Cultivating local economies
Where I grew up, “lokal” was a pejorative, used to describe something — or someone — of poor quality. Even today, a quick online search indicates that such usage persists, as when people describe a defective product as lokal or when trolls use it as an ad hominem. Such language is rooted in part on the view of the inferiority of the “local,” as opposed to the superiority of the “imported” or “foreign.” Although colonial mentality is too jejune an explanation, we can certainly implicate centuries of miseducation and symbolic violence that have found their way in our preferences of which food to eat or which clothes to wear.
Of course, there have also been counter-discourses that celebrate the local, as when people go to Baguio’s cozy restaurants in search of food that is “artisanal,” “organic,” “locally-sourced,” and “sustainably grown.” Still, these discourses have remained marginal, not mainstream: People might sing wonders of the pakó they bought in Quezon, but will mostly forage for vegetables in the supermarket.
By force of necessity, the pandemic is making us realize the value of the “local.” Locked down in their houses or condo units, people are trying to grow plants, bake their own pastries, sew their own face masks. Cut off from their personal supply chains, people are looking at what’s available in their barangays, and patronizing what’s being offered by people in their community.
The “new normal” is also encouraging some to participate in the local economy. Once forced out of competition by malls and large stores, local groceries and sari-sari stores are having a revival, with people opting for them out of convenience — and likely the fear of both the coronavirus and checkpoints. As Prof. Michael Tan observed the other week, improvised face masks (and shields) have also become part of the local merchandise.
These emergent practices can contribute to building local economies that have long been neglected in our country. As the agricultural scientists of the National Academy of Science and Technology rightfully asserted, we need local food systems that are “decentralized and de-industrialized” — not just to stave off a food crisis, but to improve people’s lives. Indeed, a robust local economy not only provides more income to people within the community, it also benefits both health and the environment: Local food tend to require less processing and preservation, and they do not require much fuel to move around.
However, to establish and sustain these practices, we need to move beyond “ayuda” and build an enabling environment for people to pursue safe, profitable, and dignified livelihoods. First of all, we need to urgently support local farmers and fishers, many of whom will need capital and technical assistance to cater to local—as opposed to cosmopolitan — needs.
SMEs need help, too: While some have thrived during the pandemic, many others — with no cash flow and little capital — have suffered, with new or proposed guidelines that place the burden of protective measures on them threatening to sink them further.
Enabling internet access is also an important step in allowing people to participate in emergent “local virtual worlds.” Some farmers who have social media connections have seen their produce sell out in hours, but everyone should have the same opportunity.
Promoting — and practicing — active transport is another step: Studies show that bikeable and walkable communities attract people, as opposed to one-stop shops like malls. The IATF’s statements supporting active transport are most welcome, but bike lanes and sidewalks will speak louder than words. As with the pandemic response, LGUs are key to the success of any of the above initiatives. For our part, we should maintain the (newfound) importance we have placed on local products, practices, and relationships. As I have argued in a previous column, root crops like ube and kamote can reduce our dependence on rice if we reclaim them as part of our daily diet.
Of course, it goes without saying that we should not shun goods from elsewhere. The point of this piece is that we have long neglected the local, and it will be no small consolation if the pandemic will lead us to correct this mistake. Cultivating local economies will not only make us more resilient for crises present and future; it will also protect us from the slow-moving disaster wrought by an unfair economic system that has long excluded many Filipinos from reaping its fruits.
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