ATOK, Benguet – For many years, old-timers of this municipality had the foresight of grazing herd of cows and horses under Benguet Pines or other trees for that matter and, as a result, were rewarded with a diverse source of income while the practice of grazing enhanced health of the forest than when there were no animals under the trees.
For the livestock, the trees provided them with shade, a place to rest and weather protection, especially when herds bedded down for nights.
Cattle kept down the weeds by eating them and cows’ droppings fertilized the trees. Hence, not only the herd of cows were well-fed and nourished. In addition, the immediate environment of the trees was weeded and kept safe during the occurrence of forest fire.
Atok elders knew that reducing forest density to promote forage production lessened the likelihood of catastrophic wildfires.
They were also knowledgeable about what they explained as thinning the forest and grazing the understory resulted in increased tree quality and size, due to decreased competition for light water and nutrients.
These large high-quality trees represented a significant long term economic return when harvested at a later time, old-timers narrated.
What these hardy Benguet folks have been doing was practicing a form of agroforestry. Agroforestry is in fact a new word for an age-old practice that has been used, in one form or another, for thousands of years.
Shifting cultivation, for example, is believed to have originated in the Neolithic period, about 7000 B.C. It’s still common in hilly areas in tropical Asia, including the Philippines, Africa and Latin America.
It is a form of agroforestry in that the farmers plant trees and agricultural crops on the same piece of land: In this case, they arrange them sequentially in both time and space.
In other forms, for example, the “taungya” system developed in the mid-1800s in Burma, the Government gave land to shifting cultivators who raised trees and agricultural crops together. When the tree canopy closed overhead, no more crops could be raised, so the Burmese farmers moved on to another site and the space they abandoned was reclaimed by weeds, other growing plants, wild animals and healthful microbes to reconstitute into a dense forest again.
Today, many variations of agroforestry exist in many parts of the world, including in the Philippines as exemplified by the Benguet folks. Sometimes, in addition to crops and trees, animals are part of the system.
What all forms of agroforestry have in common is a combination of woody perennials (trees and shrubs) growing together with food or other crops – with or without animals – in a self-sustaining and productive farming system.
Strangely, although these systems have been around since prehistoric times, it’s only recently that scientists have become interested in them. Interested enough, that is, to study it as a distinct discipline, and to pour large amounts of money or scientific grants for such studies.
Such an effort began a decade ago. It started with a study in Canada by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and resulted in the establishment in 1977 of the International Council for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF). Today, IDRC and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) provide funding for ICRAF. CIDA alone, pours into ICRAF an annual 7.8 billion US dollars.
IDRC invests in quality research in developing countries like the Philippines, shares knowledge with researchers and policymakers for greater uptake and use and mobilizes global alliances to build a more sustainable and inclusive world.
It was the first time that scientists and forestry experts began to look seriously at agroforestry as a separate discipline – as a branch of science with its own concepts and body of knowledge. And from this new discipline have sprung new and developed forestry technologies that have started to improve the well-being of forests of Third World people.
When ICRAF celebrated its 10th anniversary in 1979, leaders from agriculture and forestry – and of course from agroforestry itself — gathered in Nairobi next to the United Nations complex for a 2-days conference on “The Role of Agroforestry in Improved Land Use.” Arturo R. Tanco, Jr. then agriculture secretary at that time, represented the Philippines.
Agroforestry role is now steadily expanding. Many years back, even the name agroforestry was not in common use. Today, agroforestry projects in the country, particularly in Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) are becoming a vogue: One example hidden still from the eyes of the public is the art of growing Benguet coffee under Benguet pines and growing of lemons under Benguet pine cover.
Benguet coffee growers and those in Kalinga have found to their delight that in growing Benguet coffee under tree cover, it attracted the comeback of the native civet cat, “motit” in common dialect.
The civet cat, a nocturnal animal, prefers to eat ripe coffee berries. After defecting these, the coffee beans are then collected, washed and roasted, having possessed a chocolaty flavor after having passed through the cat’s digestive system.
It is then sold in CAR, to predetermined outlets, customers and retailers outside of CAR but the motit coffee is very expensive — in fact considered the most expensive coffee in the world for a pack of it (depending on the motit coffee weight) fetches a price of a hundred US dollars. Retailers who buy motit coffee in volume re-pack the motit coffee and sell it for a higher price. All these gains, because of the practice of agroforestry.
Take note that the motit, a Philippine native species is a protected wild animal under Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) regulations and when spotted, must not be captured, slain or eaten, and instead must left alone in their preferred habitat – with the Benguet coffee where they find nourishment growing under pine trees.
Four multilateral development banks — World Bank, Inter-American, Asian and African Development Banks have invested over US$ 2 billion in agroforestry over the past decade – 13 times the amount they invested the decade before. Agroforestry is getting a bigger proportion than ever: 37 per cent of the total as compared with 6 per cent at the beginning of the decade.
Could it be that the ramping up of the amount spent on agroforestry has something to do with the debacle of climate change hounding all countries and how to fight it? Very possible.
A World Bank foreign adviser, John Spears said before:
“In most cases, the economic rates of return of agroforestry projects financed by development banks have been significantly higher than those yielded by the industrial plantation of forestry projects that characterized earlier bank lending programmes.”
“… Investing in poverty-oriented agro-forestry projects is a bankable activity that requires no special justification on humanitarian or environmental grounds. Agro-forestry projects can ensure increased farm productivity and income for rural people on the one hand, as well as the protection of farming system environment, particularly soil and water resources, on the other.”
Experts now acknowledge that great things are expected from the scientific and technological exploitation of this ancient practice. Dr. M. S. Swaminathan, former director-general of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, suggested that every country should set up a national task force for promoting agro-forestry.
“It is time that we devote greater attention to economically and ecologically sustainable agricultural production where present economic progress and prospects for survival will not be in conflict,” he said.
Swaminathan recalled the time several thousand farmers in the Philippines participated in tree farming projects funded by the World Bank and the Philippine Government. For many, that was their only significant share of surplus farm income. Because most food they produced was needed for survival.
Swaminathan was then referring to the then “The Family Approach to Reforestation,” introduced in 1979 with financial support by the government and “The Communal Tree Farming Program, or, Citizen Tree Planting Program” also introduced in 1979 to establish tree farms in denuded places.
“Fortunately, agro-forestry systems are characterized by this happy blend and thereby giving farmers the maximum return from the available soil, water, nutrients and sunlight,” Swaminathan added.
An Atok elder, who just wanted to be identified by his popular name as “Apong” Olit or “Lolong” Olit and who have herded cattle in his young days after school, simply explained that “Agroforestry is the practice of growing trees or shrubs around and among crops combining both agriculture and forestry in a symbiotic relationship.”
“It is a system that dates back to a time when humans changed from one-dimensional hunter-gatherer subsistence and began to include agricultural practice as a means of survival, as what my Benguet ancestors did, “Lolong Olit explained.
Lolong Olit, who graduated from the then Mountain State Agricultural College (MSAC) but now renamed Benguet State University (BSU) explained that his Benguet ancestors did not need a college diploma to understand that agro-forestry is not only sustainable agriculture but the best way to manage watersheds and home of wild animals.
Lolong Olit went on to mention some of the agroforestry systems of Benguet folks like “pastolan,” a zone designated for cattle ranching and bounded from agricultural areas. Another is the “pasbol,” a barrier for cattle that keeps cattle from spring wells.
Then there is the “uma,” an agro-forest land for crops usually established below pine forests. They have the traditional “umasor” swidden farming established in second growth forest allowed to regenerate. Another important practice is the “baeng” or “baengan,” established woodlots near homes and planted with fruit-bearing trees including pine trees.
They have the “payew,” rice fields, and “anufan,” hunting grounds and customary rituals, the latter playing a crucial role in environmental protection.