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Stifling the voice of farmers

ON too many occasions during the last four and a half years, the farmers’ voice has been stifled. This is a major reason why inclusive growth has not been attained.

The administration of President Aquino has achieved unprecedented gains. Aside from the President’s leadership, the public-private sector National Competitiveness Council (NCC) under co-chairs Trade Secretary Gregory Domingo and Guillermo Luz should be commended.

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Unfortunately, the agriculture sector—which is essential for inclusive growth—has grown by only 1.1 percent and 1.9 percent in the last two years.

Below are three areas where the stifling of the farmers’ voice is clearly demonstrated:

FEATURED STORIES

Coconut Levy: For 71 days last year, 71 coconut farmers marched from Davao to Malacañang to seek their rightful benefits from the coconut levy. On Nov. 26, 2014, the President committed to support them.

On March 18, three months and 22 days later, Executive Order 179 was signed. However, the farmers’ voice was effectively stifled: The two main provisions they wanted were not in this EO.

The first provision is that the coconut levy funds should be in a trust fund, with only the interest to be given to the coconut farmers. This will guard against the misuse of the funds, with the coconut farmers once again ending up as the victims of injustice.

The second provision is that the coco-levy assets should be preserved for the benefit of the coconut farmers. This way, the value-added from these assets (e.g. coconut oil mills, the United Coconut Planters Bank) would go to the coconut farmers. Under the current EO, these assets may be privatized. The prospective buyers could get the value-added benefits and continue to exploit the coconut farmers. This is the opposite of inclusive growth.

Coconut scale insects: The farmers’ voice is stifled not only on macro issues like the coconut levy, but also on specific ones. An example is the Coconut Scale Insects (CSI) infestation that has caused so much suffering.

As early as 2012, the farmers had asked for a solution to this infestation. But their voice was stifled and decisive action was taken only last year. It is known that the CSI came from a Southeast Asian country that did not pass quarantine inspection.

On Sept. 30, an economic briefing was conducted with several cabinet officials present. During a plenary session, an Alyansa Agrikultura leader asked Robert Amores (Philfoodex president) whether he agreed with a recent trade facilitation measure. This was to no longer require inbound passengers to fill-out a form that would specify whether animals, plants, or food were being brought into the country. Lying on this form would mean stiff penalties.

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Given the CSI infestation, Amores said this form should be re-instated immediately. Even a foreign affairs undersecretary recommended the review of this measure. The farmers followed up this request with the Department of Agriculture and the Bureau of Customs. This proved to be fruitless and, once again, the farmers’ voice was stifled.

Last Saturday, I saw a Korean at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport bring in vegetables without knowing he had to report this because there was no form. This could have been another coco-lisap case.

At the March 18 Anti-smuggling and Trade Facilitation Committee meeting of the NCC, a senior BOC official rejected outright the farmers’ plea that this form be reinstated. For him, trade facilitation was the top priority. This is in spite of the fact that several countries like Korea and the United States still require this form.

General picture

The farmers’ voice is stifled on many other issues. On Feb. 10 to 11, 2011, 200 agricultural sector representatives met during an AF2025 Conference. They crafted a vision for Agriculture and Fisheries in 2025, with corresponding short and long term programs to achieve this vision.

Last December, 10 AF2025 leaders (four of whom are Secretaries from three different administrations) met to express their disappointment because of the inaction taken since the AF2025 Conference. They have requested meetings with top government officials to follow-up on key AF2025 recommendations to achieve inclusive growth.

LandBank president Gilda Pico responded within three days to the AF2025 leaders’ request. Unfortunately, other officials have up to now not yet responded. This indicates that some still wish to stifle the farmers’ voice. Examples that cry for action are the need for agriculture roadmaps (DTI submitted 26 industry roadmaps to the Philippine Institute for Philippine Studies while DA has submitted none) and the establishment of management systems (an example is ISO 9000 which institutionalizes globally accepted management practices).

With only one year and three months left for this administration, the farmers’ voice should no longer be stifled but instead heard. Otherwise, there will be much rhetoric but little progress toward inclusive growth.

(The author is chair of Agriwatch, former Secretary for Presidential Flagship Programs and Projects, and former Undersecretary for Agriculture, Trade and Industry. For inquiries and suggestions, e-mail [email protected] or telefax (02) 8522112).

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TAGS: Agriculture, Business, column, ernesto m. ordonez, farmers’ voice, National Competitiveness Council
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