top of page

Soil Health Champion

BY GODFREY T. DANCEL


Llamado, meaning favored to win, is a word that aptly describes Agusan del Sur 2nd District Representative Adolph Edward “Eddiebong” G. Plaza in all electoral contests he has taken part in. From the time of his first foray into politics as provincial board member up to his present position as congressman, he has been the overwhelming choice of Agsurnons to help them reach their collective goals.


To say that Plaza’s political fortune was served to him on a silver platter would be grossly inaccurate. Coming from a family of public servants, Plaza saw it as an imperative for him to make a name for himself. “I was able to prove that I can stand alone through my hard work, through my passion in public service. I was able to show them that I am worthy to be their leader not just because I’m the son of D. O. Plaza, but because I’m the son of Valentina Plaza who pursued and studied the right way of effective governance,” he stresses.


Plaza’s systematic, holistic approach to addressing the problems faced not only by his district but by the whole province of Agusan del Sur has greatly helped prevent a carambola (free for all) approach to the province’s development. Paying particular attention to the areas of education, agriculture, and development of upland communities, Plaza has shown what benefits a realistic vision based on a clear understanding of the people’s situation can bring.


IMPROVING AGRICULTURAL PRODUCTION THROUGH SOIL SCIENCE

Among the multitude of programs Plaza is presently involved in and actively pushing, soil science as a means of improving agricultural production stands out. His attention to agriculture is based mainly on two basic truths: agriculture is an important source of livelihood for Filipinos, and the strength of Agusan del Sur is agriculture. Meanwhile, his emphasis on soil science is rooted in the basic fact that soil is the base if agriculture.

The solon laments that even with all the efforts that the government has had in promoting agriculture and helping individual farmers, agricultural production still leaves much to be desired. With this, Plaza looked into modern, scientific ways of addressing the major issues besetting farmers. “I became an advocate of the soil test-based fertilization program and soil health program for the country,” he declares.


Plaza likens soil test-based fertilization to having a medical check-up. “When I have a check-up, say a blood test, I wilL nutrients such as calcium, sulphur, and magnesium, as well as minor nutrients such as iron, manganese, and boron is also determined. Soil testing results serve as a guide for identifying what crops are suited for planting in specific plots of land, and for calculating fertilizer requirements.


Soil scientist Dr. Johnvie Goloran, who holds a doctorate in soil science from Griffith University in Australia and post- doctoral fellow on soil health and nutrition at IRRI-Headquarters, echoes Plaza’s sentiments. “During the discussions about the plan to launch USAD or the Upland Sustainable Agrifores try Development program, we saw a research gap,” he reveals. “So we had to close this gap to help farmers engage in research- based farming in order to ensure sustainability.” Goloranplayed a major role in linking the provincial government with know whether I have a sugar problem, high cholesterol, or even an infection. With this knowledge, I could adjust my lifestyle and take the necessary medication. It works the same with soil,” he says. “It’s very important that you have accurate knowledge about the soil you are going to plant in, and such knowledge you could get from soil testing. With the correct information, you could maximize the yield of your plot of land. That is what we want to achieve. Because for now, most of our farmers practice what the technicians are saying, but such are not based on scientific tests.” He expresses deep concern at how “everybody has forgotten the importance of soil testing. There are rapid test kits, but these are not really effective.”


Indeed, soil testing is not a new concept. It has been proven as a vital tool in improving soil health and increasing agricultural yield in countries such as Australia, the United States, India, and China. These countries have invested in soil testing as the basis for their national fertilization programs.


In brief, soil testing can be described as a soil nutrient diagnostic tool meant to provide soil information. Soil tests primarily look at how much nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium—the three most essential nutrients for plant health and growth—a soil sample has. The amount of secondary the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR). Through the resulting partnership, soil sampling was done in seven municipalities, giving the USAD team clear, science-based information on what crops to make their farmer- enrolees plant.


Today, the partnership between the provincial government of Agusan del Sur and ACIAR remains, with farmers in and outside the province benefiting trough the research center’s efforts to develop soil knowledge, information, and capacity to improve productivity and sustainability in local agriculture. The soon-to-be-completed provincial soils laboratory is expected to result in a big leap for the project. The modern laboratory will be able to analyse soil and other samples and provide results in a couple of days. Such results, when integrated into agricultural programs and individual farmers’ practices, are expected to increase yield dramatically.


“In my lifetime, I would like to see the country having food security,” Plaza shares. “Every year, our population is growing, but our rice production is not able to keep up. Thus, we always resort to importing rice. With soil science being part of agriculture at the national level, we can produce much more rice and we won’t need to import rice anymore.”


So far, the Agusan del Sur provincial government’s soil test-based fertilization program trials are moving forward and showing encouraging results. In the municipalities of Prosperidad, Trento, Bayugan, and Loreto, which have been characterized as having “problem soils,” the farmers’ yield has increased, and the expenses for fertilizer have decreased because of the program. “Yield has increased by 35 percent, while expenses for fertilizer have gone down by 25 percent. That’s a big impact,” Plaza shares.


The congressman is confident that once fully implemented, the program will result in farmers earning doblado (double). “At the end of the day, usually

a farmer earns about between Php20,000 to Ph30,000 per hectare. Our aim is Php60,000 pesos per hectare,” he says.


Vice Governor Samuel Tortor, for his part, is confident that with soil testing, the provincial government will be better guided in attracting investors. “With knowledge about the crops fit for the soil in specific areas in the province, we will know which potential investors to talk to,” he says.


STATE-OF-THE-ART SOIL LABORATORY

Proof of Plaza’s seriousness in pushing for soil health is the ongoing construction of Agusan del Sur’s state-of-the-art soil laboratory in Prosperidad town. Once completed, the 1,687-square meter laboratory is expected to be the center of soil health activities in the province.

The laboratory represents part of Agusan del Sur’s major investment ins oil science. The Php550 million project is a joint initiative of the provincial government, ACIAR, and the Department of Science and Technology-Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development.


Set to complement the laboratory’s modern facilities is its group of soil health experts, led by soil microbiologists, soil chemists, and agronomists. The laboratory will be able to perform


IN MY LIFETIME, I WOULD LIKE TO SEE THE COUNTRY HAVING FOOD SECURITY... WITH SOIL SCIENCE BEING PART OF AGRICULTURE AT THE NATIONAL LEVEL, WE CAN PRODUCE MUCH MORE RICE AND WE WON’T NEED TO IMPORT RICE ANYMORE.


physical, chemical, and biological analysis of up to 100 soil samples per day, with results available in two to three days. It will also be able to analyse water, plant, fertilizer, and gas samples.


With accurate soil information, farmers will be able to avoid overestimation or underestimationof the rate of fertilizer application. Underestimation may lead to poor plant health due to nutrient deficiency, while overestimation may result to toxicity, which is detrimental to plants in particular and the environment in general.

The soil laboratory has been hailed by no less than President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. as a major step toward improved agricultural production. During a site inspection earlier this year, the chief executive expressed pleasure with the establishment of the laboratory, describing it as “one of the many projects for farmers being implemented in Agusan del Sur.”


The president had earlier acknowledged Plaza’s soil health advocacy and recognized the need to implement science-based measures in response to growing problems of soil degradation, acidification, and pollution.

With help from DOST-PCAARD and ACIAR, Plaza co-organized the First National Soil Health Summit in June 2023 which finally gathered the country’s soil health stakeholders to exchange their insights on the soil health crisis. This

led to the signing in September 2023 of the Memorandum of Understanding between the Philippines and Australia establishing a bilateral partnership

on national soil health strategy which identified Bataan, Tarlac and Ilocos Norte as the pilot areas and Agusan del Sur as the lead project pilot province.


Meanwhile, Plaza expressed optimism for the soil testing program. “I have a very strong belief that with the president’s Food Security Program and his advocacy for the scientific way of agriculture, our soil testing program will get the attention and support it deserves. At the end of the day, what is important is we are able to help the farmers,” he says. He wants Filipino farmers, who have to deal with a number of challenges, to have the same opportunities for a better life as do farmers in other countries.

TOWARD UPLAND COMMUNITIES’ DEVELOPMENT

Another flagship initiative began by Plaza is the Upland Sustainable Agriforestry Development (USAD) program. This is a convergence program that has successfully addressed the need to lower the poverty incidence in upland areas; create/increase income for upland farmers; protect and conserve natural resources by providing alternative sources of livelihood; and empower individuals and communities for sustainable development through formal and continuing education, capacity development, and technology and skills transfer.

USAD came about as Plaza’s comprehensive response to Agusan del Sur’s upland communities being dehado (in a disadvantaged position) especially during times of disaster. “When Typhoon Pablo ravaged our province in 2013, our upland communities’ livelihood was wiped out,” he recalls. “We had to reconsider our priorities and think out of the box. It was then that we came up with USAD, confident that with it, we could hit three birds with one stone: recover quickly from calamities, protect the environment, and fight poverty.”The second-term congressman describes their implementation of USAD as part of a critical paradigm shift. “We shifted our thinking from planting crops to growing people!” he exclaims. Steering clear of the usual dole-out strategy, the program pushes for the empowerment of individuals and communities “for greater productivity and sustainability.”

Instead of just giving out seeds, tools, and other farm inputs, USAD gives upland farmers “comprehensive support anchored on accountability, assisted by science, and nurtured by the provincial government.” The program’s farmer-enrolees are selected based on data collected from the Community-Based Management System to ensure that upland communities with high poverty incidence and farmers living below the poverty threshold are prioritized. Farmer-enrolees’ willingness to participate in the program, site accessibility, and the community’s commitment to provide counterparts such as labor, land, and time are also major considerations.

“The program is driven by the farmer’s commitment, ownership, and accountability. The farmer-enrolee is our development partner, nota beneficiary of a dole-out,” Plaza says. USAD’s convergence approach capacitates farmer-enrolees by providing technology trainings and farm inputs as well as reliable interventions in infrastructure, health and social support services, and livelihood. For remote upland communities, USAD is right and center in the development of infrastructure projects such as road construction and rehabilitation, daycare centers, sanitary toilets, water system facilities, and pre and post-harvest facilities.

Since its inception in 2013, about 90 percent of the 6000 USAD enrolees have breached the poverty threshold. The program has been credited by provincial officials as a major factor in the continued decrease in the province’s poverty incidence. A marked improvement took place between 2021 and the first quarter of 2023, where the poverty rate dropped from 36.9 percent to 25.9 percent. This led to Agusan del Sur graduating from the list of the country’s 20 poorest provinces. It must be noted that two years before the implementation of USAD, Agusan del Sur was one of 11 Mindanao provinces included in the list.


With USAD’s success, Plaza wants communities in other provinces to benefit from it as well. He and Agusan del Sur 1st District Representative Angelito M. Bascug filed in 2022 House Bill 3489, which seeks to implement USAD as a major poverty alleviation program all over the country. Local leaders’ positive response to the bill has emboldened Plaza all the more to make sure that it is enacted into law in this Congress. He describes USAD as “something that Agusan del Sur is proud to share with the Filipino nation.”


HOLISTIC ASSISTANCE TO LEARNERS

Education is also one of the areas where Plaza is focusing his energy on. One tangible proof of this is the Provincial Government of Agusan del Sur Scholars (PGAS) program.


The PGAS program was borne out of their firm beliefthat with human development will also come the success of other development initiatives in the province. The project was initiated in 2001 in order to help poor but deserving youth pursue their college education. “The provincial government thought of the project as a way to help financially-challenged students and their families overcome poverty,” Plaza says. “We saw that our human resource base was quite weak. Meanwhile, a lot of students have the talent and intelligence, but don’t have the means to study. So the provincial government addressed this by coming up with a scholarship. I was one of the main authors of the scholarship program, together with present Governor Santiago B. Cane, Jr.”


Aside from tuition and entrance fees, the scholarship program also provides book and uniform allowances, monthly allowance, and financial assistance for board exam review classes.


Among others, the PGAS has produced 40 doctors, who now play important roles in addressing gaps when it comes to

health services our healthcare system in the province. “Right now, we’re focused on medicine and nursing students because we don’t have enough doctors,” Plaza states.


“We want to have more scholars in other fields, but right now we’re focusing on soil science because this is the strength of the province,” the lawmaker continues. “We really need to capacitate people and change the mindset of our farmers. What we’re doing is really capacitating people to have and understand the new technology, and to replicate it.” Incidentally, Goloran, a consultant for the province’s soil science program, is one of the many beneficiaries of Agusan del Sur’s comprehensive scholarship program, Plaza’s passion for promoting education can be traced back to his first term as Agusan’s local chief executive. “I became governor in 2001. I made it a point to visit elementary schools and high schools. At that time, schoolchildren still frequented libraries. I was able to get a grant from Booksfor the Barrios, so I built libraries in the whole province,” he reveals. “This helped boost the children’s morale.”


The above project earned Plaza the moniker Big Brother, from a main character in a famous reality television show. The nickname clearly reflected the then-governor’s image of an elder brother looking after his younger siblings.

Books for the Barrios is a United States-based non-profit organization that aims to improve the quality of education for underprivileged youth in deprived communities, particularly in depressed regions in the Philippines.


PROVIDING BETTER OPPORTUNITIES IN HIGHER EDUCATIONIn the 18th Congress, Plaza was a principal sponsor of House Bill 7019, which paved the way for the conversion of the Agusan del Sur State College of Agriculture and Technology (ASSCAT) in Bunawan, Agusan del Sur, into the Agusan del Sur State University (ADSSU). The bill provided for ADDSU to “provide advance education, higher technological, professional and advance instruction in the fields of agriculture, agribusiness management, science and technology, education, forestry, engineering, arts and sciences, non-traditional courses, and other fields of study.” The university shall offer short-term technical-vocational courses, as well as undergraduate and graduate programs in said areas of competence and specialization.

Enacted as Republic Act 11586, Plaza’s brainchild is described by him as a “long shot dream, but it’s happening already.” He shares that while the law has been signed by the president, ASSCAT has not yet been converted into a full- fledged university. “We have to do the necessary requirements for the institution to become a full-fledged university,” he clarifies.

That the university will benefit Agsurnons, however, is beyond doubt. College students from Agusan del Sur willno longer have to go to Davao, Cebu, or Bukidnon to study, since ADSSU will be able to provide them the quality tertiary education they need. Plaza hopes instead that the students of other provinces will flock to ADSSU to study soil science and soil health.

ADSSU is also expected to be a showcase of the convergence of the different programs initiated by Plaza and sustained by other provincial officials. With ADDSU, more PGAS scholars will be able to pursue their education in the province. It will also put special focus on soil science, improving on ASSCAT’s existing soil laboratory.


ASSCAT’S existing partnerships with Griffith University will be strengthened, and similar linkages with other universities in Australia will be established. “If possible,we will send exchange students and maybe bring in foreign professors to fill in the gaps,” Plaza says.


THE PLAZA BRAND OF LEADERSHIP

With modern devices at his disposal and with his staff and local leaders ready to do things for him in his district, Plaza chooses to personally meet his constituents in order to get an unfiltered view of what is happening on the ground.

Cane, who has served the province with Plaza for three decades, describes the youthful-looking lawmaker as being “a man of the masses, approachable, aware of the people’s needs.” One thing that sets Plaza apart from other government officials, he says, is the congressman always walks the talk. “Ang kapakanan ng tao ang iniisip, ang nasa puso, (He puts his heart into ensuring the people’s welfare), ” he says.


Moreover, Plaza is not who one thinks so highly ofhimself so as to dismiss other people’s ideas. “My principlein governance is that it is not prohibited to copy. If there is a congressional district, city or province that has a good practice, and I think it fits my province, I ask their leaders if I can use such, of course with necessary adjustments to fit our situation,” he shares.


By the same token, the second-term congressman is never stingy with his ideas. Local leaders flock to his home to seek his counsel. Not a few projects have been hatched based on discussions Agsurnon leaders have had with Plaza. Still, he chooses not to crow about all these.


With all the legislative measures he has to scrutinize and shepherd into enactment, consultations and activities he has to attend, as well as the people’s concerns he has to give attention to, Plaza at times takes a step back to reflect. Spending time with his fighting cocks is one way for him to do this. “This is especially true when I was the governor,” he shares. “During those times when my mind is full and I could not figure out how to deal with some concerns, I would go to my farm. There, I get over my tendency to overthink. When I am relaxed, it is easier for me to think of solutions to the people’s concerns.”


“Taking care of your people is like taking care of chicken,” the perennial derby champion says. “You have to take careof them as much as you can, know what their needs are and respond accordingly. And you try to deliver the needed services the best way you can, so that when the time comes, the rewards you gain will be worth all the effort you have exerted. With chicken, you also have to give them attention from breeding, when they grow up, up to when they fight... As for my constituents, we try to equip them for a better future.”


With the way Congressman Eddiebong Plaza has rendered service to his constituents and fought for a better life alongside them, it is no wonder that he remains the people’s choice. For his part, he remains steadfast in ensuring not only soil health within Agusan del Sur, but across the nation.


PLAZA IS NOT ONE WHO THINKS SO HIGHLY OF HIMSELF SO AS TO DISMISS OTHER PEOPLE’S IDEAS. HIS PRINCIPLE IN GOVERNANCE IS THAT IT IS NOT PROHIBITED TO COPY OTHER LEADERS’ PROGRAMS AND TAILOR-FIT SUCH TO ADDRESS THE NEEDS OF AGSURNONS.



bottom of page