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.