Signals: Blame Game

Mindoro's forests are vanishing at a rapid pace – and swidden farming, better known as kaingin, is eyed as one of the culprits. Are the Mangyans really to blame?

Reporter: Fritzie Rodriguez
Video Production: Franz Lopez, Jaene Zaplan
Design: Analette Abesamis, Alejandro Edoria | Editor: KD Suarez

7:25 AM, Nov 10, 2015

ORIENTAL MINDORO, Philippines – Kudmay Mayot, 53, rose even before the chickens clucked. Just like many of the Hanuno Mangyans in the town of Bulalacao, Kudmay and her husband Manalo prepared for a long day in the field.

It is hot and their walk is long. Eventually the couple reaches their land and the day's work begins. They practice traditional kaingin, also known as "swidden farming." To the outside world, however, this is nothing but a destructive slash-and-burn technique.

Swidden farming, also known as shifting cultivation or rotational farming, is a type of agroforestry system. It's a common form of livelihood for many indigenous communities in Asia.

In the Philippines, most indigenous people (IP) practice kaingin – the Tagbanau and Batak of Palawan, the Mangyan of Mindoro, the Ikalahan or Kalanguya of Nueva Vizcaya, and the Higaonon of Bukidnon among others.

The Hanunuo is one of the 7 tribes of the Mangyan people residing in Mindoro, the 7th largest island in the archipelago. Aside from Bulalacao, the Hanunuo also live in Mansalay, San Jose, and parts of Bongabong, the Mangyan Heritage Center (MHC) documented. Mindoro has an indigenous population of 100,000.

What they plant, they eat. Most Hanunuos live on subsistence agriculture, and their swidden farming areas are mostly planted with rice, corn, banana, ube, cassava, and cadios.

Kaingin areas of the Hanunuo "undergo fallow periods of one to 3 years, depending on the farmer," said Dr Cecilia Gascon of the Southern Luzon State University in a 2006 study. "The fallow area is just one portion located within the kaingin site."

'When they do kaingin, you can no longer distinguish if it’s Mangyan or Tagalog. Even if it’s Mangyans or Tagalogs, first of all, it’s not allowed by law'

Aside from swidden farming areas, the Hanunuo have 3 other land uses: residential, multi-story farming, and the forested area.

The forested areas are either forest fallows or secondary growth forests and permanent forests, said Gascon. "The forest fallows are usually found in boundaries or in between two kaingin farms along the slope. They serve as buffer zones against soil erosion." These are not subjected to kaingin.

Illegal in PH

But not all is well for the practice of kaingin.

Kaingin is illegal under Philippine law, said Ricardo Calderon, director of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources Forest Management Bureau (DENR-FMB).

"When they do kaingin, you can no longer distinguish if it's Mangyan or Tagalog. Even if it's Mangyans or Tagalogs, first of all, it's not allowed by law," Calderon told Rappler.

"It's clear that clearing forest lands is illegal," he added. "So if we allow kaingin to continue, this is basically conversion of forest land into agriculture."

Calderon was referring to Presidential Decree 705 or the Forestry Reform Code of the Philippines of 1975. It defines kaingin as a "portion of the forest land which is subjected to shifting and/or permanent slash-and-burn cultivation."

In the 1970s, Calderon said the government had a punitive approach. "'Pag nagkakaingin ka, ikukulong ka (If you do swidden farming, you'll be put behind bars)," he explained. "What you destroy will be assessed and that will be the basis for a criminal case."

In the 1980s, however, there was a shift to a family approach among smallholder farmers. "Instead of destroying, you plant," Calderon said. Community certificates of stewardship were issued to upland farmers, but with the condition that they will not transfer from one place to another and that they would develop the area.

In time, the approach shifted to a community-based one where IPs are considered partners in managing forest lands. "In fact, we are the pioneer or one of the leading countries in terms of community-based social forestry programs," Calderon added.

'It’s not senseless. There’s rhyme and reason to the burning'

Special treatment?

Are IPs, whose ways of life include kaingin, exempted from such policies?

"We don't have class legislations, we don't have special treatment. Otherwise, I'll just pretend to be Mangyan," Calderon explained with a chuckle.

But some advocates disagree with Calderon, urging the government to recognize the diversity of kaingin practices among IPs.

"Under our present laws, kaingin is really illegal. However for IPs, we'd like to make a distinction between kaingin as practiced by the lowlanders and rotational farming or shifting cultivation," said lawyer Jing Corpus of Tebtebba, an NGO promoting IP rights.

"It's not senseless. There's rhyme and reason to the burning," Corpus said. "There are community cycles that govern the determination of which plots to burn and how often. Villagers would normally take care not to burn certain areas."

"Technically, it's illegal. However, the way we reconcile it is under the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act, IPs have the right to pursue their traditional livelihoods," she continued.

Not destructive

But kaingin is not destructive, the Mayots say. Advocates, including anthropologists and lawyers, share this view.

Kaingin is linked to indigenous knowledge systems, beliefs, and customs, the NTFP-EP explained. The group said the government fails in recognizing and respecting IPs by prohibiting them from doing kaingin.

Problems arise when kaingin is done by non-IPs whose methods vary. Non-IPs do kaingin to widen their permanent farms for commercial purposes. On the other hand, IPs like the Hanunuo depend on traditional kaingin for their own food security.

In 2009, the United Nations Framework for the Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), citing a report by the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, said that shifting cultivation is one of the most misunderstood land use systems since it is very different from what is practiced by the majority and those in the lowlands.

Research has proven that the "sweeping condemnation by government bureaucrats, politicians or professionals is based on insufficient and erroneous information, or quite simply myth," the UNFCCC added.

The UNFCCC explained that shifting cultivation among ethnic groups is not a major cause of deforestation in Asia.

"As traditionally practiced, swidden involves the intermittent clearing and burning of small patches of forest for subsistence or food crop production, followed by longer periods of fallow in which forest regrowth restores productivity to the land," Dr Wolfram Dressler, anthropologist from the University of Melbourne, told Rappler.

"A broader working definition of swidden is a land-use system that includes a natural or improved fallow phase sufficiently long to be dominated by forest, which is then cleared and burned, to permit a shorter cultivation phase of annual crops," Dressler added. "The longer the field rests the bigger and healthier the forest becomes."

Manalo and his fellow Hanunuo Mangyans, however, said that the cutting down of trees continues despite the law. As far as this is concerned, their hands are clean, they said.

Manalo is the vice-chairperson of PHADAG or the Pinagkausahan Hanunuo sa Dagag Ginuran, a people's organization for Hanunuo Mangyans. "In fact, illegal logging isn't destructive, they fear the law. But legal logging is destructive, all have permits," said PHADAG.

Misdirected blame

"Lumber or charcoal, they have permits. That's our view, we're not the ones destroying the environment. No," PHADAG insisted.

Too much emphasis is placed on criminalizing swidden, according to Dressler. "This blame detracts from where the DENR should be spending equal, if not more, time monitoring and managing the conversion of forests for major cash cropping plantations such as palm oil and rubber," he added.

"This misdirected blame happens because powerless swidden farmers are so easily victimized and over-regulated, whereas powerful palm oil companies keep on expanding and expanding without as much as a blink," Dressler continued. "Why does this continue? Why are the small farmers blamed for so much? Why do larger agribusinesses fend off so much criticism?"

Indigenous communities and climate change

For so many years, kaingin is seen as a sin, IPs are considered villains, and small farmers are described as victims.

This has to change, the Hanunuo say, but their voices are not heard.–

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This project was made in cooperation with the Media 21 Asia Project of CFI, the French agency for media cooperation. |