Farming in the Philippines has been synonymous to landlessness, debt and drought. Government has always placed agriculture at the bottom of the country’s priorities. But the pandemic showed that in order to survive a lockdown, accessing and securing food is essential. It is ironic then, how a country relying on its farmers for survival neglects its food security frontliners.
This lockdown has exposed the government’s capitalist agenda. Its resistance to mass testing, despite the billions of loans from Asian Development Bank and World Bank, the thousands of “violators” arrested and discriminatory guidelines for Social Amelioration Program, have left Filipinos imprisoned, jobless and hungry. The funds and loans for COVID-19 response, according to the president, has been depleted. The number of COVID-19 cases, however, continue to rise.
As if this is not enough, the Department of Agriculture used the emergency funds for COVID-19 response to procure 1.811 million bags of overpriced urea fertilizers, which could have been purchased at a much lower, wholesale price.
According to farmer groups, these fertilizers may be bought for P850 per bag. Since they are engaging in wholesale purchase, clearly a much lower price could be negotiated? As a government employee myself, the policy has always been to prioritize the lowest bidder. Of course, there are cases when this rule may be altered but if the farmers can produce receipts from three different stores proving that the said fertilizers can be indeed bought at P850, shouldn’t we be alarmed?
Peasant organizations and rice watch groups are right to call this move a scam. It is under the Ahon Lahat, Pagkaing Sapat (ALPAS) Kontra COVID-19. If anything, the fertilizers must be distributed for free to assist farmers who suffered from the restrictions implemented by the local government units.
Despite the Inter-Agency Task Force’s food resiliency protocol, millions of farmers were still prohibited from farming, harvesting and transporting their produce to the market because of transportation suspension and other restrictions. The difference of P150 per bag amounts to P517 million in kickbacks, which could have been used to assist millions of agricultural workers in the country.
Before the pandemic, farmers have suffered the repercussions of RA 11203 or Rice Liberalization Law. It amended existing restrictions against importation, streamlining the process of acquiring import permits and removing the regulatory functions of the National Food Authority. This only benefits big businesses that ships cheap imported rice in massive amount. Because of this, we were hailed as the biggest rice importer of the year, thereby securing the death of the local rice industry. The price of palay plummeted to P7 to P12 per kilo.
As we have barely recovered from the lockdown, and the devastation brought upon by typhoon Ambo in Eastern Samar, this centralized corruption mocks our ailing farmers. Instead of heeding the call for cash assistance and production subsidy for farmers, the Department of Agriculture procures overpriced urea fertilizer. Using the said fertilizer during the wet season could also weaken the palay. Promoting chemical-based fertilizer instead of organic farming, is also not beneficial to farmers in the long run as it acidifies the soil.
The pandemic has exposed what the government is capable of. It is capable of mass arrest and corruption, in a time when urban and rural poor families are in dire need of socio-economic support. It is capable of a Voltes V-themed party complete with catering, while relief volunteers are being arrested for distributing food packs and organizing community kitchens.
Its ability to dismiss the demands for mass testing in order for community quarantine to work sends a clear message: We are on our own. The health workers and frontliners risking their lives every day despite the lack of personal protective equipment will never be fairly compensated; the stranded Filipinos outside the airports and near bus terminals will never be assisted if not for the viral death of one mother. Millions of public school students who will not be able to enroll this school year because the four modalities being offered by the Deparment of Education dismiss the democratic and comprehensive demands of teachers for a safe, quality and accessible education.
We have been on our own for the past months, collectively feeding communities, resisting and demanding for better, medical solutions. This fertilizer scam is a repeat of countless agricultural fund scams. The people will collectively rise against these blatant neglect and betrayal. We know better. (davaotoday.com)
Rae Rival writes and does volunteer work for Gantala Press and Rural Women Advocates. She is a teacher and a mother. Her stories, poems and essays have appeared in CNN Philippines, Rappler, Voice and Verse Poetry Magazine (Hong Kong), Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, university presses and do-it-yourself zines.