Boosting our farm co-ops
The biggest challenge in Philippine agriculture could well be the highly fragmented structure of our farms. Recently, I wrote of how nearly 9 out of 10 farms are under 3 hectares, and those less than a hectare account for the majority (57 percent). The 2012 Census of Agriculture counted 5.56 million farmholdings spanning 7.19 million hectares, averaging a mere 1.29 hectares each.
In a recent dialogue between officers of the Coalition for Agriculture Modernization in the Philippines (CAMP) and Department of Agriculture (DA) Secretary William Dar, CAMP chair Dr. Emil Javier suggested ways on how we can best help farmers under a fragmented farm structure. Javier, a National Scientist who was also former science minister and University of the Philippines president, highlighted the crucial role of farm cooperatives, as already well demonstrated in our more successful neighbors. Even as cooperativism is alive and well in the country, only 1,315 of our 18,065 operating co-ops in 2018 were agriculture or agrarian reform co-ops. In contrast, Vietnam has more than 10,000, while the latest data I could find for Thailand counted 6,712 farm co-ops in 2006. While small farms are also dominant in these two neighbors, they have been far better organized and collectivized, likely explaining why their farm sectors perform far better than ours.
There was a time when we actually taught our now more successful neighbors how to run farm co-ops. The former Agricultural Credit and Cooperative Institute (ACCI) in UP Los Baños, now known as the Institute of Cooperatives and Bio-Enterprise Development (Icoped), was established out of a felt need for such an institution expressed in 1956 by delegates from Cambodia, China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines. In the heyday of our Farmers’ Cooperative Marketing Associations or Facomas in the 1960s—still nostalgically remembered by Dr. Javier and agriculturists of his generation—trainees from Korea, Thailand, and other neighbors came to ACCI to seek mentoring on running successful farm co-ops.
Now, over five decades later, our farmers’ cooperatives are struggling, and success stories are few and far between. They have taken on different forms over the decades, from the Facomas of the 1950s and ’60s, the short-lived Marcos-era Samahang Nayon of the ’70s, agrarian reform beneficiaries’ groups in the late ’80s, irrigators’ associations in the ’90s and onwards, and most recently, sugarcane block farms. The general picture is one where Philippine farm co-ops have largely failed.
But CAMP believes that our neighbors’ success in harnessing farm co-ops for agricultural development shows that they continue to be a viable instrument for getting Philippine agriculture moving in step with our neighbors. The only way our agricultural sector can raise productivity to meet our rapidly growing population’s food needs is for them to group together in larger farming units to achieve economies of scale. And the only way government can ever be effective in helping small Filipino farmers is not to have to deal individually with 5.56 million farmers, but with groups of them organized into co-ops and other forms of farm clusters or collectives. And that, Dr. Javier told Secretary Dar, is why we must not give up on farm cooperatives.
Why have Filipino farm co-ops been relatively weak? I noted that time and again, cooperatives have fallen flat with weak leadership, and this is most often the reason most of our farm co-ops are short-lived. Conversely, successful co-ops are those with strong and competent leaders. A neglected public investment we need to boost is for a much stronger cooperatives leadership training system, particularly focused on farm co-op leaders. The National Association of Training Centers for Cooperatives has been very helpful, but the DA must also put in money to achieve a more encompassing and sustained public-private partnership for cooperatives leadership development, well beyond what UPLB-Icoped can currently handle.
South Korea’s system of Saemaul Undong training institutes may hold useful lessons on approach and methods. Maybe it’s time we learned something from them in return.
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