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No Free Lunch

Men and machines

In January 2012, the Labor Force Survey counted 12.190 million employed Filipino agricultural workers. In January 2019, there were only 8.847 million. Within that seven-year period, the number had gone down successively to 11.049 million in January 2015, and 10.034 million in January 2017. There was, in short, a steady decline in agricultural workers in the country over the past seven years or so. If you’ve heard it said that people don’t want to work in the farms anymore, there’s the clear proof.

It’s not because agriculture declined all through that time. The sector actually grew in those seven years at an average rate of 1.3 percent per year—and yet, the number of workers in the sector declined by 3.343 million. The bright side is that farmworkers have become more productive. Even as the number of workers actually declined by 27.4 percent, farm output grew 11.1 percent within that period. But the bad news is that rural workers are indeed turning away from agriculture in droves, putting to question the future of our farm sector, hence our ability to feed ourselves—unless we can replace the leaving workers with farm machines that could offset the dwindling labor.

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But wait—wasn’t the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) supposed to help farmers own the land that they tilled, so that they could more productively farm it, earn larger incomes for their families, lift themselves out of poverty, and encourage their children to sustain their farms? That was in fact the whole idea, but it seems that things didn’t quite work out that way—and there are many reasons why.

The most important, it seems to me, is that against expectations, owning their farmlands didn’t make it any easier to borrow money from the banks, after all. While the agrarian reform beneficiaries (ARBs) now had their farmlands as a bankable asset, banks refused to take them as loan collateral, again for various reasons, including fear of being “CARPed,” too if they accumulated too much land from loan defaults. And when they ended up holding farmlands from defaulting borrowers, they found the properties very hard to sell, as CARP all but killed rural land markets. There were many restrictions on land disposition by ARBs, while the only people who had the money to buy lands—the original landowners—could not legally buy them back (although that didn’t stop them). Without loans, farmers on their own couldn’t make their farms productive, found themselves constantly in need of cash, and pushed them into occupations that would assure them of some cash every day. That is, in fact, too common a story I am encountering in the countryside: An ARB leases off his land, buys a motorcycle with the proceeds, and chooses to work as a habal-habal or tricycle driver instead—and with him is lost another farmworker.

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Machines are indeed slowly but surely taking over our farms. They come in many forms: traditional four-wheel tractors or smaller hand tractors to till the land; “halimaw” combine harvesters that harvest and thresh palay in one operation; reapers that cut sugarcane stalks as they pass through the cane field; mechanical “grabbers” that load cut cane into trucks; and so on. The machines have created demand for a new kind of skill on the farms: that of operating these farm equipment. They have now also added a measure of “glamour” to farm jobs, I am told—and hence help keep those farmworkers from leaving.

But there’s a little problem: There still are not enough of them out there who can readily operate, run and fix the whole array of farm machines we’re now seeing. Apart from helping make farm machinery more accessible via duty-free importation, machinery rental pools to serve smallholder farms, and special equipment loan programs, government can also help with training programs on farm equipment operation and repair. These need not be as rigorous as the usual skills development courses of the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority, and can be easily rolled out in the countryside.

Are we finally at the doorstep of Philippine farm modernization? It’s beginning to feel like it. I just hope that government doesn’t blow it this time.

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TAGS: agriculture, CARP, Cielito F. Habito, No Free Lunch
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