Swept away – Philippine agriculture bears wrath from government neglect

November 22, 2020

by IBON Media & Communications

Government’s long-time neglect of the country’s agriculture sector has been disastrous to small producers. The recent series of super-typhoons – Quinta, Rolly and Ulysses – has highlighted this.

The country’s geophysical characteristics as well as geographic location make it exposed to natural hazards. What makes it extremely vulnerable to risks is government’s lack of relevant policies to strengthen the agriculture sector and the larger economy, including policies and practice of disaster risk reduction and management (DRRM).

Fresh damage

According to a combined bulletin by the Department of Agriculture-Disaster Risk Reduction Management Operations Center (DADRMMOpCen), Quinta left damages to agriculture amounting to Php2.7 billion, with a volume production loss of 149,475 metric tons (MT) in Regions I, II, III, CALABARZON, MIMAROPA, V, VI, and VIII. This affected 57,858 farmers and fisherfolk with 96,474 hectares of agricultural areas.

Still reeling from this devastation, the regions again felt Rolly’s wrath and sustained Php5.79 billion in damages and losses affecting 48,682 farmers and fisherfolk in 127,298 hectares of agricultural areas. The volume of production loss was at 177,091 MT. The National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council (NDRRMC) further reported that Rolly damaged 170,773 houses and infrastructure worth some Php12.9 billion.

Then, Ulysses happened, leaving 73 dead, 24 injured, and 19 missing in Regions II, CALABARZON, V, and CAR. Damages to agriculture are estimated to be worth Php4.2 billion, to infrastructure some Php6.1 billion, with a total of 67,391 houses partially or totally destroyed. Affected were 102,500 farmers and fisherfolk in 99,660 hectares of agricultural areas. Production loss in commodities including rice, corn, high value crops, fisheries, livestock and poultry, irrigation facilities, and agricultural infrastructures was estimated by the DA to be at 167,385 metric tons (MT).

Some 62,220 hectares planted to rice alone sustained damages and losses amounting to Php1.98 billion with volume of production lost at 124,437 MT. Some 14,132 hectares planted to high variety crops (HVC) areas sustained Php907.7 million worth of damages with volume of production lost at 35,487 MT. As for areas planted to corn, up to 23,308 hectares were affected, with volume of production lost at 7,461 MT amounting to Php371 million. In the fisheries, some Php712 million was lost in terms of affected fin fish, milkfish, hito, tilapia, carp, crabs, and prawns. Livestock and poultry sustained Php51.69 million in damages affecting 72,146 heads. Some Php11.9 million were damaged or lost in terms of irrigation and agriculture facilities.

Quinta and Rolly damages and losses totaled to Php8.46 billion affecting 106,540 farmers and fisherfolk in 223,772 hectares. Volume of production lost reached 326,566 MT. Combined estimates of damages and losses in the Philippine agriculture sector due to typhoons Quinta, Rolly and Ulysses are estimated to have reached some Php12.4 billion to date.

The devastation in agriculture was also grave particularly for Catanduanes province, a top producer of abaca in the country, which is second biggest world producer of the cash crop. According to the Philippine Fiber Development Authority (PhilFIDA), the province accounted for 30% of the country’s annual abaca output. But then Rolly battered Bicol and other abaca-growing regions – CALABARZON, MIMAROPA, and Eastern Visayas, resulting in Php1.2 billion worth of farm damages. The 30% decline in abaca output due to the typhoon as per the estimate of PhilFIDA would land at only 50,000 metric tons (MT) of produce, the crop’s lowest in 20 years. Using PhilFIDA estimates of Php1,000 income for every 10 kilos harvested, this decline is equivalent to a Php2.1 billion loss in farmers’ incomes.

What preparedness?

Government’s DRRM plan, actual implementation, recovery strategy, and even budget allocation of calamity funds are all telling – there is little acknowledgment of the Philippines being a calamity-prone country. It is no basis to say that the country is indeed disaster-prepared.

The Philippines ranks 9th among countries with the highest disaster risk index according to the World Risk Report of 2019. An average of 20 tropical cyclones enter the Philippine area of responsibility annually. Yet the budget allocation for disaster risk reduction in 2020 of Php16 billion declined from the already meager Php20 billion or 0.5% share in the 2019 national budget. The NDRRMC is again set to get Php20 billion in lump sum calamity funds in the 2021 national budget. But it remains a mere 0.4% of the total budget.

Components of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Plan (NDRRMP) 2011-2028 are: disaster prevention and mitigation, disaster preparedness, disaster response, and disaster recovery and rehabilitation. This should mean building massive evacuation and shelter infrastructure, for instance. This should also mean making available competent education, health, and housing, and providing sufficient energy, water, communication and transport mechanisms that can withstand any weather hazard. For a largely agricultural country, it should also mean the availability of crop insurance, food stocks, production support at all times, whether or not during recovery, and other measures that ensure farmers, fisherfolk, and farmworkers’ continued sustenance when calamities strike. Neither the NDRRM Plan nor the DARRMOpCen explicitly mandate these as part of the mitigation and preparedness steps of DRRM.

The NDRRMC reported Php115 million worth of assistance provided to Ulysses victims. The DA assured Php400 million in Quick Response Funds and Php300 million worth of emergency loans with zero interest and no collateral, payable in 10 years under the Survival and Recovery (SURE) Loan Program of Agricultural Credit Policy Council (ACPC) for farmers and fishers affected by Quinta and Rolly. The agency has also assigned the Philippine Crop Insurance Corporation (PCIC) to provide insurance protection to farmers against losses arising from various calamities. Those insured under the PCIC are set to receive Php10,000-15,000 in insurance claims for damaged farm equipment, fishing boats, and gear. But this measure is premium-dependent and ties impoverished farm producers to indebtedness.

PCIC coverage is quite limited and leaves millions of agricultural producers behind. PIDS explains that the amount of cover is based on the cost of production inputs specified in the farm plan and budget submitted by the farmer upon application of insurance. Insurance premium rates vary based on the type of insurance cover, risk classification, type of farmer, and type of insurance cover availed. Premium for high value crop insurance is solely shouldered by the farmers, ranging from 2-7% of the total sum ensured. Premium rates for fisheries are solely determined by the PCIC.

According to latest available Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) and PCIC 2018 figures cited by the Philippine Institute for Development Studies, only 2.2 million farmers in 1.8 million hectares are insured. This is a small number compared to the over 10.9 million farmers, farmworkers and fisherfolk in the government’s Registry System for Basic Sectors in Agriculture or RSBSA. It was also noted that while a huge chunk or 1.1 million of listed farm parcels reported by the Census of Agriculture and Fisheries (CAF) were less than 0.5 hectare in size, the penetration rate of the PCIC in these holdings was quite low compared to parcels of bigger sizes.

Long-time neglect of agriculture

Even given the backdrop of being a natural hazard-prone nation, government action for the farming and fisheries sectors has long-been either too little or too detrimental. Weather disturbances have even gotten worse over the years due to climate change, increasing further havoc on the country’s agriculture communities.

Philippine agriculture is in crisis, growing at an average 2.1% in 2017-2019, its slowest pace after 70 years of growing at 3.5% annually on the average. In the same period the sector lost over one million jobs. In the third quarter of this year, the sector grew only by 1.2%.

In 2018, the country’s agricultural trade deficit was the largest in history, and in 2019 the Philippines began importing its staple food rice.

However, despite the sector’s decline and disaster vulnerability, the budget for agriculture and agrarian reform averaged just a measly 3.6% of the total national budget annually from 2017-2019. This has been reduced further to 1.7% in 2020 and 1.6% for 2021 under the Duterte administration.

Calamity-battered Bicol

An example of the vulnerability and crisis of the country’s agriculture is the Bicol region. The region is prone to natural calamities such as typhoons, volcanic eruptions, drought and flooding, almost on a yearly basis. It is among the areas whose agriculture sector was hard-hit by the recent consecutive typhoons. The several calamities that have torn through the region in recent years resulted in billions of pesos in agricultural damage.

These include, for instance, tropical depression Usman which left Php1.6 billion worth of agricultural damages in Bicol at the end of 2018. Typhoon Tisoy, which hit the country in early December 2019, resulted in over Php1.7 billion worth of agricultural damages in the region, affecting its major crops. Bicol’s agriculture has also suffered crop losses from the El Niño drought last year and its abaca sector’s battle with the Abaca Bunchy Top Disease.

The region’s agriculture sector is now reeling from damages wrought by Quinta (Php395.8 million), Rolly (Php3.6 billion), and Ulysses (Php168.5 million).

Bicol’s abaca and coconut industries have not yet recovered from the havoc wreaked by Typhoon Tisoy. In the second quarter of the year, coconut production and abaca production both registered negative growth rates of 8 and 4 percent, respectively, from the same period last year.

Build Back Better” vs. inclusive response

The region’s disaster risk reduction bodies undertook early warning measures such as preemptive evacuation and advanced harvesting during typhoons Usman and Tisoy. In a way, mitigation was leveled-up. Yet, the Bicol Region’s agriculture sector, as with the rest of the country’s, was left vulnerable to destruction. The DADRROpCen practices the integration of DRR measures in the plans of government agencies. But like the NDRRMC plan, it is weightier on response, relief and recovery rather than building the core capacity of the agriculture sector. Making it flourish and able to stand on its own is not part of the plan.

The bottomline of the Philippines’ disaster risk reduction plan is the global-inspired “Build Back Better” which has been used in various calamities worldwide but saw big contractors and businesses taking the upper hand in rehabilitation and recovery. This is instead of focusing on really strengthening communities per se in terms of ensured rights to basic needs including food and jobs, adequate standards of living, a balanced ecology, ample services and development. These would be what will forge the capacity to withstand disasters.

In the case of agriculture, policies destroy rather than hone the sector’s own contribution to building this capacity. Decades of subscribing to global market dictates have crippled the agriculture sector and reduced it to being a supplier of cash crops, now being enhanced by the Plant, Plant Plant program. The National Land Use Act will accelerate the conversion of agricultural lands into commercial ones. Rice import liberalization meanwhile is destroying farmers’ incomes with falling palay prices and results in the shutdown of mills.

Through these policies, the government pushes Philippine agriculture off the cliff and keeps our farmers poor and vulnerable to calamities. Government lacks the sense of urgency to aid the calamity-stricken agricultural producers and only promises some farm inputs and limited financial assistance, not to mention in the form of burdensome loans. This jives with its non-interest to develop the sector other than for what the global market needs it to be.

The only way the country can really be disaster-prepared would be if risk reduction and response followed a comprehensive plan across pre-calamity and calamity scenarios. This needs to start with strengthening the heart of the economy and that is Philippine agriculture and manufacturing. Agriculture programs from the most token to those that destroy the industry and Filipino producers’ livelihoods must be stricken out especially liberalization and commercialized and profit-oriented insurance and credit-facilitation.

Land should be free for the tillers and not converted to non-agricultural use; the decision on how to make it productive theirs; give them substantial farm subsidies and direct farm facilities, machine and inputs support; and ensure their social protection. Especially during a pandemic such as the one that grips the nation and the world now, sustained financial assistance and direct support for producers is very much in order.

Governance that decides to sovereignly boost agriculture this way will be the same one that will forge policies and infrastructure for domestic industry, a healthy environment, people’s rights, and funding development, which are certain foundations of people-centered disaster preparedness. ###