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No Free Lunch

Farm-to-pocket roads

/ 04:05 AM November 26, 2019

In a visit to an upland village in Sarangani province years ago, I heard a simple request from the village leader: Could the government possibly provide them horses to transport their farm produce down the mountain to the town market? Their only link to the main road below was several kilometers of a tortuous dirt road, so bad that our van was almost a wreck after that visit. Their situation had put them at the mercy of opportunist traders who would offer them a price for their produce much lower than what they could otherwise obtain elsewhere. But with the nearly impassable road and no way to bring the products to the market themselves, they had no choice.

As a BS Agriculture student at the University of the Philippines Los Baños decades ago, I remember that the same age-old problem was prominent in our agricultural marketing course: lack of direct access by small farmers to the markets. The solution prescribed, then and now, has been the same: more farm-to-market roads. One would think that after decades of seeing this problem keep small farmers’ incomes low even as the agricultural traders and processors got ever richer, this would have been overcome by now.

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Year after year, we hear promises to build more farm-to-market roads from politicians and government policymakers, and official records would show thousands of kilometers of such roads having been built through all those years. Yet one gets the sense that we’ve hardly made a dent on the problem. Small farmers in the Philippines remain the poorest in our society, unable to bring their produce where it may fetch the best price.

Over many years, we’ve heard reports and stories of allocations for farm-to-market roads leading to the pockets of public officials. Even lawmakers from Metro Manila at one time managed to use their pork barrel funds to finance imagined farm-to-market roads. A past mayor of my town was accused of diverting funds allocated for a farm-to-market road to the concrete paving of the road leading to his own house. Still in other cases, the funds are diverted to anything but a road.

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Little wonder that a wide shortage for these facilities persists, after decades of supposedly building many such roads. Many were built merely on paper. One such road in the north was joked to be the “longest” in the country, because funds for it had been repeatedly allocated for many years, and yet in reality, it never got completed.

Still, I believe that local government units (LGUs) should administer all funds meant for farm-to-market roads, and other rural infrastructure facilities. It is they who would best know where these roads are most needed, not Department of Public Works and Highways or Department of Agriculture officials in Manila, nor the regional officials of these departments in the regional centers.

But there’s an important caveat: The public must know how much money the LGUs are getting for building farm-to-market roads. The Department of Budget and Management must make the information available and accessible to all, especially the residents of the localities involved. That way, citizens’ groups can exercise vigilance and ensure that such funds are not misused. And when such diversions do happen and are exposed, accountability of erring public officials must be asserted, and lead to proper punishment. Until and unless these could be assured, we could be better off holding back on funding such roads, but provide remote farming communities with horses and zip lines instead to move their produce—and actually meet their needs much more cheaply.

When I first visited Malaysia to attend a conference in the 1980s, participants were brought outside Kuala Lumpur to meet “typical Malaysian farmers.” We randomly asked one farmer what his biggest challenge was, and were aghast to hear his reply: His car was already over five years old and needed to be replaced. It made me wonder then how long it would take before the main problem of the small Filipino farmer would be replacing his six-year-old car.

Three decades after that unforgettable field visit in Malaysia, our upland farmers are still dreaming of having access to even just a horse.

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TAGS: agricultural marketing, Cielito F. Habito, farm-to-pocket roads agriculture, No Free Lunch
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