Ledesma: Rice | SunStar

Ledesma: Rice

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Ledesma: Rice

Thursday, April 20, 2017

THERE seems to be no end to the squabble over whether or not we should import rice and who will be given the authority to do so. Importation of rice has always been a source of graft and corruption in the country and those who were in the helm of the National Food Authority (NFA) have become filthy rich after they got themselves elected to office or earn ambassadorial post. Get my drift?

President Rodrigo Duterte has given a short piece of advice: If it is necessary to import rice, never do it during harvest season. But it is obviously unheeded as proven by the recent issuance of an import permit to some lucky bastards while the ship loaded with rice was already off the shores of Vietnam.

Some quarters who are oblivious to the plight of rice farmers belittle the directive of the President. They offer a simplistic solution and suggest that if rice farmers cannot compete with the price of imports, then they might as well switch to other cash crops. In fact, many did. In Davao, not a few switched to planting Cavendish bananas but only those whose farms are rain-fed do. Irrigated lands in Cotabato and elsewhere in Mindanao stuck to planting rice.

The problem here is that we are so pregnant with the issue of whether or not we should import rice. Nobody seems to worry about how and what to do for our farmers to improve on their productivity and later find solution on the delicate balance of at what price should we buy palay (unmilled grain) from the farmers gate and at what price should rice be sold to the consumer’s market.

Can government, for a minute, look at how it can help farmers produce more and maybe increase price subsidy or provide storage infrastructures so that they will be encouraged to produce and earn more?

During the “golden era” of the Marcos presidency, the Philippines was gross rice exporter. Not a few Marcos haters will crucify me for saying these but these are unwritten facts which cannot be deleted. Not by revisionist historians. For how can one deny the fact that 90 percent of the irrigation systems operating today were projects of the Marcos regime? Masagana 99 (for rice farmers) and Masaganang Maisan are programs which comprehend of a special Philippine National Bank loan window for farmers.

Because farmers were either ignorant or were adamant to borrow money from the then government-owned Philippine National Bank (PNB). Marcos ordered both PNB and the Department of Agriculture (DA) to roll out “banks of wheels” and municipal agriculturists to reach out to farmers and teach them the rudiments of availing bank loans and improving farm practices. Bank interest on Masagana programs were almost like grants.

Rice trading during the Marcos era was controlled by Chinese traders then. During harvest they buy palay at the farmers’ gate at the price they dictated. They were so helpless they cannot complain against the Chinese traders except by calling them "intsik kwakang." Because of lack of drying facilities, farmers were forced to sell their harvest for a picayune fearing the moisture content will turn their palay rancid.

Realizing this predicament, Marcos created the National Grains Authority (NGA) which was mandated to buy farmers produce at a much higher (subsidized price) than what the Chinese traders do. While NGA had a ceiling on the volume of palay it can buy, it somehow prodded the traders to equal if not improved on their buying price.

What is it with NGA then that it was able to come to the aid of farmers? They have the drying facilities and rice mills. The farmers do not have these. If their farms are adjacent to cemented highways, then they can spread their newly harvested palay by the road side and pray it won’t rain. They do not have storage facilities. NGA has.

What am I up to here? I hope Secretary Jun Evasco and Sec. Manny Piñol will not be slighted with my suggestion. Put NFA and the National Irrigation Administration (NIA) back under the DA. The DA is the custodian of statistics of rice productivity and buffer stocks under NFA.

NIA is an essential arm in rice productivity and therefore should not be alienated from DA. I think it was a rush decision made by President Duterte and seconded by Sec. Piñol when they declared that irrigation water should be provided free to farmers. They should just have cut the fees by half instead of just giving it free. Farmers worth their salt knew that money is needed to rehabilitate irrigation canals on a regular basis as these are silted in time and the embankment eroded when water is released. Embankments also serve as virtual farm to market roads in remote barangays and these have to be maintained. Collection of fees should not be entrusted to farmers cooperatives for not a few squandered the amount.

Instead, cluster four or more barangays and set up an NIA office manned by an NIA personnel in-charge not only of collection but also programming and allocation of water especially during planting season. The same NIA location must have silos and bodegas where farmers, during bumper harvests and when price is low, may store their palay free of moisture and sell these when price improves. A quedan system similar to the sugar industry must be studied and adopted for this to be effected.

Like in any business endeavors, farmers are motivated to produce more if they gain more.

By the way NIA is an important component in rice productivity. By itself it can be a revenue-generating agency if every irrigation dam will have a hydropower plant component. I brought this up with then NIA Administrator Pete Lavina before he bowed out of office.

Let’s think out of the box. I often wonder why it takes so long to decide to build an irrigation dams and systems. Why should it be so difficult to decide when it comes to farmer’s plight? Why the row over who will import and how big the volume be? Corruption must not rise over the issue of rice. Just heed the President’s counsel: "Do not import rice during harvest season."

Published in the SunStar Davao newspaper on April 20, 2017.

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