On the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, land degradation is a major problem affecting small-scale subsistence farmers and large-scale producers alike. Daniel Morchain looks at the obstacles to sustainable land management in Mindanao, and makes recommendations for a long-term soil conservation strategy that is fair and sustainable, and which will help to address the issue of poverty on the island.
The island of Mindanao offers one of those paradoxes around riches and inequality. Whilst being called the food basket of the Philippines (some figures claim it supplies 40% of the country's food needs), the incidence of poverty across Mindanao is considerably higher than the national average, and the Human Development Index of its provinces is among the lowest in the country. This is a case where food production doesn't quite equate with food security, as much of the food produced is exported. I'd like to explore to what extent these deep-rooted inequalities can be addressed by looking down to the soil.
Let's start with a quick and telling figure: despite high agricultural production, close to half of Mindanao's soils are severely eroded.
Globally, land degradation -- which leads to soil erosion -- can be caused by deforestation, overgrazing of cattle, unsustainable agricultural practices, mining activities and climate change impacts, among others. At the root of this degradation in Mindanao, and indeed in many other regions of the world, lies chronic poverty, marginalisation, and government entities that are not always representative of the needs of the poorest; all thriving in a game of unequal power relations. On the one hand, poverty and lack of access to resources -- such as agricultural inputs, credits or land itself -- prevent or discourage small-scale farmers from implementing long-term sustainable agricultural practices. On the other hand, large-scale industrial agricultural and mining activities seek short-term benefits, largely ignoring soil conservation principles. This will cause negative impacts to landowners in the future when their soils become depleted.
Sadly, quick gains at any cost seems to the preferred approach of our time.
Poor soil conditions thwart crop yields. In the Philippines, this is roughly estimated to be affecting somewhere between one third to a half of a crop's potential, posing a major threat to food security and the livelihoods of communities. Poorer soils also reduce the natural environment's ability to buffer the impact of floods and other weather and climate related impacts. Population growth and insufficient access to arable land further aggravate the problem by pushing families and subsistence farmers to cultivate steep slopes.This has implications at all levels as, in Mindanao, as almost everywhere, land degradation affects small-scale subsistence farmers and large-scale producers alike. Albeit in different ways, and to different extents.
Resolving the problems of the kids of economic development (that I have grossly oversimplified here) have been, and remain, a key development issue we face today.
The 2015 UN year of soils offers us an opportunity to revisit and renew discussions on the actions we can take towards reversing present trends and promoting fair sustainable land management in agriculture.
I propose five points that may help guide those discussions towards creating better solutions:
In this multi-stakeholder game where it matters so much who owns, who accesses, who supplies, who lends, who sows (and how!) and who reaps, let's remember, too, to look down to that earthly stakeholder and hear the stories it needs to tell us.
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