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Presidential debate, rural poverty and agriculture

Thanks to the Commission on Elections, the Philippine Daily Inquirer and GMA 7, I was able to attend the presidential debate last Feb 21. All the candidates made the crucial link between rural poverty and agriculture. However, because of the debate’s time constraints, the seriousness of this problem and the corresponding recommendations were not discussed in-depth.

There is valuable information on this topic contained in a four-page agriculture overview submitted to the presidentiables last week. This overview was formulated with the help of Emil Javier and Ben Pecson from the University of the Philippines in Los Baños, and Rolando Dy from the University of the Asia and the Pacific. With minor modifications, it was approved by five agriculture coalitions. These coalitions united for the first time because they are concerned that agriculture might not be addressed effectively in the next administration.

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They represent the major stakeholders in agriculture: Alyansa Agrikultura (farmers and fisherfolk), Philippine Chamber of Agriculture and Food (PCAFI), Coalition for Agriculture Modernization in the Philippines (academe and science), Pambansang Koalisyon ng mga Kababaihan sa Kanayunan (rural women), and Agriculture Fisheries 2025 (agriculture stakeholder leaders).

I consolidated relevant data from the Food and Agriculture Organization, World Bank and World Trade Organization into one table.

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Our rural poverty is 2.4 times Vietnam’s, 2.9 times Thailand’s and Indonesia’s, and 5 times Malaysia’s.

The presidentiables must address this glaring problem. But how?

Application to coconut

Let us apply the insights from this table to our coconut farmers, who constitute both the largest and the poorest land-based sector. Compared to our Asean neighbors, farm land productivity is very low for our 3 million coconut hectares. Two million hectares are largely idle because there is no intercropping between the trees.

At the debate, a presidentiable recommended pursuing coconut replanting and promoting value-adding products like coconut coir and coconut milk. This is definitely correct.

Perhaps because of lack of time, intercropping was not mentioned. However, intercropping products like coffee or cacao multiplies by 5 times the meager P20,000 average annual income per hectare a  coconut farmer gets.

At the presidential debate, it was also correctly stated that the annual interest from the coco levy fund should be used for the coconut farmers.

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But even assuming a 5 percent interest income from this fund of P72 billion, this amounts to only P3.5 billion a year.

As an addition to this income, the five coalitions submitted to the presidentiables a key recommendation on credit access.

The Land Bank 2014 Annual Report states that only 9 percent of its P386 billion loanable fund went to its mandated sector of small farmers and fisherfolk. Using only 5 percent of this fund for coconut farmers will provide an additional resource of P19.3 billion, or more than 5 times the coconut levy interest.

Aside from land productivity, the table shows that exports can significantly reduce rural poverty. Our exports are only 20 percent of Malaysia’s and Vietnam’s, and 15 percent of Thailand’s and Indonesia’s. Since exports mean more jobs, the presidentiables must likewise address this.

Unnecessary importation

What is worse is that we are importing when it is unnecessary. Instead of generating jobs and incomes from producing our own products, we easily give these away to our neighbors who have much less poverty!

For example, we import more than 80 percent of both our coffee and cacao. We should instead be intercropping these to increase coconut land productivity, increase jobs, improve incomes and decrease rural poverty.

While our presidentiables should undertake a reinvigorated agriculture export program, they should also identify imported products we can effectively produce ourselves, and even export.

Agriculture is indeed the key to solving rural poverty. Unfortunately, the Feb. 21 debate did not allow the presidentiables the time to thoroughly discuss their agriculture programs.

It is hoped that in the next three months, the presidentiables will find an opportunity to do this. The majority of the voters, who live in rural areas where poverty is rampant, eagerly await this event.

In the meantime, the five agriculture coalitions will hold a joint press conference on the recent presidential debate at 10 a.m. on Feb. 24 at Aristocrat Restaurant, Jupiter Street, Makati.

They will identify the six priority areas that the presidentiables should address, but may not have had the time to discuss last Feb. 21.

(The author is Chair of Agriwatch, former Undersecretary for Agriculture, Trade and Industry. For inquiries and suggestions, email [email protected] or telefax (02) 8522112).

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