Rural Development

Agrarian reform advocacy based on research

Had Bel not phoned me this late morning, I would not have known about and attended two important events today.

The first one was about the meeting of research institutions concerned about agrarian reform and rural development. I think it was the second time they gathered and took up next actions in support of the National Rural Congress slated to be held in first quarter of 2008. They gathered because the Roman Catholic leaders believe (which the civil society shares) that convincing the public and the policy makers about our advocacies takes bombarding them with information based on academic and institutional researches. The CBCP has offered to help out these research institutions propagate their studies by putting up a website that hosts bibliographies, documents or links to research documents.

There was a lot of known civil society-associated research institutions present, with the likes of the ASI (the host of the meeting), IPC, ICSI, Ibon, and UP-SOLAIR-Agrarian Reform Team. The other groups are NGOs that have their respective research units, with the likes of PARRDS, PARFUND, PDI, and PEACE. The meeting was chaired by Abp. Tony Ledesma. He asked each one to share something about its or his/her agrarian reform and rural development-related research materials which may be useful.

I wasn’t able to attend the previous meeting. So I was lucky to attend this one because my organization–PEACE Foundation–had to be heard about by the other institutions. I shared with them that PEACE has published “Agrarian Notes” that are most often case studies of agrarian reform issues as they are felt at the ground. Abp. Tony Ledesma affirmed the need to collect case studies as a type of research.

Three personalities were present as well–UP Professor Rene Ofreneo, former DA Secretary Leonie Montemayor, and former COMELEC Chair Christian Monsod. Each had his own way of suggesting things. Dr. Ofreneo was the most critical, saying that he and his colleagues in UP Agrarian Reform Team are closely monitoring the effects of globalization on agriculture, citing as an example the ever controversial agri-business deals of Phil. government with China. Sec. Montemayor was more exploring and emphatic of good things. He wanted studies that shed light on, for example, the effects of micro-financing to farmers. He also stressed the need to research on and publish success stories of agrarian reform and rural development. (I think he raised that as soon as he heard the lady from Ibon Foundation about its plan to come up with a primer this yearend, which aims to highlight the negative side of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program [CARP].)

Commissioner Monsod was more practical and emphatic of what’s already existing. He suggested that the research studies commissioned or collected by the relevant agencies must be tapped into and shared with the website that is going to be put up by CBCP Media Office. He also stressed the value of the website in that it will shed light on policy issues like the farmland collateralization that is being peddled by Pres. Gloria Arroyo. Without batting an eyelash, he emphasized that collateralizing a farmer’s farmland to access credit is good. With three conditions: a) there should be National Land and Water Use Law, b) progressive taxation in lands must be institutionalized, and c) the land redistribution component of CARP is finished. When I chatted with him after the meeting, I said that the fourth important precondition for farmland collateralization is the farmers’ empowerment to decide after weighing options.

More research institutions will be tapped to partake in the advocacy endeavor. In fact, there will be a symposium in October (?) to be held by them together with the CBCP about rural poverty issues. It will also be a venue for them to inform the public about the coming-together.

The meeting ended at past 5. Bel and I went out of the ASI together. We were caught in a bad traffic in Taft Ave. After spending time to decide what to do, I suggested that we take the LRT and then MRT en route to a place in Kamias where the next meeting is going to be held. She concurred. So we battled ‘human traffic’ to get to the trains and out.

The meeting, which was a preparation for the Bishops-Peasants Forum the next day, was supposed to start at 6. But Bel and I only managed to arrive at the venue at around 7. Also, other participants (from TFM) had to be awaited before the meeting could start.

As expected, that meeting started late and ended late in the evening. But everyone was happy about the results, which should have made the participants excited for the meetup with the Bishops the next day.

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Will the biofuels craze level the playing field?

The Land Bank of the Philippines (LBP) has recently opened a P10-billion credit window to whoever is interested in planting fuel crops, in particular jatropha. The Manila Bulletin Online’s report on this at first implies that the window is available merely to farmer-cooperatives. But reading through it, I found that the loan is up for grabs by any person or group of persons: farmer groups, cooperatives, small and medium enterprises (SMEs), corporations, and “such other individuals/entities which have signified to undertake the production of jatropha.”

Apparently, the LBP took the cue from the Office of the President and was convinced by the Philippine National Oil Company-Alternative Fuels Corporation (PNOC-AFC) to invest in such kind of undertakings. But with LBP’s stringent requirements when it comes to loans, the question remains: Will the small farmers get enough?

The proliferation of biofuel plantations nationwide has been touted to create 250,000 new jobs nationwide. I just wonder if that means farmers have to give up their lands (or the lands they’ve been struggling to own) and instead provide labor services to entrepreneurs and corporations. Actually, this has already happened (through leaseback, joint venture, and other types of agreements with “former” landlords) even way before the biofuels craze took the centerstage.

If the jatropha and other types of renewable sources of fuel will be used to care for the environment (which is actually subject to debate) and help urban motorists save on fuel expense, but, at the same time, it will further marginalize the small farmers, then, that biofuels craze must be opposed by all means. For the small farmers cannot afford to sacrifice more in the name of supposed national development and environmental integrity.

I’m afraid that because of the official target or requirement to produce enough biofuels, more and more small farmers will lose their hold on their lands or their hopes to own the lands they’ve been tilling. Of course, one way to at least minimize this impact is through organizing. My organization and its partners will not stop working with our constituents in asserting their rights, which the State is obliged to fulfill, respect, and protect.

About Jatropha
Jatropha, commonly known as physic or purging nut, is a non-edible oil-yielding perennial shrub that has green leaves with a length and width of 6 centimeters (cm) to 15 cm, and can reach a height of up to 5 meters. It originated in tropical America and West Asia. Jatropha comes from the Greek words: jatros (doctor) and trophe (nutrition). It belongs to the family Euphorbiaceae. It is known locally as tuba-tuba. Others call it tubang bakod, tagumbao, tawa-tawa, kalunay, kasla and tangan-tangan.

According to studies, jatropha, which can grow almost anywhere (even on gravely or rocky soil), is a great alternative to petroleum fuel, which has unstable supply worldwide and contributes to the global warming. A jatropha nut contains 30% oil. Three kilos of Jatropha seeds can produce a liter of crude Jatropha oil. A Jatropha farmer can earn P200,000 per hectare year from the processing and sale of Jatropha nuts.

It is no less than Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo who has led the campaign for jatropha. She has ordered the military (no direct connection to its peace-keeping or war efforts) to speed up the propagation of jatropha seedlings in the military camps for nationwide distribution. The campaign started from the passage of the Biofuels Act of 2006, which requires a one-percent blend of locally produced biodiesel in total volume of diesel fuel sold nationwide. (In 2009, the one-percent requirement will increase to two percent.) To meet this requirement, the country needs to produce 78 milion liters of biodiesel oil annually. Jatropha is just one of the crops that are identified to contribute to that target, the other being sugarcane, corn, sorghum, and the like.

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Department of Agriculture’s image getting worse

In March last year, the Philippine Senate made public its conclusion that the Department of Agriculture (DA) had actually mismanaged the P728-million fund supposedly as fertilizer support for farmers. The Senate probe into the actual use of the fund was prompted by the claim that the fund was actually used for the campaign of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in her Presidential bid in 2004.

The Department was also embroiled in the misuse of the recovered Marcos ill-gotten wealth amounting to P544-million. The fund was supposed to be used in the procurement of hybrid rice seeds and their distribution to qualified farmer-beneficiaries. However, based on a study, which the Senate confirmed, part of the fund was actually released to DA’s regional units to give to local officials to ensure their support for Arroyo’s electoral campaign. The DA could not produce the list of farmer-beneficiaries that were supposed to receive the hybrid seeds.

Now, the DA is in the crosshairs again. The Commission on Audit (COA) found that it misused a P2-million fund that was supposed to be used as emergency livelihood funds for farmers. According to the report by inquirer.net:

In its 2006 audit report on the DA, the COA declared that the various expenses spent by the management in the total of P2,099,196.66, supposedly earmarked for the Support for Emergency Livelihood Assistance Program (SELAP), were not “legitimate expenditures” of the program.

These expenses were payment for oil and fuel consumption of all office vehicles, office renovation, procurement of tires, television sets, and office curtains, the report enumerated.

Based on the SELAP guidelines, the funds have been allotted for farm-to-market roads, post-harvest facilities, irrigation and livelihood projects and rural infrastructure projects.

The COA report then argues that “in effect, funds intended for rural infrastructure projects were not utilized in accordance with the purpose, thus, depriving the rural folks of availing the benefits for their socio-economic upliftment.”

COA also revealed that several officers in four regional field units (II, IV, XI, XIII) used the DA funds to buy more than one mobile phone (some of which were “sophisticated”), thus, violating the COA order as well as defying Secretary Yap’s order limiting the provision of cellphones and prepaid cards to division chiefs only. Fund used to buy these mobile phones (202 all in all) amounted to over P2-million.

I wonder if the COA report is just a prelude to a wave of exposes on the DA, in the wake of its controversial farm deals with China. This is not definitely good for DA, which has been considered by the business community as one of the government agencies with bad reputation for corruption.

Some Congresspersons, as Negros Occidental 1st District Rep. Iggy Arroyo has claimed, want DAR’s beneficiary development functions transferred to the DA. They’re asking for more troubles. They should set aside that idea until the DA has been cleansed of corruption.

Wanted: ‘Rural poor’ journalists

This year’s Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communications goes to Mr. Palagummi Sainath, an Indian reporter in his early 50s so honored for his 14-year devotion to covering stories of India’s rural poor amidst and despite the “corporatization” of mass media.

I was amazed by his profile. Like Jesus Christ led by the Spirit into the wilderness and tempted by the devil for 40 days, Jesuits-educated Sainath manages to live in the rural areas of India for about 300 days a year and produce journalistic stories that highlight the struggles of the rural poor as well as ironies in the countryside arising from the globalization that has hounded the country.

With his flair and commitment, Sainath warded off the temptations by the corporate media. He chose not to raise funds from government and other entities with vested interests and instead use his income from writing to continue writing for and about the rural poor.

Sainath could be characterized as the product of the souls and minds of Gandhi, Nehru, Thomas Paine, and Jesus Christ. Their common traits are dissidence, sacrifice, and perseverance. They would rather not conform to the realities that perpetuate inequality and inequity; they would go out on a limb and attempt to change them. To do it, they would stick it out even though it means putting their lives at risk.

I would consider Sainath as a leader then. Because leaders have been there before us; they blazed the trail for us to follow. They have the moral high ground. They do inspire. They do galvanize actions. Sainath deserves to be an icon for journalists who want to be identified with the poor. His exemplary life must prick the conscience of those who have hopelessly bowed to the corporate interests.

Karl Marx said that “philosophers have interpreted the world; the point is to change it.” Noam Chomsky interpreted the evils of the corporate media. Sainath has worked to fight those. Mainstream journalists would believe that there is something wrong in society but do not have guts and wherewithal to right that wrong. Sainath is one of the few that struggle righting that wrong.

Thanks to Yvonne Chua for covering Sainath. A progressive journalist herself, she did justice in describing a foreign journalist that must stir, if not revive, a discourse in the Philippine journalism: Has Philippine journalism become not of the masses but of “the stakeholders”, to quote Sainath’s words?

Sainath is here to pose a challenge to the progressive journalists in underdeveloped and developing countries, whether they are in the mainstream or in “indiestream”: In this globalized world, can we become journalists of the rural poor? Bloggers are no exempted from this challenge. I am not, either. This blog of mine runs a pot pourri of social and political topics, but admittedly, I post a very few entries about the rural poor struggles and rural ironies. I have blogged about the difficulties faced by peasants before the opponents of land reform but I feel that it is not enough. I feel that I need to be infused with some blood of Sainath to be able to draw a more realistic picture of the rural realities.

To try to bring rural poor struggles in the front pages, engaging the mainstream media through feedbacks (through letters to the editor) and “working” with them (through media briefings, press conferences and press releases) is not enough. The greater challenge is how to produce and maintain “Sainathans” in this nation of ironies. Nevertheless, I’m beginning to sound optimistic as Sainath. Who knows, if we, social activists, continue to be dissident, selfless, and persevering, chances are journalists of the rural poor will be born in our midst.

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DA’s aid for super-typhoons-affected farmers, why (only) now?

The inquirer.net reports that the DA is going to launch a P100-M intercropping program for more than 100,000 farmers affected by the super typhoons that swept their farms (mainly coconut) late last year.

To be carried out in the provinces of Quezon, Oriental Mindoro, Albay, Camarines Norte, Camarines Sur, Catanduanes and Sorsogon, the program aims to turn the situation around for coconut farmlands turned idle after being ravaged by Reming and Milenyo. How? This is by distributing to the identified beneficiaries planting materials consisting of open pollinated white or yellow corn variety and complementary fertilizers like microbial inoculants. The beneficiaries will then have the opportunity to earn income (through corn planting) while they are still in the process of rehabilitating the coconut farming.

The program is considered pro-environment as it enhances the coconut lands’ soil fertility by tapping more nutrients from the ground instead of relying largely on chemical fertilizers.

I must say that this move by the DA is a welcome development. It’s high time. I cannot, however, fight off my smelling something fishy in that initiative.

Why (only) now? Why did it take barely seven months for the agency to think of that strategy? (I’m not even asking things like ‘what did the DA do in immediate response to the calamities?’). Hmmm, thinking of RP-China agreement. And you have the DA Secretary being once again hit for this controversial move (there were already four full-page paid-ad statements published against him). With millions of farmers not yet benefiting, (funding for) CARP is about to end next year, so government must be conditioning farmers about its possible ‘alternative’ to it.

It’s worth monitoring the implementation of this aid program. I’m pretty curious about the suppliers of the corn seeds as well as the program’s implementors and beneficiaries. I’m more concerned about the latter–on who will actually benefit. The government cannot afford to repeat the anomalous GMA Rice program and the fertilizer scam of early last year.

My organization has provided services in three provinces covered by the program. We’ll definitely find out and reveal how it would fare in real terms.

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A totally different world called SEED

The past three days ferried me to a new world called Socio-Economic Enterprise Development (SEED).

On May 29, PEACE sponsored a roundtable discussion on local economy and micro-finance, a kind of forum that it has not sponsored in decades. Participants, a half of whom were community organizers, were pretty confused with concepts that the resource persons talked about. Apart from the two themes of the RTD, terms like Grameen, MABS, ASA, micro-enterprise, and the like, were alien to them. I’m glad that at the end of the RTD, they appreciated the fact that as agrarian reform beneficiaries are also ‘economic’ beings, not just political ones, they deserve economic services from PEACE, too. The proposal was for PEACE to engage in microfinance work, including extending agricultural credit.

On May 30 till 31, we conducted SEED Conference at Los Banos, Laguna. At the conference, the participants united on the institution’s SEED framework, from which a medium-term indicative plan was drawn up. In general, the discourse revolved around the implications of SEED emphasis on the political lives of the ARBs, particularly those still in the process of struggle for land. At the end of the discourse, which was passionate in most cases, there was unity that:

  1. SEED should be part of the consciousness of the community organizers even at the start of their organizing work, or even when the ARBs are just starting their struggle for land.
  2. The transformation of POs into cooperatives or creation of separate organizations called cooperatives should not be done mechanically. The POs must be left to decide, given the options made available to them.
  3. There is a need to reorient the field staff so that land-transfer work is balanced with land-productivity endeavor.

The Board’s special meeting on June 1 punctuated the Conference’s resolve.

Overall, my attitude toward the SEED-focused discussions was that it’s fun to learn the agricultural development jargon and it’s a necessity to address post-land transfer needs of the ARBs at the outset of their struggle for land.

I also thought that COs and office staff are economic beings too. Because they lost the opportunity to engage in economic endeavor for their personal and family needs, there needs to be sufficient compensation package available to them. Likewise, the idea of a cooperative for PEACE’s stakeholders must be revived.

Womango

During the discussion on mango situation in particular provinces last May 16, I was made curious about a Mindanaoan woman farmer who joined the discussion.

That farmer was Susan Austria from Brgy. San Roque, Sta. Maria, Davao del Sur. An agrarian reform beneficiary, Susan grows 50 mango trees in a half hectare of land that she and husband own under one Certificate of Land Ownership Award. In addition, the couple tends to six mango trees in their backyard.

Her status as an ARB is due to Sta. Maria farmers' struggle more than a decade ago. Her farm is part of the 146 hectares previously owned by Danding Cojuangco through his corporation called Cojuangco Investments, Inc. (CII). (Cojuangco owns massive agricultural lands in various parts of Sta. Maria).

Struggling against the Goliath
Starting in early 90s, Cojuangco has been wont to converting the originally coconut-planted Sta. Maria landholding into various others crops. And he has been able to pull strings to evade having his landholdings placed under agrarian reform.

In 1993, he decided to convert the landholding into a mango plantation. That brought the Sta. Maria's farmers to the new height of their struggle. During that year, they were forced to get out of their farms and move to the nearby lands.

That painful experience gave birth to their resolve to fight, which translated first and foremost with the formation of an association called San Roque Agrarian Beneficiaries Association (SAROCABA). The 85-strong association, according to Susan, fought like David against Goliath in the person of Cojuangco, who aside from organizational and financial power, wields political power that manifests down to the level of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) provincial office. "The DAR's legal advice to us was that we accept the negotiation terms of the Cojuangcos, one of which is that the each farmer take a half-hectare as his/her own and give a half-hectare to the landowner under the joint venture scheme. Under the joint venture scheme, the farmers are paid an exact amount of money per year (that's P5,000 per farmer per semester in the case of San Roque) whether the plantation earns or not.

Susan, 42, and husband are blessed with two children, one of whom does not want to follow in the footsteps of his parents.

At present, the joint venture agreement is being pushed by SAROCABA for revocation, so that the each half-hectare will be given to the beneficiaries.

Struggling with low income

Before the Chinese technology-enhanced farming was introduced to her household, Susan had to make do with the nil to measly income from mango production, depending on the weather conditions during the cropping season.

Susan claims that she earns a maximum gross income of P120,000 from 50 trees per on-season. But that maximum rarely takes place as she earns an average of P28,000, on or off-season.

Considering her production-related expenses, one wonders how Susan's family makes do with their situation. The expenses include cultar (P5,600 per liter), calcium nitrate (P1,150 per sack), amistar (P5,000 per liter), fungicide (P840 per kilogram), labor cost (P150/day for 5 persons), and bagging material (P50/kilo at 15 kilos)

The high cost of production is the main source of headache for Susan. It could have been higher had she and her husband not directly been involved in the production. Susan is proud to say that she is handling the sprayer machine operator while her husband does the spraying on tall mango trees.

Susan's family cannot escape from tyranny of the market influenced by big mango industry players. As a small mango grower, she cannot dictate the farmgate price for her harvest. The highest she can get is P27 per kilo and the lowest is P18.

Hopes

Susan's hopes were rekindled by the training she underwent regarding the Chinese technology. She realized that pruning and grafting are important aspects of the mango production so that much more may be harvested. She also realized the benefit of using the Chinese bagging material to produce more quality fruits.

According to Susan, she was able to adopt the new technology on her six backyard mango trees. She was able to harvest 275 kilograms of quality mangoes (no blemish, relatively bigger, sweeter smell) at farmgate price of P25 per kilogram.

If her family holds on to the new technology, their average gross income from mangoes would be more than double. This is not to mention the possibility for greater income if she engages in enterprises meant to make the most of her mango yield, like mango fruit-drying and organic bagging material production.

Mango sounds masculine. In fact, there was an observation that most mango growers are men. So the tribe of Susan need to increase, for the mango industry to really develop to its fullest.