Palawan: Should Indigenous Peoples’ Farming Practices (Kaingin) Be Blamed For Deforestation?

Op ed by Dario Novellino (CEESP member) -  Pala’wan, known as the “Philippine last Frontier”, in spite of its unique recognition as a UNESCO Man & Biosphere Reserve, has not been spared from massive investments in extractive resources and industrial agriculture, especially oil palm and rubber development 

Pala’wan from Rizal planting upland rice.

 ( And yet, indigenous people and upland dwellers continue to be blamed for massive deforestation and ecological disaster. Not surprisingly, the recent front cover of a well known Philippine Newspaper (Daily Inquirer) holds a headline post with a powerful image that easily conflates all upland peoples as criminal agriculturalists (

In 1994, a ban against shifting cultivation (generally known in the Philippines as kaingin) was enforced by former Mayor Edward Hagedorn through the so called ‘bantay gubat’: an implementing arm composed of poorly trained forest guards. Sadly, In spite of its failure, the ‘ban on kaingin’ initially implemented in Puerto Princesa Municipality, is now being emulated by others. Recently, the Government of Brooke’s Point has imposed similar restrictions in its own municipality. As a result, innocent members of the Pala’wan ethnic group have been arrested and detained without warrant due to the false accusation of having destroyed primary forest and precious watersheds through their slash and burning practices.

Between June and July 2015, Dario Novellino (a CEESP member) was invited by the Coalition Against Land Grabbing (CALG) to join field missions in various areas of Brooke’s Point Municipality (Palawan) where the arrest of indigenous Pala’wan upland cultivators had taken place. GPS coordinates and photographs of numerous kaingin plots planted with upland rice and other crops and/or under various stages of regeneration were taken. Overall, no evidence was found of kaingin clearings destroying portions of primary forest and areas hosting important water sources. On the contrary, key findings show that most kaingin fields in the area have been cleared from regrowth vegetation ranging between 3 to 4 years with few and exceptional cases of areas covered by secondary forest which, nevertheless, had developed over a fallow period ranging between 15 to 18 years.

Members of Pala’wan communities claim that they would prefer to clear areas that have undergone a fallow period between 7 to 15 years or more, to ensure the recuperation of soil nutrients. However, nowadays – in several locations - the overall tendency is to clear areas that have undergone shorter fallows (3/5 years) [i.e. with trees having a small diameter). One reason for this, is because many IPs fear that, if they cut larger diameter trees from long fallow lands, they would be apprehended and punished by so called ‘bantay gubat’ (forest guards).

Novellino’s analysis of the impact of the government’s ban on kaingin, in Puerto Princesa municipality reveals that, rather than protecting the environment, it has placed insurmountable pressure on the forest and has also altered the sustainability of the indigenous farming system. Dario Novellino has see forest guards requesting indigenous farmers to cut only very small trees for their ‘kaingin’ or ‘uma’ (upland fields) and to cultivate the same plots of land continuously. These indications are based on a very poor understanding of forest ecology. If you clear areas where only small trees are found, it means that you are going to plant land that has not yet regenerated its soil nutrients. When you cultivate these fragile soils, over and over, you cause them to become infertile. Ultimately, only cogun (Imperata cylindrica) will thrive in these areas and the forest will never grow back.

It is surprising that government actions to forbid/restrain kaingin continue unabated in spite of the publication of well-known studies proving that traditionally practiced kaingin (or integral kaingin) involves the intermittent clearing of small patches of forest for subsistence food crop production, followed by longer periods of fallow in which forest re-growth restores productivity to the land. Along these lines, FAO, AIPP and IWGIA have published a joint case study on shifting cultivation in Asia ( which challenges previous condemnation of shifting cultivation (made by FAO itself) that had influenced most governments, serving as a pretext to suppress such a practice.

It is a rather nice irony, though, that official propaganda against kaingin, coupled by the market-based conservation approaches of some NGOs, continues to provide additional incentives for international institutions to finance more of the same (e.g. reforestation of indigenous fallow fields which are wrongly classified as ‘degraded areas’). Often, such reforestation programs (such as the so called national re-greening program of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources) deprive local communities of those areas that are necessary to ensure the rotation of fields, hence jeopardizes the sustainability of traditional and integral kaingin systems.

Farming strategies in Pala’wan, as elsewhere, should be evaluated through an integrated and interactive long-term process of research and development in close partnership with local upland farmers. This process should identify indigenous best farming practices, understanding them and the contexts in which these are used. Meanwhile, in the short term, it would work better if some journalists and their ‘zealous’ conservationist allies refrain from publishing images that uncritically depict upland dwellers as ‘environmental criminals’, putting the blame of deforestation on those who suffers from it most.

Dario Novellino is a CEESP membersince 2008 and an Honorary Research Affiliate of the Centre for Biocultural Diversity (CBCD), University of Kent (UK)


Go to top