Last week I had a remarkable opportunity to visit the island of Mindanao. Since I am no longer a Peace Corps Volunteer, I am allowed to do dangerous things like ride motorcycles, climb the Mayon Volcano, and visit Mindanao under my own risk and without a crackdown from Washington. The island of Mindanao is known in most media circles as the site of much of the Communist and Islamic rebel group activity in the Philippines. My intention in visiting Mindanao was to visit several agroforestry and permaculture farms in Bukidnon province adjacent to the Mt. Kitanglad Range Natural Park. The area is known as one of the most ecologically pristine parts of the Philippines. Human ecology is a topic that I have really focused on so much in this blog.
The Philippines is a great place to see the role that humans play in ecosystems because of the population density, the prevalence of subsistence lifestyles, and the natural disaster vulnerability. Many farmers in Bukidnon province and other mountainous areas in the Philippines have embraced a scientific, socially conscious, and ecologically sound relationship with their land bases. This lifestyle and the formation of a deep relationship with a land base has been a calling of mine for years, and I aimed to meet some Filipino farmers who have been doing just that for decades.
The United States Embassy in Manila advises that Americans use caution in visiting certain parts of the island. Mindanao, however, is a large island (second largest in the Philippines after Luzon) and like in most places in the world, generalizations are grossly unfair. In general, militant Islamic rebel groups such as Abu Sayyaf are based in the western part of the island and more especially in the Sulu archipelago on the islands of Basilan, Jolo, and Tawi-Tawi. The more loosely organized New Peoples’ Army (NPA) tends to be restricted to isolated pockets in remote, mountainous areas throughout the Philippines. I don’t consider myself a political person, and I generally consider any political ideology as regressive to human progress, protection of life, and the formation of friendship. I didn’t consider much the political situation in the areas that I was visiting, and instead tried to focus on how people interacted with nature, the cultural values, and geographic setting.
I was also interested in seeing some of the bird life which the Kitanglad Range is well known for. It is one of the best places to see some of the rarest bird species on earth including Philippine Eagle, Mindanao Lorikeet, Bukidnon Woodcock, Grey-hooded Sunbird, and Mountain Serin. I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked to get up high into the really pristine areas because of the tight schedule and bad weather, but I was able to see some of the more common high elevation species in the forests near the farms we visited.
The first farm we visited was in the Barangay Imbayao just outside Malaybalay City. This was the Mt. Kitanglad Agri-Ecological Techo-Demo Center of Benjamin Maputi and his wife Jean. Ben has 22 hectares of land at an elevation of 1250 meters on the eastern slope of the Kitanglad Range. Their family has been working their land for decades full time and began the Center in 2003 in order to train farmers on integrative agricultural techniques. In addition, the Philippine Federation for Environmental Concern (PFEC) has been working with the Maputi family for several years to develop their ability to process essential oils from citronella and tea trees such as Eucalyptus.
One of the most unique aspects of the Maputis’ farm is that they have integrated indigenous trees into their agricultural system, and have set aside 10 hectares of rain forest as a protected area. In this protected area, they have completed a trail for an ecological walk and have built a ritual ground in the forest in which the local indigenous conduct a traditional ceremony on the full moon every December. They have plans to further develop the trail system to include hides for birdwatching in the forest.
One of the aspects that surprised me at the Maputi farm was the relative lack of food crops. The farm tended to focus especially on cash crops like tea tree oil, abaca fiber, and tree seedlings, not relying heavily on food production. Although processes focusing on food production such as fish ponds, fruit trees, and livestock exist at the farm, they existed as a small part of the day-to-day operation.
I asked Ben’s son, Ben Jr., who plans to run the farm after his parents retire about his vision for the Center. He sees an opportunity there to promote something he called “Agro-Eco-Tourism”. He sees the ability to promote the farm as a tourist destination in connection with the “back to the land” movement. People will be able to come there, volunteer on the farm, learn about agroforestry, the culture, and about the ecology of the adjacent Mt. Kitanglad Range Natural Area. He says that it will be important to preserve the farm’s identity as a working farm, but also allow the place to grow into something that will allow visitors who are willing to bear the somewhat arduous journey to come there to enjoy nature and learn more about sustainable living. Anyone who is interested in visiting the Mt. Kitanglad Agri-Ecological Techno-Demo Center should contact the DENR-PENRO provincial office in Malaybalay City.
The second farm we visited was located in Barangay Songco in Lantapan, Bukidnon. It was Binahon Agroforestry Farm and Resource Center owned and operated by Henry Binahon. Henry operates about 7 hectares at 1300 meters elevation as a farmers training and resource center in a similar way to the Maputis. Henry’s approach to farming comes from his training in human ecology, and I see eye to eye with him on many levels. His approach stresses that humans should be living in a partnership type relationship with the other living things on the farms, and not take a dominating or overly controlling approach. Henry welcomes weeds and insects on his farm when others might view them as pests. He doesn’t see the need to organize his crop plants into neat rows or even spacing, but rather embraces the chaos of mixed crop, multi-story, and successional farming, using the principles of forest ecology in his farming strategy.
Henry began his farm in 1992 with only 4 hectares on the southern slopes of Mt. Kitanglad. He bought the land at the current site of the farm, but did nothing except plant trees there. He planted many exotic and/or fast-growing species. He came back about 10 years later and used the timber growing on the lot to build all of the structures that can currently be seen on the farm.
Over the years, he has harvested the exotic timber trees when he needed lumber for construction and milled it on his own farm. He has replaced these exotic species with native tree species in the understory which tolerate shade in their early life stages. At this point, he was able to show us a hectare of almost entirely restored native forest that in just 1992 was completely cleared, being used to grow vegetables in a monoculture. Henry was also able to show us how he has been able to grow fruit trees, coffee, and vegetables under a canopy of native tree species that he planted 22 years ago. All of these systems have helped to increase the biodiversity on the farm. Because of Henry’s experience and intimate knowledge of the forest ecology in the Philippines, he has been able to integrate nearly everything he has learned on his own farm.
Bukidnon province has a climate that allows both tropical and temperate plant species to grow there, making the possibilities for different species that one can integrate into the farming system virtually limitless. It reminds me of the climate in some of the upland areas of Hawai’i. Henry was able to show us many species of food crops that I had never before seen grown in a tropical or sub-tropical climate.
Henry too makes most of his day-to-day income on the farm raising native tree seedlings to supply the DENR’s National Greening Program (NGP). This program is part of a national forest restoration effort in the Philippines to increase carbon sequestration, as well as increase runoff retention in watershed. Binahon Farm produces so many different types of food crops as well, that there is always something to eat there. It is probably the most productive seven hectares I have ever seen in my life when taking into account the biodiversity and forest resources there.
Henry sees himself continuing to promote his farm in the future for training farmers in agroforestry and sustainable farming. His biggest current project is the construction of a carrot juice concentrate processing facility supported by the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic, and Natural Resources Research and Development and the Department of Science and Technology. Henry claims that he can grow carrots extremely well and plans to produce carrot products for the emerging market in the Philippines.
Binahon Agroforestry Farm and Resource Center can be reached by public jeepney from Malaybalay City Public Market in about 2 hours for 50 pesos. Look for the jeep going to Kibangay and Lantapan. There is a sign for the farm about 10 kilometers west of Lantapan proper. The farm is only 600 meters from the main road. For additional information on reaching the farm, see the farm’s website or contact Henry by email.
It is incredibly inspiring and humbling to see farmers that have bought into the idea of being ecologically conscious and participating themselves as an organism integrated into the balanced farm system. This experience for me was the ultimate example of the types of people, conversations, and ideas that will need to be generated by the majority of our population in the future. These farm systems represent the critical links that we still retain into our ecology on a deep cellular level as products of billions of years of evolution. Call it cellular knowledge if you will. Without these people having spent decades in these partnerships with other organisms on a land base, the scripture of our ecology and spiritual relationship might be lost.
One of the themes that I tend write about is relinquishing the need for quantification in the emerging post-industrial age. Nature is collecting interest on our ignorance of our own ecology and what we have been doing in this fading industrial age. We are already seeing the payments on these debts being payed. The language of English and numbers seem to be a symptom of the problem. Perhaps we need to evolve new or resurrect old languages to fit a new age in which we are consciously aware of and able to collectively describe our ecology. Perhaps we need to refocus our technologies to embrace these concepts.
Perhaps focus on the appeal of the environmental movement should be about saving us, not just the planet, the environment, the whales, the trees, or cute polar bears. We need to get better at creating and preserving than we are at destroying. It’s all connected, and like it or not, we are just somewhere in that line of the world’s next endangered species with the whales, trees, and polar bears. Let’s do what organisms have done since the beginning of life on earth, consciously adapt, then allow our subconscious to evolve into something better in harmony with nature and the universe.