Philippine agriculture

[ANALYSIS] Green infrastructure: Agriculture’s contribution to Build Better More

Dean de la Paz

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[ANALYSIS] Green infrastructure: Agriculture’s contribution to Build Better More

David Castuciano/Rappler

'Strategically planted vetiver and bamboo hedges create and restore living shorelines, riverbanks, drained wetlands, watersheds, and fishponds at a fraction of what capital-intensive brick-and-mortar grey infrastructure costs'

The damage caused by the recent typhoons right where we have our critical rice granaries in Central Luzon presented another wake-up call for the Department of Agriculture (DA). During his overseas sorties to attract foreign investments and parry growing criticism, President and concurrent DA Secretary Ferdinand R. Marcos identified destructive weather as another major cause for imposing price controls.

That necessitates the kind of intelligent response that recognizes the damage is not only to agricultural productivity but widespread, impacting on factors that affect foreign investments his frequent trips hope to attract.

From his perch the persistent negative impact of flooded rice fields and paddies, damaged embankments, and drainage systems resulting in billions in losses should be obvious. Quantitatively it partly explains the seasonal decline of agricultural productivity relative to GDP.

Not as obvious is its destructive impact on infrastructure, specifically transportation and public works such as roads and bridges, farm-to-market trails, dams and dikes, seawalls and breakwaters, and even overhead power and telecommunication lines.  These fall under his Build Better More (BBM) agenda.

The failure to control stormwater run-offs has led to coastal erosion and severe damage to man-made buffers. Farther inland, soil erosion, its depletion of soil nutrients, and the ever-recurring flooding that damage fragile crops such as rice are old and festering concerns that require massive capital-intensive infrastructure solutions. From minutiae to the macroeconomic, soil erosion reduces soil fertility and subsequent agricultural productivity. The Domino Effect reduces farm incomes, worsens poverty, and ironically increases hunger among farm folk who provide us food.

Urbanization, radical land-use changes, environmental degradation, and our fatal love affair with impervious concrete, together with the deliberate destruction of environmental buffers through cement-centric quick-fixes, costly palliatives, and Band-aid solutions expose how we turned our water resources into gigantic clogged and backed-up toilets.

Since taking on the DA Marcos must by now realize he is not simply the concurrent head of a life-sustaining department but with presidential powers, he wields the authority to affect multi-dimensional and synergistic changes across the larger bureaucracy. After all, these repeated wake-up calls sound the loudest alarms far above the din of revving engines and party music.

We imagine that the destructive flooding in the weeks preceding the third quarter rice harvest and the dangers of seawater intrusion from the coastal towns from the Manila Bay northwards threaten the agro-agri industrial communities from Valenzuela to Bulacan and beyond. Inflicted over vital food producing areas, it easy to why the agricultural sector is perennially the least productive.

Fortunately, a unique solution lies with the DA where at least some of the destructive costs can be mitigated.

Likewise mitigated are the rice shortages these cause, especially when buffer stocks fall dangerously low or disappear. Marcos hopes that the coming harvest will be augmented by more importations. The harvest extends to the first quarter of 2024, alongside the El Niño phenomenon. Short of a bumper harvest, any shortfall is certain to worsen our growing Hunger and Misery Indices.

Fearing a disaster, we pray the DA will henceforth think through its policies thoroughly and quantify the consequences. Fortunately, there exist viable options where not only are climate-related calamities and its high costs preventable, but the cost of avoidance would not require the kind of capital-intensive expenditures we typically think. This includes the subsequent reconstruction costs of remedial infrastructure that requires more than palliative patchwork that often fixes negative public perceptions more than underlying problems.

Turning to the cost-effective best practices toolkit of other more successfully managed agriculture sectors in comparable economies, we see where their green infrastructure programs provide effective multi-dimensional solutions.

In Asia, bamboo and vetiver, both abundant and inexpensive Philippine giant grass varieties, can anchor a novel green infrastructure initiative to provide the agricultural sector the elusive high it so desperately needs.

We’ve seen it used in Benguet. These grasses can actually benefit far beyond agricultural productivity, venturing into such diverse initiatives as infrastructure support and protection, road building, housing, construction, and countryside livelihood development – each, areas of productivity critical to an economy seeking self-sufficiency and above-average productivity.

Farmers call vetiver tagapagligtas ng kalikasan. It is a large bunchgrass with long expansive anchoring roots, which, like bamboo, is ideal for soil protection, conservation, and erosion control. In Benguet, vetiver has successfully protected the soil and prevented erosion and landslides. In other countries, vetiver increased crop production, yielding from 30% to 50% return on investments, thus increasing farm incomes and directly protecting farmer livelihood.

As expected, in the Philippines both vetiver and bamboo remain under-used local resources notably in the agricultural sector where their impact as productivity catalysts has been overshadowed by more expensive solutions. Worse, their non-agricultural applications in infrastructure and transportation development and planning are largely ignored.

Engineering-wise, as green infrastructure buffers that protect farmland and grey infrastructure such as irrigation channels, dams, dikes, bridgeways, roads, and highways, and even built-up flood-prone populated communities, extensive vetiver and bamboo hedges, which are both fire and flood resilient, are draught- and El Niño-tolerant.

Botanically, both absorb greenhouse gases and are used to control agricultural pests and remediate toxic chemical petroleum based-fertilizer contaminated soils used in rice farming. Both grasses’ extensive root systems reduce poisons from the soil while bamboo canopies reduce watershed evaporation. Engineering-wise, as green infrastructure, vetiver has a proven record of reducing soil erosion by as much as 90% and water run-off by 70%.

Now do the math. If we integrated these giant grasses into Marcos’ BBM whole-economy approach and infrastructure ecosystems, strategically planted vetiver and bamboo hedges create and restore living shorelines, riverbanks, drained wetlands, watersheds, and fishponds at a fraction of what capital-intensive brick-and-mortar grey infrastructure costs.

The DA needs a pinch. Here are quick-fix grass giants that provide an uplifting kick. –

Dean de la Paz is a former investment banker and managing director of a New Jersey-based power company operating in the Philippines. He is the chairman of the board of a renewable energy company and is a retired Business Policy, Finance, and Mathematics professor. He collects Godzilla figures and antique tin robots.

1 comment

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  1. ET

    A very inspiring article from Dean De La Paz. I hope that DA officials will learn and try to implement his idea. But I wonder why there is no reaction from any of them. Are they afraid of making the same mistake as that made by a DOF Undersecretary? Are they losing their initiative and creativity after the Sugar Importation Fiasco? (Remember: “ma-Sebastian.”)

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