Monday, January 21, 2013

Agriculture in the jungle

My search for a new adventure brought me to the Philippines : a place were rice means food security and has shaped the most amazing landscape with terraces and complex irrigation systems. I could not help going for a trek in the area of Banaue where these terraces are, inhabited by the Ifugao people .

View from Banaue
The up-coming blog post series labelled Ifugao trip will give you a chance to discover this beautiful and interesting region.
Ifugao people in traditional cloth (these very old ladies and gentlemen who cannot work in the fields anymore make some income from posing for tourists)

Rice is not native to the the Philippines, it has been introduced about 2000 years ago. Before that Ifugao people were living on sweet potatoes, planted in the middle of the jungle. Still today when crossing the jungle to reach rice terraces, one can find these very little patches of agriculture on the steep slopes.

patches of agriculture in the middle of the jungle on the steep slope

These patches are won from the jungle from the already deforested area with a slash and burn system. In some patches are divided in 3 and distinctively have a crop rotation : sweet potatoes, beans and fallow, sometimes also combined with banana on the boundaries.
the sweet potatoes in front, beans in the back and the banana trees
same farm than above (view in the other direction), the sweet potato field in front and fallow in the back

Often the sweet potatoes is inter-cropped with cassava as well as (for me an unidentified) tree that produced edible bean suggesting that it is a nitrogen binding plant. Also sometimes one can finds fields where sweet potatoes and beans are intercropped.

The nitrogen binding tree in an inter-cropped fields with sweet potatoes and beans
 Looking at this rain-fed system, it looks pretty sustainable. The patches used for agriculture are relatively small (there is a lot of untouched jungle left). There are areas that are left fallow, allowing the soil to recover. The biomass on the fallow area will be burned before planting crops. The burning increase the fertilization of the soil (in the short term) also the combination with both the green beans and the "bean tree" increases the nitrogen (=soil fertility).

Probably, the rice terraces, providing staple food and insuring food security has helped to keep the slash and burning system relatively limited still allowing for fallow patches despite of the increasing population pressure.

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