- A Pala’wan Indigenous community’s organic farming practices, using a mix of traditional, modern and agroforestry techniques, is successfully conserving old-growth forests and watersheds in the Mount Mantalingahan Protected Landscape, a biodiversity hotspot.
- However, the farmers face many challenges, including low profits, lack of access to markets, and nearby mining operations, and say they wouldn’t want their children to follow in their footsteps.
- Experts say the government should provide more incentives to these farmers who support conservation in a protected area in the form of direct subsidies, transportation and performance-based rewards for providing the ecosystem services that society depends on.
- Mantalingahan, also a candidate for a UNESCO World Heritage Site listing, is home to 11 out of the 12 forest formations found in the Philippines and hosts 33 watersheds.
PALAWAN, Philippines — At dawn, a breathtaking orange glow bathes Tatandayan, a secluded sitio, or hamlet, on the slopes of the bioculturally rich Mount Mantalingahan Protected Landscape. Under towering trees and amid dense foliage, Posito Daom, 38, harvests chayote and places it in his basket.
Like many from the Indigenous farming communities across the Philippines, which are consistently among the country’s poorest, Daom grew up in material poverty. Unable to attend the school located three hours away in the town center, he can neither read nor write. However, he has honed his farming skills and basic arithmetic knowledge, using them to cultivate and sell a bountiful array of agricultural products in a biodiversity hotspot.
Daom’s day begins at 5 in the morning. Before his wife and children wake up, he gathers water and firewood for the household, then tends to his breezy farm, pruning the unruly wild vines that have overgrown his chayote. His thriving vegetables, grown without chemical additives, fill him with pride.
In this Indigenous Pala’wan hamlet of about 50 households, Daom and many others don’t use farming tools like pickaxes and hoes. Instead, they practice traditional tugda no-till farming, by not turning over and disturbing the soil. This method, involving a stick to puncture a hole in the ground and plant the seeds in it, is well-suited for their upland farms, as they lack irrigation systems and water sprinklers, relying solely on rainwater, Daom explains.
“If you till the soil, it dries out quickly, and without regular watering, your vegetables won’t survive,” he says. Studies find this method more productive and sustainable as it enhances soil nutrients, prevents erosion, conserves water, and boosts crop yields.
However, while the Pala’wan community’s sustainable farming practices promote forest and water conservation, many wouldn’t wish a farmer’s life on their children. Lately, their produce has been selling at low profits, they face competition from external communities, the work is hard, there’s inadequate government support for organic farmers, and locals fear soil contamination from nearby mining projects. While they find joy in their sustainable farmlands, they are struggling.
Farmers protecting and living high in the country’s mountainous terrain have been overlooked in the past, and “the government should exert an extra effort to reach out more to these upland farmers as they are the ones who suffer the most,” says social scientist Delia Catacutan.
“Imagine, we are asking them to do this and that … and yet we are not helping them with their livelihoods,” says Catacutan, the Southeast Asia regional coordinator at the World Agroforestry Centre, referring to the government’s prohibition of certain agricultural practices to further protect the mountains. “There’s no such thing as free conservation these days. Conservation has a cost, and therefore, governments should incur that cost.”
Farming that protects a biodiversity hotspot
Upland rice, root crops, banana, coconut and corn are a Pala’wan farmer’s main subsistence and cash crops. However, interactions between the Tatandayan community and lowlanders introduced the Indigenous group to the cultivation of highland vegetables less than a decade ago, thanks to the region’s relatively cool climate and productive soil, says Eke Lastama, the hamlet’s Indigenous farmer leader.
Now, a diverse selection of highland vegetables, such as chayote, pechay (napa cabbage), radish, carrot and broccoli, are cultivated here alongside fruit and the usual cash crops, all using the no-till method. This array of produce forms a colorful agroforestry system, where crops are planted along Mantalingahan’s preserved timber trees.
Studies show agroforestry provides watershed management benefits by reducing forest pressure and mitigating surface runoff, nutrient leaching and soil erosion through trees’ deep-rooted systems. The Pala’wans also practice swidden farming with fallow periods of at least three to five years, avoiding clearing old-growth forests by rotating cultivation to rested areas.
Mantalingahan, also a candidate for a UNESCO World Heritage Site listing, is home to 11 of the 12 forest formations found in the Philippines. The shift toward agroforestry and sedentary organic farming in the 1990s to post-2000s is due primarily to government promotion and a ban on clearing closed forests for shifting upland rice cultivation, Lastama says.
“We no longer open primary forests because it’s restricted,” Lastama tells Mongabay. “We’ve advised our fellow tribe members not to open the forest, as in the future, there will be nothing left for our children and grandchildren in terms of trees and non-timber forest products like rattan.”
Engaging in diversified farming led many Pala’wans in Tatandayan to understand the importance of refraining from clearing closed forest areas and old-growth trees. They observed that this practice negatively affects soil and water stability in the protected landscape, impacting their harvests.
“When there are large trees, the water quality [in the soil] is good, so we don’t cut them down,” Daom says. “If you cut down those big trees, the mountains, including your farm, will erode.” Their practice of preserving ancient trees doesn’t just benefit the hydrology of their community but also that of lowland farms across five towns situated around the Mantalingahan range, home to 33 watersheds.
Watershed management experts, including Rex Cruz, a scientist and professor emeritus at the University of the Philippines, say this exemplifies how alternative livelihoods like agroforestry, sustainable agriculture and the development of fruit and timber tree plantations can alleviate pressures on watersheds and maintain their forested state.
“Our government just needs to thoroughly consider this and demonstrate unwavering determination to see it through,” Cruz tells Mongabay in a phone interview.
Like many farmers, Butuan Alwang, in his 70s, also incorporates farming practices the community picked up over generations. He improves the soil by using a mulch made from the nitrogen-rich leaves of the madre de cacao (Gliricidia sepium) tree mixed with farm animal dung. To repel tyangaw, or stink bugs, that can infest their rice and vegetables, farmers use a wildflower called bisarsar. Dotted throughout the farm, these emit a scent that drives away these pests, Alwang says. And instead of using pesticides that can contaminate water sources, they manually remove the worms that feed on leafy vegetables.
They also credit their farming success to their cultural beliefs. Alwang uses the peryama calendar to schedule his planting. May signals the start of the rainy season, prompting them to begin planting vegetables, with harvests typically occurring within one to three months, depending on the crop.
Above all, however, Alwang credits one folk practice for keeping his farm flourishing: “My father used to say, ‘Don’t steal, don’t anger others, avoid conflicts, and you will be blessed with a bountiful harvest.’” Every November, they host their annual tambilaw to celebrate the harvests. They place food offerings on a winnower to give thanks to their departed ancestors and deities for the abundant yield and seek protection and blessings for the upcoming year.
Organic farming is not cheap
But organic, traditional agriculture in Mantalingahan is not without its challenges.
Early on a Saturday morning, men and women make their way downhill to the lowland market with a carrier called a kiba, loaded with vegetables. The arduous journey takes two to three hours, with each person carrying a load almost their own weight. As they descend the mountain, their faces glisten with sweat, and passersby can hear their audible panting. Vegetable farming up in Tatandayan’s highlands has primarily always been organic, but the farmers’ inaccessibility high in the steep mountains and the strenuous costs of synthetic fertilizers are important reasons for their hesitancy to use the chemical additives — in addition to fears of water contamination.
Once all the vegetables are delivered to the market, the farmers return to Tatandayan to partake in the tarek dance, a tradition they observe after a harvest and when welcoming visitors to their community. As the men play percussion instruments like the agung, women of all ages stomp their feet on an elevated bamboo slatted floor, while onlookers gather around to observe. The gathering concludes with everyone sharing linutlut, a traditional dish of sticky rice and coconut milk, cooked in bamboo poles over a slow fire.
After the festivity, Daom sits beneath a pomelo tree, looking pensive. He’s earned just 300 pesos ($5.40) for transporting 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of chayote to the lowlands — an amount his family has to make do with for the coming week. With four of his five children in grade school, he says he hopes none of them follows in his footsteps as a farmer.
“I encourage my children to go to school so they won’t have to struggle,” Daom tells Mongabay. “Back in my day, we didn’t have the chance to study, so I’m working hard to provide them with an education.” However, he says he worries that his earnings aren’t enough to turn that dream into reality.
Lastama, the Pala’wan farmer leader, says they now earn less than before, as local wholesalers have flooded the market with produce grown in the Cordillera region, the Philippines’ highland vegetable capital, bringing down prices. Chayote, for instance, which the Tatandayan farmers could previously sell for 20 pesos per kilo (36 cents/kg, or 16 cents/lb), has dropped to 15 pesos per kilo (27 cents/kg, or 12 cents/lb), with bulk buyers citing an “oversupply.”
“We’re the local vegetable producers, and yet we’re the ones at a disadvantage,” Lastama says. “Buyers control the prices, and when we try to negotiate for higher rates to offset our months of effort and improve our living conditions, they claim they can’t afford it or won’t purchase our produce, so we often find ourselves compromising instead of earning nothing at all.”
In Lastama’s household, he and his wife are the only farmers. Their eldest child works for the municipal government, the second child is employed as a domestic helper in the city, and their three other children are still in school. Asked what he wishes to be in the future, one of the younger ones says he wants to be a policeman.
Meanwhile, the majority of watersheds in Philippine protected areas, including those on Mount Mantalingahan, face risks from mining and infrastructure development. Farmers say they fear mining’s heavy metal-laden tailings will impair soil fertility, poison waterways, damage soil structure, and deplete crucial microorganisms involved in organic material decomposition — all making their farming lives even more difficult. For the Pala’wan people who have lived here for generations, vegetable farming is an act of resistance against a nearby mine operated by Ipilian Nickel Corporation in defiance of government stoppage orders.
Helping sustainable farmers
Because the Tatandayan and other Indigenous upland farmers practice sustainable traditional and modern farming techniques, yet face so many difficulties, the Philippines’ departments of environment and agriculture must strengthen collaboration and provide them with incentives, says Catacutan of the World Agroforestry Centre.
These incentives could encompass technical support, direct subsidies, and performance-based rewards for providing the ecosystem services that society depends on, she says.
“Conservation practices need to be incentivized and, to some extent, subsidized because they yield public goods and benefits,” Catacutan says in a video interview with Mongabay. “So, society has to bear or share the cost of conservation. We should not punish upland communities by imposing various restrictions and demands on them regarding the use of their land for the public’s benefit.”
The departments of environment and agriculture have the resources to do this, she adds, but these resources are incorrectly invested and misappropriated because the returns can take longer in conservation and sustainable farming.
There’s growing recognition that this part of Mantalingahan is Palawan province’s highland vegetable capital. Krist Cadlaon, a municipal government agriculturist, highlights their recent partnership with the provincial agriculture office and USAID’s Safe Water Project to boost organic farming in Tatandayan through technical training on production technology and organizational development, seed and tool distribution, and connecting farmers with ethical buyers.
“We are also exploring the option of introducing a tramline to improve vegetable transportation, reduce produce damage, and enhance farmers’ income,” Cadlaon tells Mongabay in a phone interview.
Many in the village, however, have yet to fully benefit from these interventions and hope for their wider implementation in the next years.
Beyond incentives, what many farmers in Pala’wan communities say they want the government to do to support their farming livelihoods is to permanently halt the mining activities threatening Mantalingahan. “We won’t allow mining because it will harm the mountain and our crops,” Daom says.
Banner image: Posito Daom, a Pala’wan, pauses on his descent to the lowlands to sell chayote cultivated using the no-till method, a sustainable practice that avoids turning over and disturbing the soil, according to studies. Image by Keith Anthony S. Fabro for Mongabay.
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