Plight of Filipino farmers

The spokesman of Filipino farmers, Ka Rene Cerilla of PAKISAMA, lamented that farmers are never consulted, much less invited to significant policy-making meetings. He was one of the panelist-reactors at the “ 21st Jaime V. Ongpin memorial lecture on Public Service in Business and  Government”  held last October at the Ateneo de Manila University Law School. The others were Prof. Edgardo Valenzuela of the Ateneo School of Government and Mr. Ernesto Ordonez, Chairman of Alyansa Agrikultura, a dear friend.   I was perturbed by Ka Rene’s opening statement because I had heard those resentments before, 63 years ago when  Mr. Jeremias Montemayor of the Federation of Free Farmers ( FFF)  visited my alma mater in 1959.  My classmates and I were socially conscious high school seniors ( or so we thought);  has nothing improved since then?

The Federation of Free Farmers was born during “interesting times” shortly after  HUK Supremo Luis Taruc surrendered in 1954, after massive military operations against the (old) communist party and an aggressive “policy of attraction” that included the FFF. It was founded by Mr. Jeremias Montemayor, former seminarian and graduate of the Ateneo Law School. Today,  his son Raul is the national manager of the  Federation of Free Farmers  Cooperatives, Inc.  His speech was entitled “Farmer Security is Key to Food Security.” Tall and slender like his father, Raul is a dedicated and relentless defender of Filipino farmers,  fisherfolk and cooperatives. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

Embarrassing as it may sound, the Philippines ranks 73rd in the world’s food security list,  but in South East Asia we are at the very bottom.  Raul Montemayor said we are vulnerable and insecure because government policies have always been production-oriented, “…this approach is not working despite fertilizer subsidies and ‘ayuda’ because it is directed toward the commodity and not the farmer who is producing the commodity… Policies that control farmgate prices place on the backs of the farmers the burden of making food more affordable…” Furthermore, importation which is supposed to make consumer prices cheaper is a bane to farmers; it is not realistic to expect them to easily adopt,  improve and compete with imported agricultural produce.

Inevitably, the Rice Tarification Law (R.A. 11203) was brought up.  Ten billion pesos in tariffs from rice imports are earmarked for the  Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund (RCEF), anything in excess is ostensibly for the Rice Farmer Financial Assistance ( RFFA).   From 2019-2021, Php 46.6 billion was reported to have gone to the farming sector.  But why does starvation persist and why are farmers still deep in debt? Why are retail prices too high for poor consumers? Could it be red tape in the implementation of the RCEF?  Ka Rene said market intermediaries  benefit more than the farmers.” Where will farmers go if they leave their farms, and where will they get their food?” His questions were almost rhetorical.

Mr. Ernesto Ordoñez was ready with a powerpoint presentation of “ Five imperatives for farmer and food security” :

  1. The market and business information system mandated by 1997 Agriculture and Fisheries Modernization Act must be in place; correct action is always guided by correct information;
  2. Single commodity system approach: 74 percent of land is dedicated to the single commodity production approach by rice, coconut and corn farmers. We need value chain processing, marketing and other income-generating activities.
  3. Consolidation, because the average landholding is less than 2 hectares, so we need economies of scale to protect local production and enable exportation to other countries. (This is recommended by  Thailand’s Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives)
  4. Private/Public Sector Monitoring of Budget. In 2020, the Commission on Audit (COA) reported Php 22 billion in unliquidated and questionable expenses. We need to restore private sector budget monitoring at national and local levels.
  5. Provincial and Municipal[ Agricultural Planning.  For example, 17,000 Local Government Unit extension workers are underutilized. An effective framework for the mobilization of unused manpower is essential.

The open forum, both live and online, was invigorating. I asked Ka Rene: Among the  Presidents and Agriculture Secretaries we have had,  who contributed most to the farmers and fisherfolk? To his knowledge, none of the Secretaries of Agriculture were agronomists. As for Presidents, in his opinion, it was Fidel V. Ramos; but,  he could not expound, time had run out.  Ka Rene probably had the Agriculture and Fisheries Modernization Act (1997) in mind.

We now have the National Agriculture and Fisheries Modernization and Industrialization Plan, 2021-2030 produced by the Asian Development Bank, the Department of Agriculture and other erudite private and public sector agencies. President F. Marcos, Jr, concurrently Secretary of Agriculture,  must have told the world about this in the video message he sent to the 50th Session of the Commission on World Food Security held recently in Rome.