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Forest niches: Sustainable livelihood for upland dwellers with emphasis on food processing

The food processing niche
Impacts of food processing

Delbert Rice
Kalahan Educational Foundation, Inc.
Imugan, Santa Fe, Nueva Vizcaya, Philippines


The Ikalahan

The Ikalahan, also known as "kalanguya," are one of several tribes from the Cordillera and Caraballo Mountains in northern Luzon, Philippines, which are commonly, though carelessly, lumped into a so-called generic term "Igorot." The Kalahan Educational Foundation was established by the tribal elders in 1973 to give them a legal entity. Through it, they were able to establish their own high school, the Kalahan Academy, to prevent emotional and cultural damage to their young people who desire to obtain additional education. They also obtained control of nearly 15,000 hectares of their tribal land with an instrument now known as a Communal Forest Stewardship Agreement, although at the time it was simply called Memorandum of Agreement Number 1, it being the first of its kind. Figuratively, the Ikalahan have had to clear the brush from every meter of their upland path to development, because no one has prepared any trails ahead of them. Now, many communities have chosen to follow in their footsteps.

The Ikalahan are hunters and gatherers who have also been engaged in swidden farming for centuries. Sweet potatoes (Ipomea batatas) are their traditional basic food.

Over time, they have developed very effective technologies for sustainable production of sweet potatoes on upland slopes. They developed systems of contour compositing (gengen) and level land composting (day-og) and a gene bank with more than 100 local varieties, which are planted in such a way that there is always a crop no matter what the weather brings.

Ikalahan land security

Programs which have succeeded in protecting the resources and the environment are organised as communal projects under the Social Forestry Program of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources of the Philippines Government (DENR). Their land tenure gives the people motivation to protect their forests. They know that their grandchildren will have secure access to resources if the present generation protects those resources under the terms of the agreement which were hammered out in a dialogue with the government.

Their motivation for protection stems from two facts. The first is that what is destroyed today will not be available tomorrow. Most adults have a natural concern for their grandchildren so they desire to improve their resources for succeeding generations. Second is the legal fact that under the terms of the Memorandum of Agreement, they and their descendants can continue to use the land as long as they protect the water supply and fertility. The contract itself is a motivation.

Before they obtained their land security, the people knew that the more they improved their land, the sooner someone would come to take it away from them. They had been told that they were squatters and would be driven away eventually, so why should they leave anything for the people who would drive them away? There was no motivation whatsoever for them to protect either the forests or the watersheds. Now, however, with their land tenure secure, the forests are protected as a part of their ancestral lands without government assistance. In brief, land tenure in the hands of a community is the strongest motivation for protection and development.

Kalahan resource sustainability

After their land tenure was secured, the Ikalahan first established regulations and policies for protecting the forests and watersheds. They did not then distinguish between primary and secondary forests, because their concern was watershed protection, not big-diversity. This was the top priority because it was explicitly required in the Memorandum of Agreement.

Their next concern was their food supply. To depend on cash to buy their food would be dangerous due to the poor transportation system and a shaky national economy. They needed to continue to produce their own food to protect themselves. This should also be a concern for other similar communities.

Building materials and fuel wood are also important, and the people worked out regulations to control how and when to harvest wood so that they would have a sustainable supply of both fuel and lumber without damage to the forests.

After these issues were settled, the people were free to look at their cash income. The experiences gained through many years of trial and error have been both joyful and painful, but they have all been educational.


An ecological niche is a unique portion of a larger ecosystem. It has its own sustainable symbiotic systems which interact with the larger ecosystem, but it continues to develop its own characteristics. There are many niches in every ecosystem.

At Kalahan, people work to identify and develop those ecological niches which can sustainably provide raw materials for income generation to support the human forest dwellers. In that way, the ecological niche can become an economic niche. People can be a part of it to protect it and keep it sustainable. The number of families entering any given niche should be limited by both the carrying capacity of the niche and the size of the market. If this is done, the forest and related ecosystems will become more valuable and the people will be more highly motivated to protect it.

The Kalahan would prefer not to sell the raw materials obtained from each niche, but to process them to provide maximum opportunities for income generation within the community using a minimum of resources.

The niches which are already being used are:

· Paper making
· Mushrooms and truffles
· Fruit production
· Spice production
· Wild fruit processing
· Orchids, ferns and other flowers
· Butterflies and other insects
· Furniture

In addition, several other niches are being investigated in the hopes of entering them. They include:

· Frog raising
· Honey production from wild bees
· Wild animal raising
· Essential oils

One marketing niche which has been studied, and rejected, is tourism, including ecotourism. It was rejected because of the serious social pollution which invariably accompanies it.

The community does not want to limit itself to a single niche, however. Biodiversity is critical to the welfare of the environment. Economic diversity is also important to the sustainable development of upland communities.

The food processing niche


Even before the staff of the Kalahan Programs identified the niche concept, the

Trustees and staff realised that the utilization of wild fruits was a promising way for the population to obtain a sustainable livelihood without damage to the forests. They established the Food Processing Center in Imugan in 1980 to produce jams, marmalades, preserves and related products using wild fruit from the forests. They market them under the "Mountain Fresh" label.

Biological requirements

Simply stated, any wild fruit may provide the basis for a small industry in a mountain community. Preferably, there should be several fruits, however, to make it possible for the program to work year-round and prevent over-utilization of any one biological niche.

In Kalahan, people began with guavas (Psidium guajava Linn.), which were eventually- developed into three different products: jam, jelly and butter. With more than 500 hectares of wild guavas within the Kalahan Reserve, there is little danger of overexploiting the resource.

After guavas, the fruit of a "weed tree" known as dagwey (Saurauia subglabra) was discovered. Although children occasionally ate the fruit, it had never been used commercially or even as a major source of food. A way to process it into a raisin-like preserve was soon discovered, however. Later, two other recipes were developed: dagwey marmalade and dagwey jelly.

Dikay jelly is made from the fruit of a vine (Embella philippinenses) similar to grape vines. Like dagwey, it was considered to be a weed but it produces an excellent jelly. These two plants grow on the edge of the forest.

Roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa Linn) and hibiscus (Hibicus rosasinensis Linn) jellies are made from the blossoms of wild flowers. They are both of the genus Hibiscus, but roselle is an annual and hibiscus a perennial. Because of the beauty and value of the latter, people are planting it at the sides of trails and along the boundaries of house lots. Roselle is planted in back-yard gardens.

Santol (Sandoricum koetjape), prefers open areas. Many of the santol trees were killed by the flooding which followed an earthquake, but people are now planting them again.

Ginger (Zingiber officinala Rosc.) is an indigenous cultivated plant in our area. We developed a jelly for use on meats, but most people buy it for use in sandwiches.

Passion fruit (Passiflora edulis) is used to make a fruit spread. It is an indigenous perennial vine which grows on trellises or trees.

The bignay fruit (Antidesma bunius Linn.) is usually found in the wild, but is sometimes cultivated. It produces a good jelly but is not popular for some reason, and we may phase out the recipe. It grows in open or semishaded areas.

One community in the Kalahan Reserve is named Baracbac, because many years ago the area was covered with a weed tree of that name. Now the plant is almost extinct. Two trees were located several years ago, however, and an excellent jelly was made from the fruit. Now the people have replanted baracbac in their village and perhaps will have a salable product by next year. Another source of income may thus develop, and the reason for the village's name may be restored.

There are wild raspberries (Rubus pectinalus and Rubus rosaifolius) in the forest, but their flavor is poor. Recently, a similar one with an excellent flavor was found in another forest west of the Kalahan Reserve. There are plans to transplant some plants with a view toward growing berries that will yield a marketable raspberry jelly.

Before the processing of these fruits, ginger was the only plant that had any commercial value to the community. Although guavas, passion fruit and santol could be marketed fresh in the lowlands, the price was so low that it was not economical to ship them. Now they have commercial value and are being utilised. The environment is not being forced to produce what is not natural to it, however, because each fruit is already part of a special forest niche. As each niche becomes important to the population, the people protect it, and with it, the forests.

Many other fruits have been tested, but there is little market in the Philippines for fruits with mild or bland flavors. Testing continues, however, in the search for additional commercially viable fruits.

Technical requirements

Food processing is not a program for the fainthearted. It involves patience and a considerable amount of time and money to develop recipes suited to the local fruit. Once a recipe has been developed, it must be adapted for production. Standard quantities and qualities are necessary for the process, and the product itself must be standardised.

Cleanliness is very important in the production of food products. The level of cleanliness necessary for commercial food processing is several steps beyond the level common to most mountain kitchens. It can, however, be achieved if people set their minds to it.

Rigid quality control is very necessary. This includes accurate control of the quality and quantity of fruit, sugar, water and other raw materials. It also includes the standardization of the weight of output of every batch. All of this must be recorded in a log book.

The recipes are not usually complicated, but in the Philippines, each one must be approved yearly by the Bureau of Food and Drugs (BFAD) of the Department of Health. Approval requires the submission of two samples in standard containers, properly labeled. The label must include the name and address of the producer, the contents, the net weight, batch number and expiration date of the product. The approval includes the label. An additional permit is required for every overseas shipment.

Physical requirements

Processing center

Severed attempts were made to make food processing a home activity, but it has never been successful. It is very difficult to maintain the proper quality control and cleanliness in the home. One requirement, therefore, is a processing center. This need not be large or expensive, but it must be easily cleaned and kept safe from rats, cockroaches and other pests which would damage the products.

When the Kalahan center was built, there was no electricity. Everything was designed so that the center could operate without it. An electric cooperative has since delivered electricity to the center, but service is not very dependable. The center is still maintained to function without electricity.

Plant design

It is easy to waste both time and money in a poorly designed work space. Small wooden boxes with nylon handles were made in which the output from each batch that is cooked. These boxes are put on a sloping shelf with rollers so that they can roll slowly toward the Quality Control desk. After being checked, they are slid to the packaging or storage area. All storage and movement is made as convenient as possible to minimise time and labor costs.


At Kalahan, the people manufactured their own stoves and most of their equipment. Thus they are able to make repairs when breakdowns occurs. The Lorena stove design was copied, but brick was used in the construction because it lasts longer and is easier to clean.

Aluminum kettles were found to be satisfactory for most products, although stainless steel would be better. Unfortunately stainless steel is much more expensive.

Funnels, knives and other equipment which are in direct contact with the fruit should be made of stainless steel. This is difficult to weld, however. It requires a special TIG welder and the welder needs special training. The Kalahan have had the necessary equipment for several years, but it was difficult to find the proper training. The community's welder finally obtained the necessary training in November of 1994.


The type of products which are produced by the Kalahan Food Processing Center are best packaged in glass. A few samples have been packaged in plastic containers, but they are difficult to sterilise, even more difficult to seal, and not very attractive.

Theoretically, products could be packaged in small one-ounce "blister packs," but it would require very high-tech equipment which costs nearly a million pesos and requires large amounts of steady electrical power. This would not be feasible at Kalahan. A large enough market for the glass containers exists so there is no need to look for an institutional market.

Glass is attractive, easy to sterilise and easy to seal. There are many sizes and designs available, and at least three major producers in the Philippines. Even second-hand bottles can be used if they are properly chosen and cleaned. Everything must be well sterilised.

Lids must be new. It is not possible to use second-hand lids for storing food products. There are several factories in the MetroManila area which produce lids. For food products, it is important that the lid have a PVC liner to ensure the bottle is well sealed. Paper liners are not satisfactory unless large amounts of preservatives are used.

The labels can be printed anywhere, but they should be attractive. It is often expensive to have well-designed labels, but it is worth the cost.

Financial requirements

Food processing is not inexpensive or easy. One problem is that the raw materials are seasonal. When the fruits are ripe, they must be harvested. Kalahan standards require that fruits be bottled within 18 hours of the time that they are harvested to protect their quality.

Most harvesters in the community are subsistence farmers or students. They have immediate needs and can seldom afford to wait-for their payments, which means that the program should have enough cash to purchase all the fruit needed for one year's operation.

The processors must also be able to purchase sugar, containers and other requirements as they are needed. Enough labels are usually printed for one year's operation. All of this requires capital investment. The capital will return eventually with a profit, but this will take several months.

Cash flow problems are even worse for the export market. Local sales are usually small, but frequent; therefore, less money is advanced and returns are realized sooner. Export sales are usually very large orders, and even though some exporters will advance as much as half of the price to the producer, it is still difficult to get the necessary payment "up front" to produce and ship the order.

Marketing requirements

Marketing specialists insist that markets should be identified before products are conceptualised or produced. Because little was known about marketing at Kalahan, the products were developed first and markets were sought later.

Little progress was made, however, until a marketing study was conducted by the Asian Institute of Management (AIM). Their study determined the size of the market in Metro-Manila, who was buying, where they wanted to buy, and what size of containers they preferred. The study also determined who the competition was. With this information, the high-income bracket of society was identified as the target market. By focusing on this market niche, sales increased significantly.

The intention is to capture about 10 percent of the Metro Manila market. At that level of production, enough income should be earned to subsidise the community high school adequately. Some exporting may continue, but it is recognised that the export market is very fickle and faddish, and therefore undesirable to depend on it very much. The local market, however, sees the term "Export Quality" to mean "High Standards" so it is possible to sell more in Manila if it can be demonstrated that some is being exported.

Another marketing problem which is slowly being overcome, is the uniqueness of the Kalahan products. People have to be educated about the products. Although guavas, santol and ginger are well known in the Philippines, most people have not heard of dagwey or dikay before. The local name for dikay is Biho-lak, but people outside the community even have trouble pronouncing it, so it was given a new name (dikay). In labeling, the brand name "Mountain Fresh" is emphasized. After customers have tried the more familiar products such as guava jelly, they can later be convinced to try some of the other products which are not so well known. Once they try them, they usually continue to buy.

Psychological requirements

Food processing requires rigid quality control and sanitary standards. Even the simple act of a cook using a damp cloth to clean the mouth of a jar caused serious problems several years ago. It turned out that the cloth was not absolutely sterile and it caused some very embarrassing product spoilage. Cloths are still used, but they are always kept in boiling water. It is very important that such attitudes be instilled in the psyche of the workers and, if possible, the community.

Another psychological requirement is the willingness to experiment. This was not common in the past because the people are very sensitive to being perceived to have "failed" at something. Experimentation is a trial and error process. As long as something is learned from the results, it should not be considered a failure.

Only recently has there been an increased willingness to experiment and try new things. Hopefully, this attitude can be cultivated and developed in the future. As it develops, there will be a major change in the human psyche, which may have greater impact on the future than the economic benefits which are currently being obtained.

The staff of the Kalahan programs have several more programs in mind that are going to require research and experimentation and a willingness to absorb the "failures." This attitude is a prerequisite to success in these ventures.

Impacts of food processing

Negative environmental impacts

Fortunately, no significant negative environmental impacts of food processing have been found. The disposal of garbage could be a problem, but a piggery adjacent to our food processing center consumes most of the garbage which the center produces. Any waste which the pigs reject can be composted for the vegetable production program. The waste from the piggery is used as fertilizer for fruit and vegetable production.

The waste water from washing bottles could be cleaned in a pond containing water hyacinth, but the present volume is not enough to make this necessary. It is disposed of through a blind drainage system.

If all of the available guavas were harvested, the food supply of bats and a few other wild animals that guavas could be disrupted. There is such a large supply in the forests, however, that this is not at all likely. This is also true of most of the other fruits which are used.

If ginger products were promoted heavily, a problem could develop because ginger is a cultivated plant and prefers the rich soils on the slopes. The expansion of ginger production might push people to expand their swidden farms into the forest. That, of course, would have a negative impact on the environment. As it is, however, the amount of ginger which is consumed in the food processing is quite small and easily produced in the existing farms without any need for expansion.

If the food to be processed were field crops such as beans, it would require the clearing of wide tracks of land. That too, would be detrimental to the environment. However, the fruits which are currently used are either wild or forest types, so there is no known problem.

Positive environmental impacts

Both dagwey and dikay were formerly considered to be weeds which were of no value, so they were frequently destroyed in the second growth forests. Now that they have a market value, they are protected along with other plants which help to shade them, or provided with a trellis for the vines to climb. Not only are people protecting these plants, they are now motivated to replant them and the original biodiversity is being restored.

A small change is taking place in some parts of the forests where people are planting high quality citrus fruits such as lemons and limes. These fruits are needed to expand the processing program. People do not, however, replace forest trees with citrus trees. Portions of the forest that are in need of revegetation are planted with the citrus species. This has two notable benefits. By scattering the orchards, pests have little chance of finding the fruit trees, and the predators of fruit pests can readily multiply within the forests.

The fact that only fruits are harvested, and not the plant itself, is of great benefit to the environment. Guava trees are good nurse trees for many of the climax species that were removed from the forests in past years. With the protection of the guavas, it is easier for the forests to regenerate naturally. If some of the guavas are squeezed out later because of new climax species, they are still free to multiply in the grasslands which they prefer.

A significant increase in many beneficial insects have been noticed since the onset of the food processing program. This has been reinforced by frequent ecology se-miners which stress the symbiosis of life within the forests, and because the Center refuses to purchase any chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

Searches continue for new types of fruits which could be processed and the people know this. For that reason they are hesitant to allow any plants to be destroyed, lest it turns out to be a valuable one.

Human impacts

Any new technology is sure to have an impact on the activities and the psychology of the people who are affected by it. At Kalahan, the Food Processing Center has encouraged people to look at the forest in a new way. Having discovered new resources in forest fruit, people are now ready to look at other aspects of the forest which could provide sustainable sources of income for the community. Each new undertaking will require the development of new knowledge and skills. Now that people have been successful with one enterprise, they know they can do it and can enjoy doing it. They are also looking more seriously at the sustainability of those resources.

The most important thing is that people have found that they can make these changes without losing their culture and their unity as a community.

Economic impacts on residents

There are already about 150 families that get most of their cash income from harvesting either wild or cultivated fruit. There is even a group of very young children who watch the cherry trees. When the cherries are ripe they receive permission to climb the trees and harvest the cherries. When they have filled their little baskets, the harvest is divided. They have cherries to eat and Food Processing has some to cook. Anyone who wishes to bring in fruit is welcome to do so and the Center will pay for it.

In addition, there are eight families that are directly employed by the Food Processing Center in Imugan. The cooks in the factory are all women, but the chemist is a man. During rush seasons, jobs such as cleaning containers, peeling fruit and other such activities may be performed by temporary laborers who take turns so that the work opportunities are well distributed. Many of them are students in the high school who need the financial help to pay their tuition.

Recently young children have begun planting hibiscus along the trails and on the elementary school campus because they plan to harvest the blossoms later for sale to the Food Processing Center. With the proceeds they can buy their own notebooks and ball pens. It will be almost impossible for any one family or group of families to obtain any kind of monopoly in this program.

Efforts are now being made to produce sugar (glucose) from a local root crop grown in the forest, so expenses of the Food Processing Center can be reduced further. This will put additional cash into the local economy.

Economic impact on the community

The community, through the Kalahan Educational Foundation (KEF), has established its own Health Center and high school, neither of which are financially self-supporting. The income-generating projects are necessary to develop enough income to support the community service projects. This is one of the purposes of the Food Processing Center.

The present output of the Center is only about 2,200 cases per year for the domestic market, and 900 cases per year for export. By 1995, through new outlets in Metro Manila, it is expected that 4,500 cases will be sold in the Metropolitan market, 900 cases will be exported, and 150 cases will be sold in provincial outlets. This represents only 3 percent of the Metropolitan market and less than 50 percent of capacity at Kalahan.

By the year 2000, the target is to supply 10 percent of the Metropolitan market and to operate slightly above the present capacity. At that level, the net profit should be more than $ 35,000, which should be enough to balance the high school budget.

Impact on land use

The greatest benefit of this program is probably its indirect impact on the agricultural practices of the community. Before the opening the Food Processing Center, most families cultivated areas nearly one hectare in size, with half used to produce food for the family and the other half used to grow cash crops. Families still produce their own food crops, but now most of the cash is coming from the sale of forest fruits so the cultivated areas have been reduced to half. Even though their labor is less intensive than formerly, their income is greater.

Second, fruit trees, especially wild ones, do not need to be cultivated. They are productive without disturbing the land and by encouraging the growth of underbrush erosion is generally prevented.

Third, as a result of the reduction in the land needed for cultivation, the forests have begun to expand and cover areas which were formerly agricultural or grasslands. This has caused a very important improvement in the watersheds and the flow of water in the rivers and streams. It is obvious during heavy rains that the run-off water is now white, not laden with top-soil, as was the case previously.


Communal land tenure

People must have been very secure land tenure before they will be willing to develop the land, the forest or any other niche. Every development requires investments of time, money and labor. Without the assurance that they, or their grandchildren, are going to obtain the fruits of their investments, no intelligent person is going to be willing to do it. Forest dwellers are intelligent people.

People must also feel that they have very clear authority to manage the land and its resources. If management is conducted by a committee based outside the area (even if representatives of the community are a part of the committee) the program will probably not succeed. People will not feel free, nor will they feel challenged to use their own imagination and creativity to properly identify and develop the various niches which are available within the ecosystem. Very seldom is a tribal representative actually heard in a political meeting.

Availability of consultants

People should not be expected to "re-invent the wheel." They will need to be assured that technical expertise will be available when it is necessary, but that neither the technical experts nor the merchants will be making slaves of them.

At Kalahan, substantial assistance was obtained from the Food Technology Department of the University of the Philippines in Los Banos. Whenever a serious problem is encountered, the Department is consulted, the problem is shared, and advice is obtained. Without access to such professional advice, the program would be much more difficult.

Suitability of the niche

In spite of its many difficulties, food processing is a good niche to develop in many communities to provide sustainable livelihood for a significant part of the population. It often requires some changes in thinking, but given the proper amount of time for the ideas to ripen, it can be done without disrupting the society and cultural patterns.

Government's role

Government should not try to "harness" forest dwellers into protecting the biodiversity and resources of protected areas. It should enter into respectful agreements with forest dwellers to release their creativity and properly motivate them to be protective. Horses and carabao may be harnessed, but not people.

Protection should be primarily the responsibility of the people, with the respectful support of the government. In the Kalahan case, the people are confident that they can protect the primary forests of the Reserve while developing niches that facilitate the expansion of climax forest and provide sustainable livelihoods. This is the greater challenge which the Kalahan people are trying to meet.

The Kalahan approach identifies economic values of forest resources to motivate protection and sound management.

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