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.despite high agricultural production, close to half of Mindanao’s soils are severely eroded. Here, as in many parts of the planet, 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. Population growth and insufficient access to arable land further aggravate the problem by pushing families and subsistence farmers to cultivate steep slopes. At the root of these drivers lie chronic poverty and marginalisation, as well as government entities that are not always representative of the needs of the poorest; all thriving in a game of unequal power relations.

An opportunity for action 

Poor soil conditions thwart crop yields. In the Philippines this is roughly estimated to be somewhere between one third to 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. This is tragic, but at the same time it represents an opportunity for action to reverse
present trends and promote sustainable agriculture

In Mindanao, as almost everywhere, land degradation affects small-scale subsistence farmers and large-scale producers alike. It is also exacerbated by the agricultural practices of both, albeit for different reasons and to different extents. 

…large-scale industrial agricultural and mining activities seek short-term benefits

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, which will cause negative impacts to landowners in the future when their soils become depleted. 

Quick gains at whatever cost is the ruling counter-intuitive way of working of our times.

The type of economic development I am grossly oversimplifying here does not normally represent the interests of the small-scale farmer or those of the marginal farmer pushed to steep lands. Resolving this has been and remains one of the key development issues of our times. The 2015 UN year of soils offers an opportunity to revisit and renew these discussions.

Five points I would encourage in these discussions to promote fair and sustainable land management that contributes to poverty reduction are:

  • Bring back traditional knowledge, for example through farmer field schools. In drought-stricken Sahel, for instance, the “loss of local know-how about soil conservation practices” has been pinpointed as one of the factors contributing to agricultural production decline and loss of arable land
  • 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, and furthermore use these links to incentivise soil conservation practices. The logic goes that farmers 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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Photo: Local governments can create market links through providing venues for weekly farmers’ markets in Mindanao. Credit: Jo Villanueva/Oxfam

Author: Daniel Morchain
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.