Sunday, February 17, 2019

Social Commentary: The Voice of the Filipino Farmers

Philippine Agriculture was once an up-and-coming sector in its excellence in providing good agricultural products to every Filipino through an active and strategic partnership between our farmers and the Government. 

We were an agricultural leader in Asia back then, and our Agricultural Scientists used to share their expertise in rice farming with other Asian countries like Vietnam and Thailand.

I remember back in the late '80s when we used to play by throwing mud in the newly plowed rice field just after the harvest season when rice farming was the primary source of livelihood for most families in our town. Whenever we visit other barangays from the town center, we get to breathe in the fresher air passing through the green field of newly planted rice during the planting season, while during the dry season, just before the harvest in March or April, the field turns into a beautiful golden brown grain of rice.

Those days were when rice farming was a robust industry and highly profitable for farmers and traders who bought and sold rice. Those were also the busy days for my parents to make a living as rice traders in our town, lasting about 2 decades.

As a kid, it was hard to compete for attention with our parents on some busy days when they bought hundreds of sacks of rice from our local farmers, but that was also a good time for play whenever it was already stacked in our warehouse; the kind of play that some kids of today may not relate. Those were the past and one of the happiest moments worth remembering.

Challenges in the Agriculture 

Starting in the new millennium, several challenges emerged in our Agricultural sector, especially in the rice industry. There were corruption issues with the Agriculture Department and the National Food Authority, a Government agency that regulates and maintains sufficient rice supplies for the staple food of Filipinos. Other problems include a lack of government support for farming machinery like pre and post-harvest facilities, conversion of agricultural land to residential or industrial, and the low trade price of rice production from the farmers due to the proliferation of rice cartels.

In recent years, our Government faced even more challenges, like increasing the price of commercial rice due to artificially low supply against its high demand to feed millions of Filipinos. With the lack of agricultural facilities, we cannot produce the best quality and quantity of rice leading to lesser productivity and profitability for our rice farmers.

The Rice Tarrification Law

Fast forward to 2019, just recently on February 15, when the Rice Tarrification Bill was enacted to deregulate rice importation by private businessmen and individuals from countries like Thailand and Vietnam. The law also made some restrictions on the power of NFA for regulation and importation of rice, and they will just maintain enough stocks of rice for calamities. One of the best promises in the revised law is the annual 10 billion peso Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund for 6 years. It will be assessed whether to continue or change the measure. The RCEF is a common fund that will come from the rice import taxes that are said to be given to farmers to address the existing challenges in rice production, like the purchase of farm machinery, to provide credit or loan service to farmers for skills development in farming.

The effect on our rice farmers

This new law has a short-term goal of addressing the current inflation when our poor families can't afford to buy expensive rice. However, this could also affect our local rice farmers when they cannot sell their produce at a reasonable price making them helpless and leaving no choice but to continue rice farming as a means of livelihood.

The flooding of cheaper commercial rice in the market will benefit Filipino consumers. However, the promises of the newly enacted law would be less promising than they seem. We must remember the alleged agricultural scams like the fertilizer fund scam, the diversion of farming funds to fake NGOs, and the present-day 'bukbok' rice or the insect-infested imported rice despite its lower price. Hopefully, this RCEF will not be another corruption in the making.

If there's an existing corruption in the Agricultural sector that remains a culture, the new law shouldn't be at the expense of our local farmers. Although we can give a new direction a chance for its benefits, I still feel for the unheard voices of our farmers. I am a rice farmer's son, and I have seen the hardship of our farmers who sweat it out under the sun even though the rain gives us a staple food to eat on our table. Our farmers deserve to have a better life through the full support of our government from laws and programs that would help improve their most significant source of livelihood.

We want to see something other than one day, our farmlands, previously owned by ordinary farmers, will become a gated community or townhouse owned by an oligarch. We want our country to retain agricultural scientists who prefer to work abroad for a greener pasture. We want our future children to be interested in farming studies and activities. And we want to avoid seeing our farmers dying because they need something to eat. After all, the government killed the rice farming industry.

As I return home to our hometown, another previously farmland townhouse might rise, and another hectare for private houses along the road might be built. This happens when farmers sell their land to real estate developers for residential or industrial development.

In a few years, our next generation might not be able to enjoy the greenfield and the golden brown rice harvest that we used to enjoy. Those years of pure happiness away from modernity and technology that the present time has embraced. In a few years, we will gradually be shifting from agricultural to industrial, and the vast farmland and lush greeneries will be a thing of the past.

Let us help save our Agricultural sector by hearing the voices of our farmers, who are the source and significant producers of our food on the table. Let us patronize local produce and learn to appreciate and embrace agriculture in our modern way of living to help our farmers thrive and live the decent and comfortable life they deserve.

© 2019 Del Cusay