Faith in the farmer and fisher

“We should treat our farmers like our parents, because they are the ones who feed us.” This is a statement not of a politician but of a young woman who is, admittedly, the daughter of a politician.

But Frankie Pangilinan, daughter of senatorial candidate Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan and Sharon Cuneta, may have imbibed the spirit of her father’s years-long advocacy in behalf of farmers and fishers. It is, in fact, Pangilinan’s championing of the agricultural sector that anchors his campaign for the Senate, based in large part on his experience as Presidential Assistant for Food Security and Agricultural Modernization, overseeing vital offices of the agricultural sector.

His first bill to be filed once he reenters the Senate (not “if” because he currently tops the voters’ preference list), Pangilinan told the audience at yesterday’s “Bulong Pulungan sa Sofitel,” would be “Sagip Saka” or “save the farmer” bill.

Otherwise known as the Farmer Entrepreneurship and Development Act, the measure would “push for farmer entrepreneurship and development that will help farmers move away from subsistence farming into viable farm enterprises and creating more jobs.”

The Philippines has always been an agricultural economy, and farming and fishing have always been the most common occupation of the majority of Filipinos. But you wouldn’t guess it, says the senatorial aspirant, judging from our cultural mindset, that farming and fishing are lowly, insignificant occupations. “What do we tell a child who’s lazy and refuses to study?” he asked. “Magtanim ka na lang ng kamote. (Just plant yams.) How do we describe a loser in life? Pinulot sa kangkungan (Plucked from a muddy field.) And how do Filipinos describe the lowliest of the low? “Hampas lupa.” (Someone who works the soil.)

Such expressions, he says, indicate the disdain with which many Filipinos, including those engaged in farming themselves, behold people who work with the earth and the seas, whose backbreaking labor produces the food that keeps us alive.

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“We have to recognize our farmers as worthy of respect,” says Pangilinan. “Only then will we be able to break the cycle of poverty and move forward as a nation.”

Although poverty incidence in the country “is the lowest it’s ever been since 2006,” he says, “poverty is still, by and large, a rural phenomenon where agriculture is the primary (and sometimes sole) source of income.”

To change this reality, Pangilinan bats for even greater government intervention and incentives, which he describes as “hand holding,” to get the agricultural sector back on its feet and moving away from the “isang kahig, isang tuka (one scratch, one peck or subsistence) mentality.

“Our farmers earn a measly P23,000 a year… less than P2,000 a month. Our fisherfolk earn even less. If a family needs P6,365 for their basic food needs, our farmers need at least P4,000 more to be able to address their basic needs. We must give agricultural services a priority and [the farmers and the fisherfolk] benchmark incomes.”

We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Pangilinan cites the experiences of our neighbors, like Thailand, Vietnam and even Taiwan, which prioritized farming and fishing and used the strides they made in agribusiness to boost their economies.

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In the more than a year he spent as the “food security chief,” taking a direct hand in the management of such agencies as the National Food Authority, the Philippine Coconut Authority, and the National Irrigation Administration (NIA), Pangilinan was kept busy attending to crucial issues like the rice shortage (and rice smuggling), the “cocolisap” infestation, and the mismanagement of irrigation operations.

At the NFA, Pangilinan broke the disastrous cycle of “buying high and selling low” rice supplies from abroad by stringent bargaining with suppliers from Thailand and Vietnam.  And while the agency still carries a debt of P140 billion, it has saved the government P6 billion in a little over a year since Pangilinan became “food czar.”

The “cocolisap” infestation, which affected some 2.7 million trees at its height, was controlled and managed by careful monitoring and following the protocols set by local scientists, who shared their technologies with the farmers in affected areas.

As for the NIA, Pangilinan says his main contribution was to shift the agency’s priority from “repair and rehabilitation” of existing irrigation systems, to building new projects to the tune of P30 billion. Some 56 percent of “irrigable” lands are now irrigated, he notes, but some 44 percent have yet to benefit from irrigation.

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A source of concern for Pangilinan is that the average age of the Filipino farmer today is 57 years, indicating the rapid aging of the sector and the thinning of successor generations.

Part of the reason for the lack of interest among rural youth in their fathers’ and forefathers’ calling, he says, is that they see little evidence of material rewards from working with the soil.

It is thus important, he says, to raise the incomes of farmers’ and fishers’ families, if only to give the next generations hope that they have a future. But just as important, says the senator-to-be, is to raise the profile of farmers and  fishers, to transform them from lowly, downtrodden folk to the heroes that they are.

If the reforms that he hopes will be instituted in the agricultural sector are seriously addressed and adopted, says Pangilinan, Filipino farmers and fishers could very well lead the country’s march toward “First World status” that lies tantalizingly close on the horizon.

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