Creating a new future with bananas

23.06.2022 In the Philippines, the hills of the Carmen region have been scarred by deforestation, monoculture and a shortage of water. As part of the international ‘Going Bananas’ project, BFH is helping farming families to make the switch to sustainable agriculture.

Prof. Dr. Gurbir Singh Bhullar
Professor Gurbir Singh Bhullar discusses water harvesting and cultivation strategies in the hills of Carmen. Image: supplied

In Carmen, a region shaped by decades of conflict, many farming families live below the poverty line. They desperately want change, but have neither the money, the seeds nor the expertise to achieve it alone.

Fertile soil eroded over the years

Their predicament is partly due to the cultivation of maize, which the farmers took up a few years ago. To create the maize fields, the hilly terrain was cleared of trees. And so began a vicious circle. Every time rain fell, more fertile soil was washed away. Rainwater no longer seeped through the soil to gather in water courses and provide a source of fresh water for the local population. The fertilisers required for intensive maize cultivation have also polluted the remaining water courses, explains Professor Gurbir Singh Bhullar, Professor of Sustainable Agroecosystems at the School of Agricultural, Forest and Food Sciences at BFH. He is responsible for promoting sustainable agriculture through the ‘Go Bananas’ project. He learned that some farmers had signed contracts with maize traders and had taken out loans so that they could switch to maize cultivation. ‘Ever-decreasing yields meant some had problems paying those loans back, so they lost even more money with every harvest,’ explains Bhullar.

Prof. Dr. Gurbir Singh Bhullar
As part of the ‘Going Bananas’ project, Professor Gurbir Singh Bhullar carries out soil and water testing and plans workshops to exchange information with the Philippine authorities. Image: supplied

New cultivation systems developed by BFH

‘With a complex situation such as this, you need to approach it from different angles,’ emphasises Bhullar. Functioning cultivation systems and a secure sales market are required. Since July 2020, BFH and various partners led by the non-profit organisation Aidenvironment have therefore been involved in the ‘Going Bananas’ project, initiated by the Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO).

Research and practical work go hand-in-hand on the ‘Go Bananas’ project. ‘In the initial phase, we carried out a joint field study,’ explains Bhullar. The Dutch colleagues needed information about the terrain in order to develop a water harvesting solution. Working with local contact groups, Bhullar investigated which cultivation systems and plants would be most suitable. ‘Based on the field study, I developed different cultivation plans to suit the different terrain conditions,’ he says. As a pilot, these are now being tested on demonstration fields that will later serve as training and information centres for the farming families. The farmers will be able to see what has worked and what has not: ‘Above all, we want to show them how the system can later be applied to their own fields.’

Food security through diversification

‘We have developed a cultivation system where people create banana plantations and supplement them with coconut palms, fruit trees and vegetables,’ Bhullar explains – bananas and coconuts because sales are guaranteed through the processing industry that already exists locally, and fruit trees and vegetables to improve diversity and enhance food security. The banana plants and the trees grow slowly, so at the start in particular, vegetable cultivation makes the best use of the available space. ‘We were able to team up with the local authorities here. They provided the seeds as part of one of their own programmes to promote local vegetable cultivation,’ says Bhullar. The farmers are able sell vegetables and fruit at the market or eat them themselves: both options have a positive effect on the diet and welfare of people in the region.

Professor Gurbir Singh Bhullar (centre) and colleagues carry out an initial survey of the damage caused by maize monocultures. (Image: 'Going Bananas' project)
Professor Gurbir Singh Bhullar (centre) and colleagues carry out an initial survey of the damage caused by maize monocultures. Image: 'Going Bananas' project

Support from private partners

In addition to the project funding provided by the Netherlands Enterprise Agency, the consortium has contributed its own resources and has brought private local partners on board. ‘They are investing in the expansion of the existing banana processing industry to create an ecological value chain,’ explains Bhullar. The University of Southern Mindanao (USM) is also supporting the project by producing the banana seedlings.

A project of highs and lows

As soon as the initial survey to clarify the needs and challenges had been concluded in 2020, the pandemic arrived and the project slowed down. ‘Local staff who had already been recruited used the time to find farming families and volunteers for the pilot,’ Bhullar explains. The consortium was also able to obtain further funds from the authorities for the production of the seedlings. The project only really got underway again at the beginning of this year.

Bhullar describes the interaction with the local authorities as a major highlight of the project: ‘The municipal administration is providing agricultural staff and helping us to reach the farmers.' Persuading the farmers of the merits of the new cultivation system has not been so easy, however, as banana prices are currently low.

Another element of the project is knowledge sharing with India, which came about as a result of Bhullar’s contacts there. Key stakeholders from the Philippines will be invited to India; they will be able to learn from first-hand experience in comparable regions where the ecological system and internal control systems are already established and work well.

First results within two years

The demonstration fields are currently being planted and the pilot is underway. At present the project is also focusing on interacting with local farming families. ‘Our goal is to reach about 3,000 households by the end of 2024 and to familiarise them with the new cultivation system,’ explains Bhullar. The next step will see many of them receive seedlings to test cultivation in their area. While the first vegetables can be harvested quickly, banana plants need around a year to produce their first fruits. ‘Fruit trees and coconut palms need a little more time,’ says Bhullar. In some places, almost a metre of fertile soil has been washed away and thus a lot of organic material must be added if the trees are to grow: ‘So we need to find ways to produce enough compost.’ This is a challenge because there is a lack of animal manure. Nevertheless, Bhullar is optimistic: ‘Within two years, we will be able to see the first results.’

Research and interaction with local authorities

Professor Gurbir Singh Bhullar is leading a second key part of the ‘Going Bananas’ project, funded by ETH Leading House Asia. This is concentrating on soil and water testing and on interaction at government level. ‘We are planning workshops with members of the Philippine authorities. We want to show them the problems that deforestation and maize monocultures have caused and what an ecological cultivation system can achieve,’ says Bhullar.


Professor Gurbir Singh Bhullar is Professor of Sustainable Agroecosystems, conducting research and teaching in the Agriculture division of the School of Agricultural, Forest and Food Sciences in Zollikofen and is part of the HAFL Hugo P. Cecchini Institute. After completing his doctorate at ETH Zurich, he focused on agricultural research for rural development, relying on participatory research and involving local stakeholders in the research process. He led the ‘Farming Systems Comparison in the Tropics’ project at the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture FiBL for almost eight years. He explains what is meant by the term ‘Sustainable Agroecosystems’ in this video.