — a phenomenon that has been observed by ESSC for more than 2 decades in the Upper Pulangi valley in Eastern Bukidnon. Through the years, high yield variety (HYV) corn has dominated much of the marginal uplands of Bukidnon and these varieties, particularly the genetically modified (GM) ones, boast high yields of up to 8 tons/ha that are a sure attraction to farmers seeking high returns. A further attraction is that it is not as labor intensive as traditional corn since manual weeding has been eliminated thanks to the introduction of herbicide tolerance for the corn.
But there is a catch — GM technology does not come cheap. The normal cost of planting one hectare of GMO corn ranges from Php33,000 to Php35,000 depending on the quality of the seeds used. This includes all necessary inputs and related costs for a successful harvest such as seeds, fertilizers, herbicide, and labor for planting, applications of fertilizers, and spraying. The potential profit from a very successful harvest coupled with a good market price for corn is almost thrice the initial investment. This is enough to entice any corn farmer, though a poor farmer with access to only 1-2 hectares of land will normally not be able to afford such a hefty investment. The promise of high profits is enough to attract the farmer to take out loans to finance this endeavor. Since farmers are willing to take the risk, financiers tend to take advantage of the situation, charging interest up to 10% per month or 40% per four-month cropping cycle. What is worse is that if for some reason a crop fails (due to extreme weather conditions or pests for example), the poor farmer bears the full brunt of the losses and will have to fully pay back the financier with interest. Many a farmer has lost his land as a result of this financing scheme driving them further into poverty.
Plotting a path of hope for Bukidnon through the Province Roadmap of Mindanao
Bukidnon sits at the heart of Mindanao and is crucial for the health of a great number of watersheds on the island since many of the headwaters or sources of the river systems in Mindanao originate from its mountains. The stability of Mindanao is dependent on the health of Bukidnon’s environment, and this is not possible without looking after the welfare the people who live within the resources. The state of the environment reflects to a great extent the social conditions of the communities that depend on the resources. We cannot expect to improve the state of the environment of Bukidnon without working to improve the circumstances of the people who rely on its resources to survive.
The Roadmap of the Jesuit Philippine Province focuses on addressing the myriad of interconnected issues confronting Mindanao and although the problems are complex, a sound understanding of the issues makes them less daunting. Furthermore, being part of a community that is committed to work together in improving the lives of the people of Mindanao makes the effort more worthwhile and inspires us to hope for a better future for Mindanao and its people. An integrated and coordinated effort is now under way through the Roadmap and its multi pronged response to the needs of the most vulnerable sectors in the region.
The path may be long, but as long as we are mindful of our interconnectedness with the land and with one another we can hope for a sustainable future for Bukidnon that does not abuse, but nurtures and respects the gifts that have been given to us.
This article was originally published in the December 2017 issue of The Windhover magazine, and was also published on the ESSC website.
Reyes, C., A. Tabuga, R. Asis, and M.B. Datu. 2012.“Poverty and Agriculture in the Philippines: Trends in Income Poverty and Distribution.” Discussion Paper. DISCUSSION PAPER SERIES NO. 2012-09. Philippine Institute for Development Studies.