Heifer International Case Study: Philippines*

Key Issues: Logging and Agricultural Change, Flooding, Indigenous Groups in Southeast Asia

The plight of indigenous peoples in Southeast Asia is often overshadowed by the many other pressing issues of the region. However, an examination of some of the challenges faced by indigenous groups is extremely instructive in helping us to understand the broader issues facing the region, especially in the realm of food security and the environment. Hundreds of indigenous groups lie scattered throughout the relatively remote parts of Southeast Asia, especially in jungle and mountain environments where accessibility is difficult and the dominant cultures of Southeast Asian states have historically found it difficult to control the population or, perhaps, have been uninterested in controlling because these places are so marginal and remote. However, the modernization of the economies of Southeast Asia and the growth of industries which utilize the territories traditionally occupied by these groups is bringing their plight into much greater focus than ever before.

Perhaps the greatest threats to these people are the mining in and commercial logging of the tropical forests in which they have traditionally lived. The entry of Southeast Asian economies into the global market, the high demand for tropical wood, and the availability of machinery that makes mining and logging in remote tropical regions possible has all meant that many areas that were once out of the way are coming under increasing commercial pressures. To the people living in these regions, commercial logging means the end of a way of life, but to the countries that allow this logging to take place it means the opportunity to economically develop and supply a high demand resource to the developed world. As a result, many countries in Southeast Asia support the development of logging as a means to economic development, despite the negative consequences to those who make these forest lands their home. After all, those in power in these countries reason, population densities are very low in these places, and many of the indigenous people do not have clear title to the land. Their own economic activities are often very difficult to track and they are usually very culturally marginal, often speaking their own language.

In addition, the farming techniques of indigenous people are usually of a subsistence nature and provide very little in the way of taxable revenues that the central government can use. Many indigenous groups practice swidden agriculture, also known as slash and burn or shifting cultivation. As the soils of tropical areas are usually poor, farmers burn off a tract of forest, releasing nutrients into the soil. Farmers can then grow their crops, often starchy tropical root vegetables, for a few years before moving on to another plot of land. While swidden agriculture is very destructive on a small-scale, under traditional methods it is so limited in scale that the forest is able to recover and ecological damage is minimized. But, it is often seen by outsiders as a wasteful form of agriculture that utilizes only a small portion of the available arable lands. In many of these parts of tropical Southeast Asia, the development of large-scale plantation agriculture, especially palm trees for palm oil production, is seen by government and developers as a better use of the land. So, logging is doubly productive in the minds of many because after an area is commercially logged, it can be converted to plantation agriculture.

These forces are often exacerbated by the growth of population and the migration of non-indigenous populations into more marginal lands to meet growing food and economic demands. As in-migrants begin to practice swidden cultivation on ever larger tracts of land, deforestation becomes increasingly severe and the land becomes more and more damaged. As a result of all of these pressures, indigenous peoples, most of whom are politically disorganized and essentially voiceless, face increasing impoverishment and the destruction of their local environments. In fact, environmental problems are even more significant when considering the climatic conditions found in these often mountainous areas.

Much of Southeast Asia, particularly the mountain zones, experiences annual monsoon conditions. Monsoons are wind and precipitation patterns that bring significantly higher rainfall to a place for several months than would otherwise be expected given the climatic conditions. For example, while a tropical rainforest might average 8” of rain/month with a monthly high of 10” to 14”, a climate with a monsoon might experience 3-5 months with an average rainfall as high as 20”. Huge amounts of precipitation like this, coupled with deforestation, create a number of environmental problems. Flash flooding can become regular occurrences and these floods bring with them significant amounts of soil erosion, in addition to the hazards of the flood itself and possible landslides on denuded slopes. Soil erosion is, of course, a huge challenge in areas that already have relatively weak soils, but it also creates problems downstream as rivers and bays and even rice paddies, which depend on regular floods, are filled with too much sediment. These problems damage agricultural potential and can even jeopardize fisheries. Further, with the mountains stripped of their forests, winter droughts can become a problem as streams dry up too quickly.

These are the sorts of problems that are faced by indigenous families on the island nation of the Philippines. In places like Agusan del Sur Province in the southern islands of the Philippines, many of the issues described above are impacting the local residents. It is considered to be one of the poorest parts of the Philippines in a country that is beset with rural poverty. Deforestation has led to significant problems with flooding in the area and many of the lowland’s rice paddies have been damaged by the flooding and subsequent sedimentation that has filled them and made them less productive. The region is one that faces significant food security concerns. Many are undernourished in the area and gender inequities ensure that the problems of population growth will continue to impact the region.

Heifer Philippines partnered with Bóthar, an Irish non-governmental organization, to bring some relief to this part of the Philippines through a holistic development project for marginalized families. Heifer Philippines worked with local NGOs and organizations in the field using a number of techniques to raise the standard of nutrition and living in the area while also improving local environmental conditions. Below are listed some of the key aspects of this project:

  • Improving local nutrition: Participating families were given a number of opportunities to improve their basic level of nutrition. Of course, animals were distributed in the project, including water buffalo, cattle, goats, pigs, and chickens. The project participants were trained in the use of integrated livestock-cropping techniques to ensure that inputs in the agricultural system were minimized. Farmers were taught to use manure to improve soil quality and to practice efficient methods of crop rotation to maintain high fertility levels. By reusing animal wastes, the possible deleterious effects of animal waste were also minimized. When necessary, the project also helped farmers to establish sanitary systems for the disposal of human waste. In addition, farmers were trained in organic food gardening techniques to help maximize the production of nutritious local food. Families were given seeds and basic farming tools to aid in the development of these agricultural techniques.
  • Flooding and forest resources: To reduce the negative effects of flooding, Heifer helped locals to establish individual and community agro-forestry areas. Every family was encouraged to participate in tree planting and tree nurseries and seed banks were established to encourage sustainable agro-forestry practices. Biogas systems were also established through the project. Biogas helps to reduce the impacts of deforestation by recycling human and animal waste so as to generate cooking fuel. This, in turn, reduces the demand for wood for cooking fuel. Seminars also promoted the use of agricultural systems that reduced soil erosion.
  • Community Development: Heifer International also worked with local groups to build organizational capacity. Training in organization, financial management, and entrepreneurship were among the activities pursued. In addition, Heifer helped local farmers to develop their linkages to local markets as well as their ability to engage in enterprise activities through micro-lending.


Project Story:

Elizede Edas is a project participant of Heifer’s Revitalizing the Environment through Indigenous Vantage Enterprises (REInVent) project (a sub-project related to this main project). Life has been hard for the 34-year old farmer and his wife and they often find it hard to provide for the needs of their four children. “Living in an upland area, we have very few opportunities for food production. My family often experiences a lack of rice and food and there are times that I have to borrow money from neighbors so my family can eat,” he said.

Elizede saw hope when he was chosen as a participant of the REINVENT project. He received a boar and a sow, training, seeds, fruit and forest tree seedlings and other inputs.  He learned how to take good care of his pigs and to establish an agro-forestry farm. Elizede’s patience and meticulous care paid off when his sow gave birth to eight piglets. The boar he received was rented for breeding services and he was able to receive two piglets as payment.  Elizede now has 12 pigs. A buyer offered to buy all the weaned piglets. Elizede chose the best two piglets to pass on and sold the rest.  He deposited most of the proceeds in their savings group fund and with the rest he bought enough rice for his family until the next harvest.

In his agro-forestry farm, Elizede maintains rice and vegetables in between fruit trees and looks forward to harvesting the fruit. Elizede’s wife is very happy now that the family is living better. For Elizede, however, the best gifts he received from Heifer are the Cornerstones. “The cornerstones inspired me to work harder for my family,” he said. Asked what is his favorite among the Cornerstones, Elizede smiled and quipped, “All of them, it’s like loving all parts of your body.”


* Information for this case study was drawn from unpublished texts provided by Heifer International. The project described is based on project #22-0520-08.