Trapped in debt
The torrential rains and relentless winds of Typhoon “Lando” mowed down some P8.6 billion worth of agricultural crops and livestock, and pulled farmers ever deeper in the debt hole in which they have been trapped for as long as they can remember.
The most destructive typhoon to slam into the Philippines this year magnified the vicious cycle of debt that has kept farmers in dire straits, constantly in a losing battle with natural calamities, greedy loan sharks and apathetic government agencies.
According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, while agriculture provided a 32-percent share in total employment in 2012, its share of the economy was only 11 percent. Along with fishers, farmers have always had the highest poverty incidence among the basic sectors, figures from the National Statistical Coordination Board indicated. Despite the country’s vaunted economic surge—7.2 percent GDP growth in 2013—the farming sector is still being left behind.
Admittedly, the 20 or so devastating typhoons that yearly come the Philippines’ way play a part in the farmers’ hard lot, with the Food and Agriculture Organization reporting that by the end of 2011, over 600,000 tons of milled rice had been lost due to these weather disturbances that also destroyed some 6 percent of the farmlands. But it is government neglect that keeps the yoke firmly around the farmer’s neck. The agriculture sector remains sorely ignored, except as a milking cow for greedy politicians and operators for whom the confusing layers of bureaucracy in the Department of Agriculture’s multiple attached agencies have become convenient for hiding their thievery.
Who can forget then Agriculture Undersecretary Joc-joc Bolante’s P728-million fertilizer fund scam, the anomalous rice importation, the watered-down land reform program, the billion-peso coconut levy fund that remains out of the farmers’ reach, and the infamous scam in which lawmakers’ pork barrel were cleverly diverted to spurious nongovernment organizations mostly disguised as agriculture-oriented? Doubtless, these crooks consider farmers as meek as their beasts of burden, sufficiently unlettered as to be easily conned, or perhaps desperate enough to sell their signature on a piece of paper for the promise of meager farm inputs.
The situation is particularly galling because it smacks of a patronizing attitude toward farmers, as in the case of Sen. Jinggoy Estrada, who is detained on charges of graft and plunder for allegedly allowing his pork barrel to go to bogus agriculture NGOs run by Janet Napoles. A special audit report uncovered the nondelivery of farm inputs and implements, falsified certifications for equipment, grossly overpriced and undelivered products, and signatories that could not be verified. Such brazen misdeeds perpetrated in the farmers’ name!
After Lando, with their potential earnings underwater, along with their initial investments for seeds, fertilizer, irrigation and use of farm implements, farmers are forced to turn to loan sharks who charge interest of as much as 25 percent a month. With no savings or collateral for bank loans, farmers deem these money lenders their only recourse. According to the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, 604 of the country’s 1,600 cities and towns do not have a bank, denying many residents—especially farmers—access to formal credit.
With no government agency to regulate their operations, the shadow bankers do a flourishing business with farmers, some of whose relatives are forced to surrender their ATM cards to ensure payment.
“The loan sharks only have to deal with delayed payments; they will get their money. But us farmers are condemned to die in debt,” a 37-year-old farmer and father of three told Agence France-Presse.
With their crops and earnings gone, and the prospect of more debts hanging over their heads, most farmers find themselves unable to send their children to school. Most of the children drop out, anyway, to help their family in farm work. And so begins the next generation of impoverished farmers strapped to their fields.
Yet there is much that the government can do to free farmers from this debt trap. For starters, it can provide better access to credit and farm inputs, agriculture training, land ownership, farm-to-market roads, or technical assistance on crop diversification and cooperatives. But isn’t that what the Department of Agriculture is all about?
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