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.