Davao, 20 August 2009. His family left Manila when Buencamino “Boy” Talabucon was only three years old to settle in Davao del Sur. They were poor and so after graduating from high school, he started working by driving a passenger’s vehicle.
After more than a decade of driving daily for twelve hours along bumpy roads, he quit and decided to become a farmer. A distant relative allowed him to till his 1.5-hectare land on the slope of a mountain on the condition that Boy remitted 25% of his produce.
With minimal knowledge on farming, Boy cleared one-fourth hectare of the farm, where he planted corn. Initially, the harvest was good. But the production of his farm significantly reduced as years went by. He observed this as the soil on his hillside “was always washing away.”
Ready to give up farming, Boy learned about a simple technology that would help increase his farm income while attending a meeting conducted by a European-funded organization. There, he learned that the primary culprit of his low production was soil erosion.
Thousands of Filipino farmers and elsewhere in Asia face the same dilemma. Three out of four farmers in developing countries farm in the hills, American agriculturist Harold R. Watson estimated. When they hold a fistful of exhausted soil and let it fall to the ground, said the man who has traveled all over the region for more than three decades, “they feel their livelihood slipping through their fingers.”
Topsoil – that thin layer of earth -- is one of the most vital of our natural resources. Together with water and air, it forms the very basis of life. Typically, only some 15 centimeters deep, topsoil is a rich medium containing organic matter, minerals, nutrients, insects, microbes, worms and other elements needed to provide a nurturing environment for plants.
Gary Gardner, a researcher of the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute, said that in the past, civilizations could simply leave one piece of land for another when the soil nutrient’s had been depleted. Today, we no longer have this luxury.
The reason: topsoil are being washed or blown away. “Soil is made by God and put here for man to use, not for one generation but forever,” said Watson, who once directed the Davao-based Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center (MBRLC). “It takes thousands of years to build one inch of topsoil but only good strong rain to remove one inch from unprotected soil on the slopes of mountains.”
Erosion is the most pervasive form of soil degradation. “In the developing world, erosion and poverty interact in a destructive cycle: erosion is often rooted in poverty and crowding, while poverty and crowding are often the harvest of erosion,” wrote Gardner in a Worldwatch paper.
Humans cause erosion at a rate 10 to 15 times faster than any natural process, according to Bruce Wilkinson, a sedimentary geologist working with the Syracuse University in New York City. Global erosion, he pointed out, is occurring at a rate of about 75 gigatons a year – a gigaton is equal to a billion tons.
“To put that into context,” Wilkinson explained, “current annual amounts of rock and soil moved over the Earth’s surface in response to human activities are an amount of material that would fill the Grand Canyon of Arizona in about 50 years.”
“Soil erosion is an enemy to any nation – far worse than any outside enemy coming into a country and conquering it because it is an enemy you cannot see vividly,” said Watson, who received the 1985 Ramon Magsaysay Award for peace and international understanding. “It’s a slow creeping enemy that soon possesses the land. We must consider ourselves in a state of emergency; our topsoil is all going...”
That was the main reason why Watson and his colleagues at MBRLC developed the Sloping Agricultural Land Technology (SALT), a system patterned after the famous rice terraces of Banaue in up north. But unlike the terraces, which use physical barriers and contour ditches, SALT employs live hedgerows.
Examples of hedgerows planted along contour lines are Leucaena leucocephala, Flemingia macrophylla, Desmodium rensonii, Gliricidia sepium, and Indigofera anil. All these help enrich soil and aid neighboring plants because of its foliage rivals manure in nitrogen content.
The technology is very simple. The hedgerows are planted in very dense double rows to serve as erosion barriers. When the hedgerows attain the height of two meters, they are cut back to about 40 centimeters and the cuttings are placed in the 3-5 meter alleys where crops are growing.
SALT is considered a diversified farming system. Aside from the hedgerows, rows of perennial crops such as coffee, bananas, and citrus may be grown in areas occupied by corn. The annual crops are rotated: corn is followed by soybeans or peanuts and then followed again by corn or another cereal crop. “In this way, a farmer has something to harvest every month throughout the year,” says Roy C. Alimoane, the current MBRLC director.
SALT started to change thousands of lives in Mindanao and attract national notice after its introduction in 1978. “The response was overwhelming,” said Warlito A. Laquihon, the former associate director of the center. “People come to the center not only to get a glimpse of the system but to undergo training as well.”
After the one-week training, Buencamino Talabucon returned home and adapted the technology he learned from the MBRLC. He also adopted other livelihood technologies in his farm. Now, his farm is teeming with various crops. “I am now happy harvesting the fruits of my labor,” he said.
The success of SALT ushered to the birth of three more variants, each one addressing a certain niche for the hilly land farmer. Simple Agro-Livestock Technology (SALT 2) utilizes small animals, particularly goats, to create a sustainable upland farming system. Sustainable Agroforest Land Technology (SALT 3) integrates forestry and food production in one setting. Small Agrofruit Livelihood Technology (SALT 4) centers on high value fruit trees for high income generation.
Despite its growing international reputation, the center still doesn’t look like much. No fancy buildings or large land tracts – just 19 hectares of small fields and barns, offices, bunkhouses and dormitories for guests and trainees, and a few houses for its staff.
“We don’t want to look like a big institution,” Alimoane said. “We want farmers to see what goes on here as something they can do.”
Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center (MBRLC) is located 10 kilometers away from the town of Bansalan. To get there, you have to take a bus going to Cotabato City. The travel time is about two hours from the Ecoland Terminal. Outside of the center is a signage so visitors won’t miss it.
Be sure to contact the MBRLC first before coming to the center. You can e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also call their office at 064-533-2378.