Year of Grace, Day 195. Traditional sustainable knowledge on Itbayat

Mention the word kaingin to anyone in Metropolitan Manila – even those who have no experience planting even one single seed – and he or she is sure to recoil. I know I used to. The colonial (Spanish and American) attitude to swidden agriculture is so ingrained that this traditional Philippine farming knowledge, developed over millennia of local agricultural experience, is regarded as primitive. It wasn’t until the 1950s and 1960s when ethnoecologist Harold Conklin conducted fieldwork among the Hanunoo in Mindoro and the Ifugao in the Cordillera Mountains that the sound scientific basis of this age-old sustainable highland farming technology first came to light. (M and I had the privilege of meeting Conklin in New Haven in the late 70s; he was M’s linguistics professor at Yale.) Nevertheless, even now, kaingin, also known as slash-and-burn agriculture, continues to have its detractors.

Three conditions dictate this type of traditional farming: steep slopes, high rainfall, and high temperatures. The slopes lead to rapid erosion of topsoil under torrential rains, and the combination of high humidity and high temperatures lead to extremely rapid weathering or degradation of the topsoil. And there’s another, more deleterious effect of almost constant rainfall on tropical soils. And that’s the release of aluminum, silica, and iron oxide minerals from the soil particles, creating extreme acidity, high levels of dissolved aluminum, and unavailable phosphorus, among other minerals – a situation that most crops cannot tolerate.

And through millennia of observation, crop growers in tropical highlands have evolved a way to solve this. How exactly? First by not immediately planting on the same plot that had been planted before. The previously planted ground is allowed to rest (this resting period is called fallow) and rebuild fertility through nature’s own way of nutrient cycling. Any bare ground immediately becomes covered with vegetation, and the dormant seeds of past plants spring to life. Among those are pioneer plants, shrubs and trees that pave the way for others by changing the structure of the soil and, through complex symbiotic interrelationships among the soil microorganisms and the pioneer plants’ root exudations and leaf litter, restocking the soil’s depleted nutrient contents. Once the pioneer vegetation has grown sufficiently to modify soil structure and enrich nutrients –  ideally 10 – 15 years up to 20 – the soil can be prepared for food crops.

But wait – there’s still the low pH or extreme acidity of the soil to contend with. And that’s where burning comes to the rescue. The ashes resulting from the burning of “slash” — as the slashed understorey planting is also called —  increases the pH of the soil, besides killing pest eggs and larvae and harmful disease spores. Controlled properly, the fire does not spread beyond the desired area, and when fallow periods are long enough — ideally up to 20 years — this traditional farming technique is a sustainable and ecologically sound one. Certainly more sustainable than the modern and “scientific” method of continuous application of inorganic chemical fertilizers that kills soil microbiota and renders the soil completely lifeless and its fertility and structure practically irrestorable.  Moreover throughout the fallow period, there are understorey crops to be harvested — fern fronds, edible fungi, medicinal herbs, spices, potherbs. This newly cleared plot can be cropped for three years, after which a fallow period must ensue to allow for natural and sustainable nutrient regeneration.

Okay, now that we’ve established that slash-and-burn isn’t the heinous practice that we’d been led to believe, let’s go on to my kaingin adventure on Itbyat Island, Batanes. I chanced upon a traditional working party preparing for the planting of glutinous red-coloured rice. I love these heritage varieties of vari-coloured rice! So nutritious and health-giving, from their high protein (higher than white rice) and antioxidant content.

Cooperative working groups are still the norm in Itbayat for most labour-intensive activities in the community — house and roof repair, planting, harvesting, community clean-up after a typhoon, and so on. Each family in a village contributes one member, of either gender, to this cooperative work group. In Batan Island however, this practice is no longer as well maintained.As you can see there are trunks left standing and alive even after the burn — not all the trees are cut. The roots of remaining trees serve as anchors that deter topsoil erosion. The largest trunks have been piled at the periphery to serve as protective hedging against wild animals and also to contain any topsoil washed off.

Hoeing precedes sowing.

After sowing, the soil is firmly tamped over the seeds.

Woman settling soil around seeds_1589A rest break is called, and we partake of coconut, fresh from the surrounding trees. There are also seeds of Terminalia catappa, sea almond, to munch onI was privileged to have been given a straw fashioned from bamboo, and a spoon from coconut husk to drink and eat with. There is nothing so refreshing as fresh coconut straight off the tree. Please click on each photo for a larger view.

After tidying up, the work party, including me, was invited for a communal lunch of yellow rice and mung bean stew, served on breadfruit leaves. Superb!

After that hearty lunch, the work party settled their back-baskets and themselves onto hammocks strung from nearby trees for a well-earned siesta.

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