Stop prejudice against indigenous peoples’ ‘kaingin’
Two articles attributing the destruction of forests on the island of Palawan to kaingin were recently published in the Inquirer (“Summer not all beach in Palawan,” Across the Nation, 4/19/15, and “Buzzwords rehashed,” Opinion, 4/16/15). As scholars who study kaingin and upland development, we are concerned with the broader message conveyed in these articles. We are writing in response to the careless blaming of kaingin without nuance and context, in ways that broadly paint all upland smallholder farmers—including indigenous peoples—as criminal agriculturists. Such negative portrayals of kaingin are powerful and risk misinforming policymakers, activists and citizens. Worse still, these images divert attention from more destructive upland development, such as monocrop plantations and mining. Our own research offers substantive evidence to this effect.
Many state agencies have long viewed indigenous kaingin as a backward and illegitimate form of agriculture. While at times turning a blind eye to the plunder of forests by industrial logging, mining and agribusiness, these agencies have classified kaingin farmers as primitive and unproductive, moving around aimlessly, destroying forests and wasting valuable natural resources. This dominant narrative has a deep history: The Spanish and American colonial governments made criminals of indigenous kaingin farmers and drafted laws aimed at resettling and/or evicting them from ancestral lands.
Postcolonial governments and civil society have carried this anti-kaingin narrative forward to us today. The narrative is resilient and broadly public. Since 1946, major state agencies have had difficulty shaking the kaingin blame game. Despite some NGOs and government actors drafting innovative legislation, such as the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (1997), to give indigenous farmers the right to engage in sustainable kaingin on ancestral lands, the practice remains vilified.
Why does this prejudice persist? Like any other stereotype, it persists because so many of the images and representations about kaingin are simplistic and distort realities on the ground. Clearly, there is a need to acknowledge the nuances and the existence of varieties of kaingin, including the integral forms. Integral kaingin, as described by Yale University’s Harold Conklin, forms part of a “more traditional, year-round, community-wide, largely self-contained and ritually sanctioned way of life” practiced by indigenous peoples. This practice, he writes, seldom results in the clearing of “climax forest” (i.e., old-growth forest).
Our own studies elaborate on the socioecological complexity of kaingin systems among the indigenous peoples who constitute a significant portion of Palawan’s population (the Pala’wan, Tagbanua and Batak, among others). Palawan’s indigenous uplanders have practiced kaingin for centuries as the basis of their livelihood and culture. Until now, indigenous peoples in Palawan continue to practice integral kaingin by clearing smaller patches of forest for the production of subsistence food crops. After harvest, they leave the land fallow for longer periods to allow the forest to regrow and restore the productivity of the land.
Our research shows that contrary to suggestions that it is inherently destructive, long-fallow kaingin is a sustainable agricultural practice. While declining near lowland areas, such systems still support agroecologically diverse varieties of starchy staples, leguminous vegetables and tree crops in different fallow stages, and, in sustained long-fallow periods, can approximate the complexity of natural forest systems. Scientific studies show that integral kaingin can enhance biodiversity by creating a mosaic of primary- and secondary-growth forests, which can provide a wide range of ecosystem services.
Our research avoids romanticizing Palawan’s indigenous peoples by underscoring the aspirations of upland farmers to continually engage in integral kaingin as part of their diverse livelihood strategies. In contrast to commercial monocrop production (e.g., palm oil, rubber), Palawan’s indigenous peoples continue to rely on mixed integral kaingin as a source of timber and nontimber harvests for subsistence and commercial sales. Such diversified livelihood production spreads financial risks by avoiding the economic shocks associated with relying on one product too heavily. Not only does kaingin support livelihoods, it also enables indigenous peoples to sustain their cultural heritage across generations (e.g., inheriting heirloom varieties of upland rice, etc.).
Despite this scientific evidence, it is disturbing that proponents of agribusinesses suggest fallow kaingin lands to be unproductive and idle, and that progressive, well-educated proponents of environmental conservation broadly censure kaingin as the cause of the clearing of old-growth forest. Individuals and groups who advocate such anti-kaingin narratives may be barking up the wrong tree and, in doing so, are compromising the welfare of indigenous peoples and the integrity of upland forests in Palawan and elsewhere.
We urge Inquirer readers to be conscious of the various forms of kaingin that exist across this diverse country. Let us move beyond the kaingin blame game.
The authors of this commentary are Wolfram Dressler (University of Melbourne), Marvin Montefrio (Yale-NUS), Eulalio Guieb III (University of the Philippines Diliman), Melanie McDermott (Rutgers), Juan Pulhin (UP Los Baños), Will Smith and Sarah Webb (both of University of Queensland), David Wilson (ICRAF), and Jessica Clendenning (CIFOR). Readers may contact them for more information.
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