What stories does the soil tell about poverty and inequality in Mindanao?

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.

An opportunity for action 

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:

  • Provide incentives to undertake soil fertility measures, e.g. through benefits that promote the build up and conservation of soil organic matter and prevent nutrient depletion. 

  • Promote women's empowerment, unleashing their potential in agriculture, partly by ensuring more equal access to resources and by sharing and alleviating the time they dedicate to care-related tasks.

  • Facilitate men and women farmers' links to markets through new or better structures, strengthened social capital mechanisms, and accessible ICT channels and other technologies. Furthermore, use these links to incentivise soil conservation practices. Logic tells us that farmers will see the benefit of stable and higher productivity in farming systems as a result of implementing medium and long-term soil and water conservation measures.  

  • And finally, promote a landscape approach which addresses the multiple challenges at stake: a combination of a 'smaller pie' (less abundant natural resources, less arable land) and 'more mouths to feed' (a growing population demanding more resource-intensive food). The socio-ecological system and the decisions of the land users within it, now more than ever, affect everyone -- not just the user of a particular plot -- and must therefore be managed comprehensively.

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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