Kalanguya Forest Farmers, Philippines

August 7, 2010

Its been a while since the last post so let me begin with a brief update.

We are currently in Minamiizu, the southern tip of the Izu peninsula which lies just south of Tokyo. We are staying with a young family farming vegetables and rice with ducks. We came to this area with the intention of looking for land to farm ourselves as Minamiizu has the reputation of being a little more laid back and cosmopolitan than most of rural Japan. So far this has been our experience. We have also seen some very interesting terraced farmland that has been abandoned….

Back in June we left Japan to travel in the Philippines. While our initial reason for going was the renewal of my visitors visa for Japan we were also aware that traditional natural farming was still being practiced in many parts of the Philippines and wanted to take a look.

We divided our time in the Philippines between two different locations on Luzon island, in Tublay municipality near Baguio city and in Ifugao province.

In Tuplay we stayed at ENCA, the Cosalan family farm and “eco-tourism” site. (If the term eco-tourism conjures up images of wealthy first-worlders ‘roughing’ it in pristine exotic locations that was certainly not the case here. The visitors were primarily urban Filipinos making day trips into the country side and the few foreign visitors were mostly volunteer workers like ourselves).

The primary crop at ENCA is shade grown organic coffee with some vegetables also being produced. There are many challenges at ENCA not the least of which is the difficulty of getting products to market with the nearest negotiable road forty minutes walk away. The roads never used to be quite so bad or so far away but in 2009 the area was hammered by a series of typhoons that resulted in massive erosion of the mountains, river beds increasing from ten to twenty times their previous size and large areas of farm land and infrastructure washed downstream by the raging torrents.

Unfortunately there is something of a history of severe environmental degradation in the area. Rice production on the terraced mountain sides ceased in the 1970’s when copper mining in the area contaminated the water. Although the 2009 typhoons were the trigger for the most recent damage it was clear to me from observation (and later confirmed by discussing it with locals) that the extent of the damage had been greatly exacerbated by poor land management practices.

High up in the valley were “upland” farmers practicing slash and burn agriculture, a practice that although part of farming traditions in many parts of the world often has a detrimental effect on the eco-systems where it is practiced. One of the problems with the slash and burn approach, and particularly notable in the case of the valley where ENCA is located, is the increased surface runoff of water. Slashing and burning the forest to open up areas for cultivation exposes the bare earth which results in an increase in  the volume and intensity of the surface runoff, particularly in severe weather, picking up more organic matter and gouging out more of the hillside, exposing more of the surface etc., etc.

Upland farmers planting a new garden


More troubling than the activities of the upland farmers though was the practice of free range grazing of cattle in the forest. At the top of all of the worst land slides in the area was evidence of prolonged grazing of cows. Unfortunately it seems very few of the farmers have made the connection between the grazing of animals in the forest and the severity of erosion being experienced. In forest systems hard-hoofed grazers on free-range eat out the small shrubs and saplings that play an essential role in the stability of the forest. These are plants that protect the forest floor in exposed areas where the canopy has been disturbed and act as a nursery for forest plant stock to ensure regeneration of the forest.

As the animals move across the steep slopes their tracks produce ruts which become channels which in high rainfall events are gouged out and can lead to ‘slips’ or land slides. In the forest around ENCA there was ample evidence that this was exactly what was occurring.

View from ENCA farm across river

Beyond the obvious environmental stress ENCA was a very beautiful place. Valleys of terraced gardens growing organic vegetables surrounded by forest in which coffee was grown along with an abundance of pineapples, guava, banana, jackfruit, wild tomatoes….


Jackfruit in the forest

We had a wonderful time thanks to the Cosalan family hospitality but ENCA was not really the place for learning about traditional natural farming practices. The practices there were a mix of recently imported ideas such as beneficial indigenous micro-organisms and biodynamics.

The next farm we visited was exactly what we had been hoping to find. We stayed with the Puguon family between the villages of Pula and Bulpog in Asipulo municipality of Ifugao province. Ifugao is famous for its rice terraces, particularly the town of Benaue, probably the number one tourist destination in the Philippines but we were deep in the mountains far away from the tourists.

Thirty minutes walk from the village of Pula (a village itself only accesible by 4WD or motorbike ) up steep mountain paths that wind towards Bulpog and we were in a valley occupied by a clan of the Kalanguya tribe, terraced paddy and forest farmers.

The farmers here operate a traditional system of farming, variations of which can be found throughout the mountains of northern Luzon in the  Philippines and in other remote regions throughout Asia. It is a system of farming that was dominant in the Asia Pacific region before the introduction of mechanized/chemical agriculture. It is a system of terraquaculture (earth-water farming), a natural farming system that utilizes the existing features of environments as “eco-structures” for developing sustainable productive systems. In particular it works with the natural flows of water through the landscape, making optimal use of the water and the nutrients it carries.

Rice terraces and forest

In the steep mountain valleys of Asipulo the basic pattern of the farming system is terraced rice paddies as low down in the system as possible with vegetables grown around the edges of the paddies and managed forest (pinguo) above. The forest is recognized as the source of water and fertility that keeps the whole system productive.

Rice terraces with beans growing on terrace walls and betel nut palm in foreground

The Bulpog clan of the Kalanguya people are true forest farmers. Much of their food, their medicines, shelter and many items used in daily life are products of their forests. Their cash crops of coffee and betel nut are grown throughout the forest. Food grown in the forest and on its fringes includes coconut, taro, cassava, chilli, pomello, papaya, banana, pineapple, ginger, yam as well as various fungi and wild honey. The distinction between farmed and wild food is truly blurred in these forests. In a sense everything is ‘farmed’ in that selective ‘weeding’ of the forest is done in order to promote the growth of the most desirable species but at the same time everything grown in the forest is somewhat wild as self-seeding is the main method of propagation and everything is grown in a truly complex polyculture.


Gerald Puguon slashing and mulching around coffee saplings

Pineapple plants used to stabilize steep banks

Rattan is the most widely used plant of these forest farmers. They eat its sour fruit and shoots and use the canes for twine and baskets. Rattan crafts are widely sold at tourist markets in the Philippines but the people of Bulpog do not produce for these markets. The price that the craftspeople receive for their products is insultingly low but, more critically, is the recognition of the relatively slow growth of rattan. The Bulpog farmers are aware that if they begin producing crafts for markets they will quickly exhaust the rattan that they use so widely in their daily lives. This is an applaudable decision as these people are very money poor.

Senior Puguon weaving rattan basket

The finished basket

What is not grown in the forest (or on the forest edge around dwellings and along pathways) is produced as part of the paddy system. The farmers here grow from one to three crops of rice per paddy field per year. While rice is the main staple any failure in the rice crop could, for one year at least, be covered by the secondary staples of taro and cassava. These people may be ‘poor’ but they are certainly in no risk of starvation!

The rice paddies are also biodiverse polycultural systems. With the rice is grown taro and azolla (a water fern that fixes atmospheric nitrogen and is used as a garden mulch by the Bulpog Kalanguya), molluscs (various kinds of snails), fish (loaches and fresh water crayfish) or ducks (as ducks eat the molluscs and small fish its an either/or situation).

On the walls of the paddies legumes are grown, usually the winged bean, a delicious and highly nutritious bean that is also an excellent nitrogen fixer. Other vegetables are grown around the edges of the paddies but on occasion whole plots of vegetables are planted. These more recognizable vegetable gardens are used to form new terraces. The farmers create rows running up and down the slope so that the act of gardening will slowly move the soil downhill, eventually creating a level terrace that can be used as a paddy.

Vegetable gardens used to form level terraces

As mentioned earlier one of the main cash crops of this area is shade grown coffee. The planting of coffee in these forests began in earnest in the 1970’s when the introduction of cattle grazing threatened to destroy the forests. Insightful farmers realized that in order to save the forests they needed to develop cash crops that required forest cover and began to plant coffee widely. Initially the plan was a success with the grazing of cattle quickly abandoned but a crash in coffee prices in the 1980’s and subsequent fluctuations have exposed the forest to new threats.

The farmers have continued to grow coffee under the shade of the forest but they are paid very little for their product. The main buyer of coffee from this region is Nestle. Its a tragic tale all too familiar in the age of globalized free market capitalism. High quality naturally farmed organic coffee – grown in order to preserve forests –  is being sold for next to nothing to be turned into low quality Nescafe instant coffee. Nestle, and the Filipino agricultural advisers who are more or less working for them are now encouraging the farmers to cut down the forest so that the coffee plants can be cut down and regenerated in short cycles supposedly to improve ‘productivity.’ When the farmers are receiving the lowest possible price for their product any improvement in productivity is obviously not going to be in their interests.

Senior roasting coffee (a three hour process)

The price for coffee is so low that Nestle’s stupid advice it is not actually posing a real threat to the forest. But certainly the establishment of decent markets for the high quality coffee grown in these forests would ensure the forest farming of this region continues. (If you are trading in fair trade organic raw coffee beans, or would like to, please contact me).

The bigger immediate threat to the forests is market gardening. Although barely viable at present with access to the mountain villages so difficult the municipal government is proposing building a road into the mountains to open it up for larger scale market gardening. The farming system practiced in these mountains is truly sustainable if it continues as it has traditionally been done. It has been highly refined over a very long time to maintain maximum fertility. Cutting down the forest and exhausting the remaining fertility with vegetable production will likely cause total collapse of the system within a few short years. Chemical fertilizers may keep it artificially alive for a few more but most likely the people of Bulpog will be poor and in risk of starvation. The fact is that were they to receive a decent price for their coffee they could continue to be exemplary practitioners of a truly sustainable agriculture.

In closing I want to share one more photograph. It is of the river that runs below the village of Bulpog and the farms surrounding the village. It is a truly beautiful river that even after heavy rain remains perfectly clear (i.e., there is virtually no soil being washed into the river due to erosion). It is a truly amazing testament to the farming system operating in these mountains. Approximately 80 households are supported by farms situated directly above this river yet there is no sign of pollution or degradation of the land.

River below the Bulpog farms


9 Responses to “Kalanguya Forest Farmers, Philippines”

  1. Jocelyn Says:

    Hi ya you two! Great keeping up with your adventures and I’m glad to hear you’re feeling positive about the prospect of finding a place to call home. Love and Hugs

    • dion Says:

      Hmmm…. Positive is maybe not the word I would use. We see a lot of potential in land that has been abandoned but there are some very complicated issues involved in farming it or residing on it. Japan is a very conservative country with strict social hierarchies still very much in place in most rural areas. There is very little tolerance for upstarts that plan to do things differently. Not to mention an equally conservative bureaucracy that enforces strict land use definitions (for example, you cannot build a dwelling on farm land. You need a separate residential title for the house and a farm title for the rest of the land. Most farms in Japan do not have dwellings on them rather the farmers reside in the villages.)
      So, we see beautiful pieces of land that have been abandoned and get quite excited but, so far, we have not found one without extreme limitations.

  2. Earthwhile Says:

    Hi Dion and Asako. You have no idea how much I enjoy reading your amazing blog entries. The best “living vicariously” available on the net. To add the cherry on top – you have an absolute gift for writing. Keep up the wonderful sharing… Big hugs.

    • dion Says:

      Thanks for the encouraging words Ron. I just wish I could find the time to share some more of what we’re doing and learning. I’m barely scratching the surface at the moment but there is always more doing and learning to be done.

  3. Jason Workman Says:

    Really interesting post Dion.Thanks for taking the time although I do hope at some point you get some more of it to write further,if as you say this is just ‘scratching the surface’. I know nothing of these organisations below that import and wholesale fairtrade organic coffee. It might not be any help.


  4. Kama Burwell Says:

    Hi Dion, I’ve finally gotten around to looking at your blog … and it is fantastic.

    I’m unsettled by your words about market gardening threatening the sustainability of farming in this area. I would have thought that by following the principles of terraquaculture, the farmers could transform some areas of forest into terraced market gardens with no adverse effects ?

    Their rice paddies look amazing. As you know, we’ve created our first experimental rice paddies in the wetland here at our farm. They are doing really well so far. When I look at your photos of the rice paddies moving right up the hillsides, I wonder whether that is possible here at our farm in Taranaki.

    I suspect that our watershed is simply too small to have such a large terraqueous habitat creeping up the hillsides. I get the feeling from your photos that the watersheds there are quite large. Any idea what their annual rainfall is?

    I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

    Nga mihi nui, Kama

    • dion Says:

      Hi Karma,
      thanks for the comments. Yes, it would be possible to do market gardening in a highly productive and sustainable way if the farmers continued to follow the principles of terraquaculture. The real danger is that once better access is gained to the area the “plant doctors” representing fertilizer, pesticide/herbicide and seed companies will follow the road into the heart of the forest and start trying to convert the farmers to their ways. Even regarding their coffee growing in the forest they are already receiving the appalling advice of government agricultural officers to clear cut the forest and grow the coffee in the open in vast monocultures. Apparantly to bring the coffee to maturation faster and allow for a quick cycle of replacing “spent” plants.
      Unfortunately not all of the farmers fully understand why their systems work. They farm the way they do because that is the way they have always farmed in those mountains. But some do understand very well and they are trying to spread this understanding through their community so there is great hope there.
      I guess the other factor is that these people are really forest dwellers — it is in the forest that most of their food, medicines, fibres and materials are grown. They have never been intensive vegetable gardeners. They grow a lot of rice and they grow vegetables around the edges of the paddies or to form paddies but they do not grow vegetables intensively.
      There are some “upland” farmers that do grow vegetables intensively in mountains beyond Bulpog. They are using slash and burn techniques and, sadly, massive erosion scars are clearly visible on the mountains where they live.
      In all the more aacessible farming lands in the Philippines there is often an overpowering stench of chemicals in the air.
      For the people of Bulpog to become intensive vegetable farmers would be a big cultural shift and unfortunately many of the examples that they have close at hand in the Philippines are hardly ones that will preserve their beautiful envirnoment and the systems they have developed to coexist with it so harmoniously.

  5. Odessa Says:

    Good day, Dion. I hope that the natural farming in Bulpog will thrive amidst the wrong and damaging methods of farming that is being practiced here.
    I hope that farmers are educated and encouraged to preserve our natural resources rather than benefitting and destroying.
    I’m very much interested in your terraquaculture farming! Please email me more information and can you recommend a website or an organization that holds seminar regarding terraquaculture farming?



    • dion Says:

      To find out more about terraquaculture visit terraquaculture.net.
      On this site you will find information about training courses as well as articles, interviews, photos and links to other sites relevant to terraquaculture.
      Thanks for the comment,

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