Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Rain pattern, 2nd to 3rd qtr 2008

The rains started early this year, from late April to May. June to July though were generally dry, except on days where there were some typhoons. Two strong typhoons came in May and June, and people in the affected provinces really suffered huge losses – from dead or missing people, damaged houses, school buildings and farms, knocked down power lines and posts, and sunken ships. One big passenger ship that sunk last June trapped and killed several hundred people. There were also typhoons from July to September, but they were not particularly very destructive.

Weather in the 3rd quarter of this year was a bit abnormal. Three weeks of almost no rain, from the second half of August to first week of September. But by middle till the end of September, the rains were back. And when it rained, it poured! Metro Manila and neighboring provinces experienced huge flash floods at least twice last September. The volume of rain water was like the rain for one week poured in just two hours! So many parts of Metro Manila were inundated and flooded for at least two days last month, and the traffic congestion on those two days was horrible.

Politics can get in as some opposition politicians would blame those in the administration for not improving the drainage system’s capacity to absorb and drain the huge volume of flash flood. Of course it does not help that much of the surface area of highly urbanized cities are cemented, so that rain water that are supposed to seep into the soil would drain onto cement and the streets, and the drainage are swamped with a huge volume of water that suddenly accumulate.

Many rice farmers in rice-growing provinces already harvested their crops by end September, until early October for the first crop season of the year. So many roads in those provinces, provincial or barangay roads, are often full of “palay” (unmilled rice).

A big challenge for farmers and soil/water conservationists is how to trap some of the surplus rain water, especially during monsoon season. One less costly and less-complicated structure to build are small water-impounding projects. In areas where there are small gullies or depression, these can become natural water reservoir after check dams are constructed. Trapping even one or two cubic meters of rain or spring water per structure, and if one can build three or more such structures would mean a lot. One, water run-off (and topsoil erosion) during heavy rains is drastically reduced. And two, there is water to use for irrigation when the rains have stopped.

Towards the latter part of this month, rains will be fewer. Until the end of fourth quarter, there will still be some scattered rains, especially when there are some weather disturbances like late-forming typhoons. So those small water-impounding structures will be very helpful for irrigation until the second crop of rice farming.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Tilling and soil erosion: sugarcane farms

I was born and grew up in Negros Occidental province in central Philippines. It is the sugar plantation capital of the country. In my past travels to almost all 81 provinces in the country, I would say that in terms of land utilization, no other province could beat it because one will hardly see vacant or idle land there. Almost all lands are fully utilized, for residential/commercial/industrial use, and planted with sugarcane or any other crops (coconut, banana, fruit orchard, a few rice land). This makes me feel proud of my province.

Huge tracts of land planted mainly to sugarcane, from midway of mountains down to the lowlands, means huge volume of harvested sugarcane being transported from the farms to huge sugar milling companies. During peak harvest and milling season, hundreds of over-loaded 6-wheeler trucks, up to long 18-wheeler trucks, all carrying several tons of sugarcane per truck, would be seen plying the provincial roads everyday. This plus bad public governance where the quality of newly-constructed or newly-repaired roads is often suspect, explains for the bad road network in the province.

I was not too observant of “topsoil level” before. After going through several pages of “No Till Farming” book published by the World Association for Soil and Water Conservation (WASWC), I became more aware of the threats to topsoil erosion by regular tilling and plowing of agricultural lands.

Sugarcane farms are perhaps the most tilled lands in the Philippines and other countries, after rice farms. But in the latter, rice farmers use only small hand tractors, if not farm animals like “carabao” (water buffalo) or bulls. In addition, rice fields are terraced so the ground is flat, that even water is impounded and trapped up to a certain height; hence, soil erosion is minimized and controlled. In sugarcane farms, they are using regular tractors which are big and heavy, so the plowing of the soil is deeper and wider. Many sugarcane fields are also not on flat soil, rather on hilly and rolling terrain. So when there is heavy rain and the soil has just been tilled and not yet planted to sugarcane, the volume of eroded soil can be huge.

In my recent visit to my province just last week, I observed that a number of sugarcane fields are several inches below the average ground level. Some are even 1 or 2 feet lower, especially those on non-flat terrain and those beside a canal. I surmised that the difference between current sugarcane fields’ level and the normal soil level, say on the shoulder of the provincial road, or those planted to bananas and coconut trees, is the amount of soil that has been eroded through time. If this difference or depth is only a few hectares wide, there could be no problem much. But if it covers thousands of hectares, then the problem can be big.

So, if a big volume of topsoil has been eroded through time, where does it go? By the law of gravity, the eroded soil go to lower areas – in creeks and rivers, ultimately into the ocean. The immediate result is that many creeks have disappeared after soil and small stones have covered their deeper portions, and everything were shallow and flat. There is still small water flow coming from upstream springs, but some lowland natural springs were covered and disappeared.

A similar thing happened in rivers. Many rivers’ depth have declined, meaning the rivers have become shallower, with regular deposit of eroded soil and rocks from the uplands and midlands. But rivers’ width have increased on average, as strong flash floods would “eat up” unstable and soft river banks, and as the rivers are now shallower. Mangrove forest species and related vegetation, like “nipa” and palms would help in stabilizing otherwise unstable river banks.

I think not all sugar planters are into yearly plowing of their farm, but I assume that their number is small. With the current expensive fuel prices though, I would assume that some sugar planters will be forced to reduce their tilling, say once every 2 cropping season or every 2 years, or even once every 3 years. Planting of sugarcane tops through manual boring will not only be a cheaper alternative, but also more sustainable in both short- and long-term as the slightly compacted soil is left undisturbed by heavy tractors and deep plowing.

As sugar planters slowly realize the virtue of no-till farming, aided mainly by expensive fuel prices, I hope that topsoil erosion will be minimized in my province. Although high prices and profitability of sugarcane for biofuel production could spur more sugar planters to continue the old ways of regular, annual deep tilling of their sugarcane farms, since high fuel prices for tractor plowing can be offset by high profit for biofuel production. Ultimately, it is the realization of the environmental value and long-term economic benefits of no-till farming that will convince many sugar planters to take this agricultural practice.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Meeting Dr. Samran Sombatpanit of WASWC

Before going to Hong Kong the other week to attend the Pacific Rim Conference, I passed by Bangkok, upon the invitation of a Thai friend, Dr. Samran Sombatpanit, the immediate past president of the World Association for Soil and Water Conservation (WASWC). My route was Manila-Bangkok-Hong Kong-Manila. By making two foreign trips in one exit at the Manila airport NAIA, I would pay only once the extortion charges of travel tax of Php1,620 (about US$37 at Php44/US$1) and terminal fee of Php750 (about US$17), instead of paying twice.

I got to know Dr. Sombatpanit through a Moroccan friend, Nahid Elbezaz, who was my batchmate in a 7-weeks international training on "Sustainable Agriculture" in late 2003 in Sweden.

I contributed a paper for WASWC on building stone terraces for small water path to control soil erosion. This system not only minimizes and controls soil erosion, but also somehow conserves the eroded soil through well-arranged stone terraces that act as soil trap. Then I would also contribute to Samran some short papers on some of my observations and experience in agro-forestry, climate change literature, and so on.

Samran and his fellow editors and agriculture scientists recently published a book called "No Till Farming". It's a bit of a ‘revolutionary’ approach in farming for the following reasons. First, not tilling the soil is leaving it undisturbed; regular plowing and tilling can be harmful to the soil and the farm by making the soil loose and easily eroded during heavy rains and strong winds. Second, for many countries, government distribution of tractors to farmers at heavily subsidized price is among the more expensive public expenditures that taxpayers have to bear. And third, plowing by tractors and other mechanical devices can be expensive at this time of high oil prices.

Thus, the no-till farming philosophy can (a) save the soil from becoming loose and easily eroded, thus retaining nutrient-rich topsoil; (b) save taxpayers of the high cost of additional farm subsidies, (c) save farmers of the high cost of oil and tractor maintenance, and (d) save rivers and lakes from heavy siltation due to eroded topsoil due to heavy and frequent tilling of soil. From a number of farm results, crop yield is not that far from farms that experience regular tilling, leaving farmers with higher net income.

I can attest to the beauty of no till farming. In my province, Negros Occidental, in central Philippines, sugarcane plantation is the main industry. Sugarcane farming is mainly labor intensive (planting, maintenance, harvesting) but land preparation before replanting requires deep tilling, about 1 1/2 foot by tractors. Since this is done each year, soil erosion is frequent. When passing by the roads, one will notice that many sugarcane fields have lower elevation than the road -- a result of years and decades of heavy tilling and continued soil erosion. Many rivers and creeks are also heavily silted, flooding in many low lying residential areas during heavy rains is becoming more common.

Meanwhile, while we were in Thailand (my wife and our daughter came along), Dr. Sombatpanit toured us to Ayudhya and surrounding areas – Bang Sai, the King's summer palace, Ayuthaya, and other tourism areas. The development of Thailand's tourism industry, like its agricultural development, is somehow impressive. Of course it helps that Thailand does not experience strong typhoons like the Philippines; that it has a wide flat land, unlike the Philippines' archipelagic nature; and it has plenty of long and wide river systems that provide ample irrigation to its farms. The development of its new, big, and beautiful international airport that was opened only two years ago is a big bonus to foreign visitors who come to that country.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Early typhoon season

The past few years have seen delayed onset of rains in the Philippines, and perhaps other tropical countries. About a decade or more ago, regular rainy season starts in the month of June. The previous years due to climate change, the rains would come in June. Last year, the regular rainy period started in August.

This year is different. The rains came as early as the last week of April. Until this week, we have had 4 straight weeks of either cloudy or rainy afternoons and evening. There were some sunny days but they were few. And so far, 4 typhoons have come. The first typhoon was in late April and it flooded many provinces in the southern part of the country. The third typhoon was last week and it was very strong.

It pummeled the western side of Pangasinan province, along with its neighboring provinces on the west (Zambales) and the north-east. It was the strongest typhoon encountered in those provinces in so many decades.

Our mango trees average about 35 years old. About one-third of them were either knocked down or their big branches were broken. Other mango farms have 40 to hundred percent casualty! Since thousands of mango trees were damaged in Pangasinan and Zambales – known for their sweet and good quality mangos – it is safe to expect that the price of mangos will drastically increase next year and the coming years as those mango trees in my estimation, will take at least 8 years or more to recover their huge and sprawling branches that produce the mangos.

A number of our forest trees beside the stream, some of which I myself planted 15 or 17 years ago, were either felled or uprooted and washed away by the strong flash flood. But most of our forest trees remained standing. I would say that it was their protection perhaps that minimized the damage to our mango trees because mango farms nearby with few or no tall forest trees near them suffered heavy damage. This highlights the beauty of agro-forestry farming.

Many houses were damaged, submerged by flood, some have their roofs blown away by strong winds. Some power lines were toppled, and many barangays or villages are expected to have electricity after 2 or 3 months.

The early onset of the rains was good because rice farmers can start planting early, which will reduce the rice prices in the 3rd quarter of the year. Grass and forest fires in the uplands and the midland farms have also stopped, unlike in previous years where there were still some grassfires until May or June. But a typhoon of such strength and power was definitely bad. Some savings by farmers set aside for the planting season have been used to repair their damaged houses, repair their submerged hand tractors and tricycles, or replace their lost farm animals.

The bigger challenge is in the uplands: how to make those denuded mountains be teeming with big forest trees again in order to reduce flash flood during heavy rains. Since the government – the owner and administrator of those wide mountains – is not doing its job in preserving the forest, other forms of forest land management may have to be explored, with the ultimate objective of making those denuded mountains become thickly forested again.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Soil erosion and land reclamation

Soil erosion is a big problem in agriculture. Rich topsoil are blown off by strong wind, or brought down the streams, rivers and into the ocean by strong rains and flash floods. That's the usual scene in many agricultural lands, especially on sloping or hilly farms and the land is regularly plowed or tilled. An otherwise slightly compacted top soil are being loosened and "disturbed", so when strong rains and flash flood come, the loosened soil are easily eroded.

In the cities and coastal areas, especially on mouths of rivers, the eroded soil make their exit. The soil is visible in the air – usually brownish and muddy. If the city or coastal area is very entrepreneurial, then they should be able to “create” new land area and extend the beaches by several meters outwards into the sea, depending on the volume of the eroded soil and the technology used in land reclamation.

In my trip to Seoul from Manila more than 2 years ago, I saw in the southern part of Korea (Jeju islands and surrounding small islands) while the plane was slowly descending, some coves or small bays being “enclosed” by a straight line of short dam of stones and rocks with a cemented road on top of them. A bridge continues the road system so the “enclosed” water below can go out to the open sea in the narrow water outlet. Said short dam is just waiting for the eroded soil from rice fields and other agricultural lands upstream, perhaps 20 years, or 50 years or more, before the enclosed area can be filled with soil, slowly compacting, and from which future land for commercial, industrial and residential uses will be created.

Some of those straight dams of big rocks and stones on other smaller bays already have thick deposit of brownish soil. Perhaps these are old dams built many years ago, and they have accumulated a big deposit of eroded soil already. All that the developers of those lands will do is wait for the still muddy-looking soil to be hardened and compacted, before structures can be built on them.

On my recent trip from the US back to Manila (I attended a conference in Atlanta last April), my plane made a stop-over at Narita airport, Japan. While the plane was slowly descending, I saw land reclamation projects in some less dense coastal areas. One such reclaimed land project was obviously a rice field of several hectares! I was amazed because I have thought that since land reclamation is an expensive project, the enterprises which develop such projects, whether public or private, will only use the land for commercial/residential and industrial use, where land valuation per square meter or per hectare is usually higher compared to agricultural land.

So, while soil erosion downstream is a bad thing for agriculture, it can be a good thing for urban and coastal land development and expansion. One can look at it as an alternative to upland movement of expanding population (by natural birth or migration) seeking new frontiers for residential, agricultural, commercial and industrial lands. Instead of people converting more forest land in the mountains to non-forest uses, people can go to a portion of the “sea” which has become habitable.

This is not to justify, if not encourage, soil erosion in order to hasten land reclamation. The rich topsoil in agricultural land should remain where they are. The topsoil should in fact become thicker through the addition of a new layer of newly decomposed biodegradable materials, so that agricultural productivity at low farming costs will be sustained. But since not all farmers are practitioners of erosion-control technologies like no-tillage farming, and there are simply plenty of strong typhoons and monsoon rains that can wash away topsoil, soil erosion is an inevitable and natural phenomenon.

The entrepreneurial capacity of those working in river mouths should only be encouraged in order to optimize the use of the eroded soil for various human activities.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Native pigs and soil cultivation

We revived our backyard piggery in the farm but this time, we're using the native pig varieties, close to the "baboy damo" (wild pigs) -- short, black hair, move a lot, eat vegetables and grasses, and "till" the soil with their pointed and strong nose.

They're fun to keep. Not choosy with food, they also have good immune system and seldom get sick. They particularly eat rice bran, sweet potato ("kamote") leaves, stems and tubers; "kangkong", other veggies.

No need to keep them in cages, our caretaker just tie a small rope around their neck and tie the other end of the small rope to a peg on the ground.

Using their strong nose, the pigs would "till" the soil as if looking for earthworms or other soil insects to eat, or perhaps some roots of grasses and vines. I kidded our caretaker, "instead of using cows or carabao or hand-tractor to plow your rice field, better wait for these pigs to grow bigger and let them plow the soil!" He laughed.

Being consumers of grasses and veggies, the pig manure don't small foul, unlike the manure of the commercial pig varieties like landrace. The animal waste are good materials for organic fertilisers.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Potatoes as rice alternative

International rice prices have hit past $1,000/ton already yesterday, a historic high, and the trend is towards even higher price in the next few months. The Philippines – now the world’s biggest rice importer – is particularly at a disadvantage. With this situation, there are 2 major choices: bear the higher price and scrimp or save on viands and other household expenses, or shift to other rice alternatives – like potatoes.

Potatoes are more versatile than rice because they can be grown at any climate, from the hot tropics to the cold temperate continents, and at any elevation. Unlike rice, potatoes require very little water and they can mature in less than 2 months, whereas the short-duration rice varieties will mature in 3 months.

In addition, average yield for potatoes is at least twice that of rice. Potato farmers do not need threshers and millers; the product can be cooked and consumed without any laborious and complicated processing. And potatoes are rich in certain healthy substances like complex carbohydrates.

A number of the indigenous people in the Philippines like the Aetas eat sweet potato (locally known as ‘kamote’) more than rice. Well, they don’t have threshers and rice milling (facilities) in the mountains, so manual threshing and milling to extract rice from palay (unhusked rice) is another labor-intensive work, on top of rice planting, growing and harvesting work.

There are a number of problems and disadvantages in potatoes though, compared to rice. One is transportation: potatoes are heavy and may rot during transit. Second, raw potatoes cannot be stored for long in warehouses or stockrooms that are not refrigerated, unlike rice that can be stored for several months in one’s kitchen at normal temperature.

Commercial potato traders can take care of the storage problem. The never-ending spikes in rice prices will surely push some people to slowly shift to potatoes, where there are several hundreds if not thousands, of different varieties.

When people do this, especially the poor, governments need not create new bodies like a ‘Potato Development Authority’ because this might distort the incentive system between producers and consumers. The latter will always look for food products that can satisfy their hunger and nutritional needs at affordable prices, whether these are rice or cassava, bananas or potatoes. And producers and traders respond to the changing taste and preferences of consumers.

At no other time in modern agricultural history, more people now should be in productive food production, trading and processing work, and less on unproductive regulatory work. That’s the only way if we are to expand food production, avoid hunger and the social ills associated with it.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

High rice prices, why

The cheap rice that the Philippines usually imports from Thailand, Vietnam, other Asian countries, to my understanding, is the Thai rice 25% broken. About 4 years ago, its price was only around $165/ton. This week, it's $604/ton. The rise in rice prices became very pronounced in the first quarter of this year, and it looks to be continuing into the second quarter.

A friend from Jordan, Sufian, asked me what are the problems that affect high rice prices.

I have discussed that in my previous posting here. But quickly, high rice prices in the world today is caused by a combination of high demand (more people are shifting to rice, high population growth, etc.) and low supply (some rice lands were planted with corn or other bio-fuel crops, there were pest attack elsewhere, low rainfall and irrigation, etc.).

The role of some opportunist traders who manipulate rice prices by hoarding and hiding some rice supply is also a factor.

There are many other factors, both macro and micro. But the above will greatly explain the current phenomenon.

The rains of summer

While the Philippines (and other tropical countries) experienced prolonged dry season last year – regular rains came last August, instead of June – the country also has prolonged rainy season this year. Regular rains normally stop by end-November, but we still had rains until February. The “cold front” brought about by winds from Siberia and China lasted until the second week of March this year. By mid-March, it was obviously summer as the cold wind was gone and we had less cloud in the sky.

Almost coinciding with the formal onset of summer, was the rapid spike in rice and other food prices here and abroad. Stories about rice importation, inspection of some rice traders, corruption charges of “missing rice” from the government’s National Food Authority (NFA), even reference to “rice crisis”, are in media everyday.

So when thick clouds form in the sky, it is a big respite for us. And when it rains, even briefly, it’s a bonus. Because the rains cool not only our hot roads, hot environment, hot temper, but the rains also help irrigate the few rice farms. The “La Nina” phenomenon should be responsible for those brief but much needed rain showers.

At this time of the year, especially in the northern provinces of the country, majority of rice fields are on fallow and they become pasture areas for the cattle which cannot find young grasses around. Other rice fields are planted with corn as the price of this crop has also risen recently. I have noticed an increase in corn plantation this year compared to last year and the previousa years, at least in the province of Pangasinan.

The dry season of summer should be an opportunity for people and farmers to improve and repair old irrigation canals and dams, and/or build new ones. In our farm for instance, if we can raise the water level in our short irrigation canal by about 1 meter, nearly 1 hectare of additional, relatively flat land on the other side of the creek can be planted with rice or other crops. We use hoses to transport the impounded water on one side of the creek to the other side.

If people will become more self-reliant and depend less on government hand-outs and projects, say in repairing and/or building new irrigation canals and small water impounding structures, they should be able to improve their rice harvest (or other crops) in the next planting season just a few months away from now.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Rice prices and soil conservation

Food prices in both global and domestic markets have been rising steeply lately. In 2007, world food prices have risen by almost 40%. Here in the Philippines, rice import value has increased from $474/ton in January to $708/ton this month, an increase of almost 50% in just 2 months! And these are rice imported from our neighbors in the region, mainly Thailand and Vietnam.

The volume of rice importation has also been increasing. In other years, average importation was around 1 million MT a year. In 2007, rice import was 1.8 million MT, and this year, projected imports will be around 2.2 million MT, about ¾ of which to be sourced from Vietnam.

High domestic demand for rice is largely a result of the country’s high population growth. If each of the 1.8 million new people every year (net of death and migration) is consuming 0.2 kilo of rice a day (roughly 4 cups equivalent), then consumption in one year is around 73 kilos per person, or 131,400 MT a year – this will be the annual increase in rice consumption on top of the previous year’s total demand.

There is big pressure to increase rice supply to stabilize prices. And there are three important steps to achieve this: One, increase hectarage by converting more forest land or land planted with other crops to rice land. Two, use more science and modern technology to expand rice yield on the same rice land area. And three, do both.

Expanding rice land hectarage (currently around 4.2 million hectares nationwide) is a bit difficult as many rice lands are actually being converted to residential or commercial land, while forest land continues to shrink. The demand for land for other crops, from vegetables to fruits to cash crops, even for biofuels, is also expanding. So, only option #2 is the least costly and the most appropriate.

The adoption of modern - often genetically-modified (GM) - rice varieties is one of the most practical things to do. Average rice yield must rise from the current 3.7 MT/ha to 4 MT/ha and up. And since the price of many commercial fertilizers is also rising, as they are petroleum-based, the use of organic fertilizers will be relied upon more and more.

Using short-duration rice varieties – harvestable in 90 days, unlike most varieties that need 120 days or more – is another option. It is possible to have up to 3 harvests in one year for some farms (with good irrigation) and still have at least 2 months of either a fallow period to allow the soil to rest, or produce some short-duration vegetables like legumes, to allow the soil to recuperate.

The importance of soil conservation to produce more yield per hectare or more harvests per year on fixed agricultural land is thus becoming more pronounced, both nationally and internationally.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Hydroponics and urban farming

One of my friends here in Manila, Jules Calagui, plunged into the hydroponics (or soil-less farming) business. Hydroponics, by the way, is from greek words "hydro" (water) and "ponic" (working); ie, water working, no need for soil for the roots to hold on. He put up a hydroponics system on the 2nd floor of the apartment that he is renting in Marikina, one of the outskirt cities in Metro Manila. On the ground floor is his restaurant for fresh and organic food. So just imagine -- you harvest lettuce, eggplant, cherry tomato, other vegetables on the 2nd floor, and serve them fresh or half-cooked to customers on the ground floor.

Jules is very happy with his new system -- no tilling of soil, no pests from the soil (hence no pesticides), very little water needed for the roots, and he's using his own organic compost including worm cast, for the organic fertilizer that he mixes in the water for the roots. Unlike planting on soil, a big portion of the irrigated water either seeps under the soil or spills to other areas that cannot be used by the crops' roots, or simply evaporate. In hydroponics, almost all the water are used up by the roots, very little goes to evaporation, and this allows the crops to grow vigorously.

A number of his neighbors and clients were impressed by his system, they' started inviting him to develop their areas too, something like 250 sq. meters each. He dreams he can beat other hydroponics farmers from the nearby provinces because he's within the city already, so in terms of freshness, he can beat all of them.

With continued expansion of the population – the Philippines for instance, is growing by 1.8 million every year, net of death and migration – demand for agricultural land, along with demand for residential, commercial, industrial lands, will increase. Usually it’s the forest land that will ultimately be sacrificed and converted to other non-forest uses. By putting farms above some houses and buildings, and right in the center of urban areas, hydroponics farming will indeed be the one of the major solutions to lack of agricultural lands, and for soil and water conservation.

By producing pesticides-free vegetables and fruits, pollution of topsoil and water will also be eradicated, and giving people healthy food. By producing right in the middle of the cities, transportation of such products from the provinces will be minimized, resulting in less traffic and air pollution.

Other people have also turned to hydroponics farming but did not prosper. One reason is the absence of ready and regular market for the produce. Another is the relatively high cost of setting up one if the entrepreneur did not design or study the basic engineering aspect of a hydroponics system. By integrating production with household consumers, and putting one’s heart and mind into the design and construction of a hydroponics farm, said problems will be addressed.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Seeds of the world in Norway

A news report yesterday in IHT said that the global vault seed has been opened in Norway. And not just in Oslo or its surrounding areas, but somewhere up, just 1,000 kms. from the north pole. And despite the thick ice there, the Norwegian government even put a big air-con to keep the temperature at least -18 C always, so that the seeds should be preserved for up to 1,000 years or more. Wow!

I am glad that the Norwegian government thought of this and actually did it. Within the next century or more, many of those crops and plants whose seeds are deposited in that vault would be gone or extinct and replaced by hybrid varieties which are more likely to be genetically-modified.

Although I am in favor of genetic modification and application of modern science to crops to produce food products that are more high-yielding and more tolerant against certain pests, insects and fungi (hence, little or no need for chemical pesticides, insecticides, fungicides), I also believe that preserving the seeds of many of those "traditional" crops will be very important.
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http://www.iht. com/articles/ ap/2008/02/ 26/europe/ EU-GEN-Norway- Doomsday- Vault.php

Global seed vault opens in Norway
The Associated Press
Published: February 26, 2008

LONGYEARBYEN, Norway: Norway's "doomsday" seed vault, built to protect millions of food crops from being wiped out in wars or natural disasters, had European leaders thinking biblically.

"This is a frozen Garden of Eden," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said at the opening ceremony Tuesday, as guests carried the first seed deposits into the icy vault, deep within an Arctic mountain in the remote Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard.

"It is the Noah's Ark for securing biological diversity for future generations, " said Norway's Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg. Svalbard Global Seed Vault, just 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) from the North Pole, is designed to house as many as 4.5 million crop seeds from all over the world. It is built to withstand global warning, earthquakes and even nuclear strikes....

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Mountain resorts and soil erosion control

Mountain resorts are among the best places to introduce or highlight the importance and fragility of the forest ecosystem and freshwater springs to ordinary people, especially those living in big cities. These resorts are generally developed, and there are clear delineation between play/recreation/cottages areas and forest protection or agro-forest production areas. People enjoy the ‘communion with nature’ while taking pleasure with the comfort and amenities of modern hotels.

I have visited a number of mountain resorts in my country. Many of them are either at the foot of tall mountains (say at 2,000+ feet of those mountains that are more than 9,000 feet above the sea level) or at the top of medium-height mountain ranges (between 3,000 to 6,000 feet).

Having well-protected forest and fruit trees, new soil creation through natural decomposition of agri- and forest wastes is much quicker and highly observable if one will look closely. The cool wind and occasional rain showers help the fast multiplication of earthworms and soil microorganisms that quicken this natural decomposition. However, being hilly or mountainous, plus clearing of some trees for areas to be used for play and recreation, the newly-created soil is also prone to rapid erosion especially during the rainy season. Clearly, a big challenge for those mountain resorts is how to preserve the rich new soil that is created annually, or at least minimize their erosion downhill and downstream.

For most if not all of the mountain resorts that I have seen and visited, they have succeeded in controlling the erosion or collapse of steep and hilly areas that were terraced or protected since several years ago, but they have not instituted an evolving and continuously rising terraces and embankments that will catch and retain the new rich soil being created annually. I say this because the height and elevation of contours and terraces that I had seen from 4 to 6 years ago have remained the same today.

To illustrate: a terraced hill or embankment was 5 feet high about 5 years ago. If the trees are big and tall, or they may be young but densely planted, new soil creation from litter fall should be at least 2 inches a year if there is no soil erosion. This is my estimate from observing in our agro-forest farm. Then, after 5 or more years, the level of that terraced hill should have been much higher, if soil erosion is controlled and additional soil from litter fall etc. is retained. But, as I said before, the level of most terraces remains practically the same.

Most if not all mountain resorts are designed to attract visitors and tourists who want to experience cool air in high elevation area, see big trees that are densely planted or grown, see some animals or experience upland fishing or swimming and hiking. Somehow the resort developers have helped the environment and raised the ecological consciousness of their visitors to certain extent, but they rarely prioritize the control of erosion of newly created soil.

Nonetheless, those mountain resorts are better compared to average upland agricultural plantations that have been cleared of forest trees. The preservation of biodiversity of trees (forest and fruit species), endemic and introduced flowers and edible crops, help those parts of the mountains approximate a state where human intrusion was absent. As well, in the process those mountain resorts help improve the rainwater retention capacity of the soil, although a bit lower than its potential if new soil created annually has been retained and preserved.

Note: This article was inspired by the author’s past and recent visits to various mountain resorts in Baguio, Banawe, Sagada, Tagaytay, Laguna, Bukidnon and Davao.