Sustainable soil and land management

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DR. WILLIAM DAR

(Last of two parts)
From the time I took over its leadership in 2000, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) was able to prove that community-based and farmer-centric approaches are very effective in increasing both crop yields and incomes.

Under the successful Bhoochetana program and Yamang Lupa Program (YLP), the community-based and farmer-centric approaches were applied in the establishment of community watersheds, which was key to making sure water was available all-year round including during the dry season.

The farmer-centric community watersheds eventually became the entry point to improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers, with agencies and private entities involved in a project or program assisting them in improving their yields and incomes. Here are the components for projects/programs that involves the establishment of the farmer-centric community watersheds: Integrated genetic and natural resource management (IGNRM) holistic livelihood approach; science-based consortium-based approach; profitability and sustainability; empowerment and knowledge-sharing; and social inclusion (equality, gender and youth).

A simple explanation for this is the project or program for the farmer-centric community watersheds should be undertaken also with science-based institutions that would share their knowledge on IGNRM resulting in the empowerment of smallholder farmers through inclusive and sustainable livelihood.


The farmer-centric community watersheds are usually rainwater harvesting systems, groundwater recharging structures, check dams, percolation tanks, gabion structures, grassed waterways and diversion drains, or a combination of any of those based on the requirements of a community.

Fortunately in the Philippines, the Department of Agriculture-Bureau of Soils and Water Management (DA-BSWM) has been establishing small water impounding projects (SWIPs) benefiting farmer communities that cannot be served by national irrigation systems under the National Irrigation Authority (NIA), which is under the Department of Public Works and Highways. I have always advocated that the NIA be returned to the fold of the DA so the establishment of irrigation systems, both large and small will be well coordinated, and the DA-BSWM increase by as much as 10 times its effort and investments in establishing SWIPs and similar structures.

Besides proving to be an important component of the Bhoochetana program in Karnataka, India, and the YLP program in select areas in the Philippines, community watersheds were vital in uplifting smallholder communities in parts of Africa. More importantly, the community watersheds paved the way for measures to rejuvenating soil resources in the locality.

Bhoochetana principles were also applied in West Africa like microdosing that increased sorghum and millet yields up to 120 percent and incomes by 50 percent. This is also a soil rejuvenating measure.

Also, “Africa Market Gardens” were established where high-value crop diversification was undertaken with low-pressure drip irrigation that resulted in higher incomes for smallholder farmers. Bio-reclamation of degraded lands was likewise undertaken that resulted in planting basins that could harvest rainwater and reduce soil erosion, while leguminous crops and trees were planted to improve soil fertility and mitigate drought.

Leguminous crops play a very important role in rejuvenating soil, because they can enhance soil fertility, leading to increased and sustainable production of rice-wheat production systems. Leguminous crops can also diversify farm incomes and allow smallholder farmer households to go into value adding, because production of soybean-based value-added products like soymilk, bean curd and taho, among others, can be done in a kitchen using simple or readily available equipment.

The success of farmer-centric community watersheds in projects/programs aimed at rejuvenating and conserving soil and water resources demonstrate the importance of turning land users into decision markers. I believe this represents a paradigm shift from the traditional approach of bureaucrats and even scientists treating farmers merely as beneficiaries who are usually “consulted” but never made into active participants in the decision-making process.

While consulting smallholder farmers is also important, the land users themselves should also be mobilized to provide interventions to reduce drought risk, based on local and scientific knowledge. This simply means smallholder farmers must be active participants, and they should be provided incentives and authority to manage their lands.

When undertaking community-based watershed programs, the best steps to take are: Assess the symptoms; diagnose the causes; treat the problem; and monitor the outcome. This means that a “one size fits all” approach in undertaking projects/program for soil and land rejuvenation hardly or will never work.

Looking at the bigger picture, saving our soil and the land itself should be done through inclusive policies and governance, investment in sustainable soil management, targeted soil research, stopping soil degradation and restoring degraded soils, effective education and extension programs, and establishing soil information systems.

In the local front, the DA needs to initially allot P500 million to rejuvenate the country’s soil resources in a program/project that will have the following components: Upgrading and repairing outdated laboratory equipment and facilities of national and regional BSWM soils laboratories; retraining technicians and field persons; and conducting soil analysis and mapping nationwide.

The DA should also build a stronger partnership with local government units (LGUs), while observing autonomy and independence. This means the DA focuses on national priorities/directions or takes up the steering function, while LGUs focus on effective programs and services, which is the rowing function.

There should also be transparency and mutual accountability, with the DA accountable to its partners, and the people and communities it serves. Monitoring and evaluation is an institutionalized practice to ensure adequate feedbacking and immediate action on issues that arise.

Finally, there should be clarity on roles and responsibility on the DA-LGU partnerships that are built on clear understanding and embodied through partnership agreements such as memorandum or agreements.

Rejuvenating soil and the land is not really a very complex subject and this was proven by the success of the Bhoochetana and YLP, but the consequence of doing “business as usual” in the agricultural sector can result to desertification.

Desertification can have a grave impact on human societies and ecosystems in diverse ways, affecting food security, livelihoods, biodiversity, and carbon and climate control.

The major contributors to desertification are water erosion, reduced vegetation cover and wind erosion, which are all present in the Philippines.

Desertification is very hard to reverse once it takes root and deserts are actually “no man’s land” or cannot host any type of human activity. Reclaiming deserts or making them productive again can still be done, but why wait for our lands to become deserts?

In the Philippines, desertification has yet to take root and it is not too late to rejuvenate our soil and the land; but getting our acts together to tap the best scientific solutions available should be done the soonest. Let us not waste our time, and our soil and land!

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