By Henrylito D. Tacio
If you ask someone in Davao Region where Balutakay is, it seems no one knows. If you google it, you will be directed to Balutakay Coffee Farmers Association. It is a group of coffee farmers who banded together and ended up producing the award-winning coffee that is now internationally recognized for its exceptional quality.
Purok Pluto, where the farmers reside, is located at an elevation of 1,200 meters above sea level, an ideal location for growing coffee, particularly the Arabica (the most dominant coffee cultivar around the world).
Balutakay is located at the rolling foothills of Mount Apo, the country’s highest peak, whose elevation is 2,954 meters above sea level. As such, it is part of the Mt. Apo Natural Park.
What used to be a forested area is now teeming with agricultural crops. Aside from coffee, farmers now plant high-value crops like cabbage, carrots, green onions, potatoes, ornamentals, strawberries, and bananas in this sitio of barangay Managa, Bansalan, Davao del Sur.
Without trees, the topsoil—the primary resource in farming—is eroded. Studies show that soil can be formed in as little as 200 years, but the process normally takes far longer. Under most conditions, soil is formed at a rate of one centimeter every 100 to 400 years, and it takes 3,000 to 12,000 years to build enough soil to form productive land.
Soil is the world’s most precious natural resource. Unfortunately, unprotected soil is washed out in a matter of seconds when there is a strong rain. “Without soil, there would be no food apart from what the rivers and the seas can provide,” said Edouard Saouma, former director general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
Aside from soil erosion, another problem is the cutting of trees in upland areas. Deforestation reduces the water holding capacity of the soil due to the lack of trees. This reduces the infiltration of water into the ground, which increases the chances of flooding.
This brings another problem: the water crisis. When the area is devoid of trees, the evaporation level is disturbed, which in turn dries up the moisture needed to continue the water cycle. The water cycle balance is greatly affected, leading to drought in critical agricultural areas. In addition, deforestation decreases precipitation by affecting the aquifer resources.
One of the many farms in Balutakay. (Henrylito D. Tacio)
Allan B. Ampoloquio is very much aware of these consequences. In fact, if he has his way, he wants to bring the greenery of Balutakay. It may not be accomplished by planting trees but instead by incorporating vetiver grass into the crops planted by farmers.
“Our precious highland resources are our best protection against hazards, disasters and drinking water problems,” said Ampoloquio, a business administration graduate who loves farming. “Trees that prevent soil erosion and excellent aid in water conservation through absorption and percolation of rain water to the ground are sadly gone.”
The slopes of Balutakay, for instance, no longer have natural hedges against soil erosion and rainwater runoff. “Clearing the upland’s forest covers coupled with conventional farming techniques of tilling and using synthetic fertilizers have hardened the soil,” he pointed out.
According to him, hardened soil is a recipe for disaster. “A clear proof of this is the unprecedented flooding now experienced by various localities such as in Cotabato and Maguindanao provinces; and lately in some portions of Davao del Sur such as Malalag, Sulop, and Sta. Maria,” he said.
But what really alarmed him is that those who are supposed to be active in arresting these problems aren’t doing their jobs. “The irony is that the authorities are at a loss in addressing and protecting both the interest of upland farmers and that of the lowland communities that are threatened by flash floods,” he deplored.
The best solution to the problems brought about by deforestation is reforestation, particularly the planting of indigenous and native trees. “Trees do cover and litter the soil with organic matters that in turn condition the soil to be fertile that would sustain plants and simultaneously aid in harvesting rain water into the ground,” he said. “But this best solution is not happening.”
It's a case of economic enterprises versus environment protection. “Reforestation and people encroaching into our watersheds to open up farm areas are two difficult realities we must face,” Ampoloquio said. “Local government units are mandated to protect the interest and general welfare of their constituents. Yet, it seems they are powerless in tackling the problem of deforestation, much less the re-greening and rehabilitating degraded forests and lands.”
The reality is that farmers will continue tilling the lands or else they won’t have money that could support their families. “Do you think those farmers who are tilling their farmlands in the uplands will faithfully embrace the idea of planting indigenous trees in lieu of crops and vegetables?” he asked. “There must be an effective compromise. We must achieve balance. Time is ticking. Where do we go from here?”
Planting vetiver grass may be a possible solution to the problem. “God has given us a simple, nature-based solution to the problem,” Ampoloquio said, adding that the vetiver grass technology is aided by years of research and experience by more than 100 countries around the world.
Among the strong endorsers of vetiver grass are the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program. In Thailand, King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Princess Maha Chakri Sirinhorn are at the forefront of recommending vetiver grass in restoring fertility of their degraded lands.
Which is why Ampoloquio is now working with the agriculture office of Bansalan and other local organizations to entrench coffee farms in Balutakay with vetiver grass. In the mid-80s, over 1,000 hectares in the area were planted to coffee.
New-trimmed vetiver grass at Ampoloquio's house. (Henrylito D. Tacio)
In recent years, coffee production declined significantly, so much so that most farmers shifted to planting high value crops. Today, the remaining area devoted to coffee is estimated now to be about 15% only compared to its peak.
Ampoloquio believed climate change is one of the major reasons why farmers have shifted to vegetable farming. “They are battling strong winds which pass by their farms,” he said, adding that soil erosion, drought, and high cost of farm inputs have intensified the distressing situation.
The areas planted to coffee are limited in the semi-fertile valleys, which are seen as safe haven from strong winds which tremendously affects coffee production.
The good news is that coffee farming has become a thriving and lucrative endeavor for some farmers. The high-elevation planting, selective picking of mature coffee beans, and processing are keys to the specialty of Balutakay coffee. In fact, Balutakay coffee can command a very good price both in local and international markets.
To sustain coffee farms in Balutakay, Ampoloquio suggested planting vetiver grass in the farms. “Vetiver grass is known to offer a green and cost-effective way to slope protection, soil erosion, rehabilitation of degraded land, restoring soil health, and preserving water,” he said.
He believed that by embedding vetiver grass in coffee farms, the soil—which has been exposed for several years and now heavily compacted due to the absence of organic matter—can be restored.
“The benefits of companion planting, mulching, and integrated pest management is projected to provide farmers with better harvest, profitability and sustainability,” he said.
Allan B. Ampoloquio wants to re-green Balutakay by planting vetiver grass. (Henrylito D. Tacio)
Vetiver grass, locally called rimoras or moras, is a perennial grass that grows in tropical places like the Philippines. It appears in dense clumps with leaves that are erect, have rough edges, and are rather stiff.
Vetiver grass (Chrysopogon zizanioides) is easy to grow with minimal maintenance. Each plantlet can grow up to 30 centimeters in width. The roots can grow from three to four meters deep which enables it to control soil moisture and nutrients effectively.
If allowed to grow further for a long period of time, vetiver grass can live up to 10 years. Once established, it is not easily killed by cogon grass. It can be planted as a hedgerow (planted in a row) across the sloping contour of a farm, where it forms a dense barrier that slows down and spreads rainfall runoff.
Based on a study conducted by the Central Bicol State University of Agriculture (CBSUA), it was found that vegetable yield in areas with vetiver grass is higher compared to areas not planted with vetiver grass. The presence of vetiver was observed to minimize soil loss in the area.
In Leyte, a study conducted by the Visayas State University (VSU) showed crops like corn and upland rice planted near vetiver hedgerows have performed well. Corn planted near vetiver grass produced bigger ears than those near napier grass. The herbage from vetiver grass has been found to be a good mulch for sweet potatoes.
Vetiver grass contributes much to the control of topsoil erosion, VSU reported. The transported soil is accumulated along the vetiver hedgerows where it is trapped. Vetiver grass has an expanded/dense base which can serve as a physical barrier preventing soil and water from passing through.
Vetiver grass is not a good soil erosion controller unless A-frame is used in locating the contour line of a sloping farm. Once grown, it does not grow anywhere except in the contour line where it is planted.
“If used as hedgerow in sloping vegetable areas, vetiver occupies just a small amount of space and does not compete with crops in terms of nutrient absorption due to its longer roots,” CBSUA explained in a published booklet on vetiver grass.
Vetiver grass can also be used as an effective measure to prevent the occurrence of landslides in sloping areas. In addition, it can likewise prevent soil erosion in riverbanks. Results of VSU study showed that less water passes through the vetiver hedgerows during heavy rains once they are established.
Contour plots have leveled three years after planting vetiver grass. “After four years of planting lines of vetiver grass, the gullies are not visible,” VSU reported.
The Department of Public Works and Highways is using vetiver grass in some of its projects. It is used to strengthen and stabilize structures such as the sides of roads, bridges, canals and railways among others.
Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio