Cynthia Villar on cocolisap, garlic and romantic PNR trips

FROM THE STANDS - Domini M. Torrevillas (The Philippine Star) - July 22, 2014 - 12:00am

When Cynthia Villar was elected to the Philippine Senate in May 2010,  she wished she would be appointed chair of the agriculture and food committee. She told the Bulong Pulungan sa Sofitel media forum, “I thought many of poor Filipinos are in agriculture, and my advocacy is poverty reduction. I can do a lot in that committee. There are so many problems in agriculture, sometimes you are overwhelmed, but I tell myself that I will do my best to solve some of those problems.”  She got her wish.

Today, four years later, with  her persistent prodding, several bills  aimed at improving the plight of the poor folk are pending in the Senate. She hopes four of them will be passed into law on July 28, she told the Bulong Pulungan sa Sofitel two weeks ago.

These are the Halal bill, the Coco Levy Fund, the Sugar Industry Fund, and the Fisheries Code.

 Halal is the Islamic animal and food preparation business which generates $2.3 billion worldwide. The senator said,  “If we really want to become part of the business, then we have a very good accreditation process. Because if we don’t do the right process, we are not doing real Halal. That could be a blow against us. We are passing the Halal accreditation law so that we can do it in the Philippines and be in the competitive global market.”

The sugar industry is asking for a sugar industry fund. “The proponents want to have something to help them be competitive in the world market,” Cynthia said.

As to the Fisheries Code, the pending bill amends the present code to raise the fishermen’s income. 

The coconut industry got the lion’s share of Cynthia’s presentation.

The Coco Levy Fund, which  it seems, a lot of investors may want to die for, costs around P70 billion in treasury bills and about P30 billion in assets.  Said Cynthia: “The poorest farmers are the coconut farmers. They earn on the average, P50 a day. We really have to pass a law on the coconut levy so that we can help these farmers.”

The question of coconut infestation — the “cocolisap” — was brought up.  “I have received all of  the information and proposed solutions concerning the infestation,” said Cynthia. “The  Philippine Coconut Industry is in charge of finding the right solution to the problem.  Many solutions are being discussed. The problem is they cannot determine which is the best solution.”

Spraying has been offered as a solution to stop the spread of the infestation, or nip it in the bud, so to speak. “The coconut farmers are very poor, they cannot buy the spray. The government is very slow in giving the budget to help the farmers.” But as hope springs eternal in the human breast, there’s hope for farmers to increase their productivity with Landbank and Development Bank of the Philippines offering affordable loans to the farmers.

Cynthia spoke about a bill that provides logistics for victims of calamity like those affected by the super typhoon Yolanda. The same program must be instituted to help when, for example, there is insect infestation of coconuts and other agricultural products.  Money should be saved for such a calamity, but who will take charge?  It seems very little is being done, and that is not enough. For example, on Day One of  discovery of the infestation, the trees should be quarantined,  to prevent the spread of the infestation. Kaya kumalat na sa buong Region 4, nasa Basilan na. And kumalat na ang cocolisap sa ibang prutas.”

There is yet another solution to infestation. Cynthia talked about raising predators, a kind of insect that eats the cocolisap. But the predators are decreasing in number.

Another solution is injecting the trunk of coconut trees. “Pinefertilize mo, pinapalakas mo ang immunity ng tree para hindi sila magkasakit, lalo na yong matatanda na. Yong matatanda na na hindi na productive puputulin na lang and mag-replant ka.”

The Gnome Center of the University of the Philippines has been asked to find a variety that can fight cocolisap. ‘’It’s advisable also to get the dwarf coconut type as they are easy to treat. The problem right now is how to treat the very tall trees.”

To summarize, Cynthia said  every government agency should be involved in quashing the problem: the  Department of Agriculture, the Office of Crop Protection, the local governments. The DA can’t do it alone. “We have to do something, because coconut is one of our major exports.”

The diminishing number of coconut trees has been brought about by several factors. First, by infestation. Then, even much earlier, the Land Reform Act, which reduced the sizes of landholdings and  forced small farmers to cut down trees and sell them as coco lumber. The Food and Agricultural Organization stepped in  with cash for work so farmers can cut up fallen trees into coco lumber.

 Still another problem that the senator had to tackle headlong was/is the rising cost of garlic. She decried the practice of traders, especially the importers, who  unconscionably raise the price of the commodity. Selling garlic at P80 per kilo is not unreasonable, but selling it at P300? “Kalokohan na yan. Yan ang ikinagagalit ko. Kumita na sila sa P100, bakit gagawing P300?”

The senator called for the organization of a National Garlic Action Team composed of traders, farmers’ cooperatives and the DA. These determine how much garlic to import, how much the  wholesale and retail prices should be. “We must find a balance between the interest of the farmers, the traders, and consumers. Let’s make the farmers and traders earn, and make the consumers happy.”

What about the price of luya? It’s P600 per kilo, said a mediaman. Cynthia was upset. “Naku naman. Magcooperate naman yong traders.”

Cynthia also chairs the committee on government corporations. She talked excitedly about the approval of the  extension of the term of the Philippine National Railways for another 50 years.  Sen. Pia Cayetano told Cynthia, “I want to see in my lifetime the improvement of PNR.” Cynthia  said,  “I remember when I was second year high school, I took the train from  Tutuban to Damortis, La Union, then the bus to Baguio. When I graduated from college, I took the train from Tutuban to Ligao, Albay, and from there, the bus to Irosin, Sorsogon. They were beautiful trips.” Cynthia said PNR management promised to resume the Bicol trip by September.

On overseas Filipino workers, Cynthia said, “Ok sila, except that  they have many problems.” Many of them are victims of abuse, violations of legal rights, and human trafficking. Then when they come home, they’re back to zero again, as they can’t find good-paying jobs here.

I’m 100 percent convinced that Cynthia Villar is an asset to the Senate and the country. She is industrious, sincere, hardworking. There’s only one area where I differ with her. She related at Bulong Pulungan her being with the Couples for Christ movement. Nothing wrong with that. She added that in her talk with Prime Minister Mahathir of Malaysia,  she became convinced that if the Philippine population was bigger, there would be a good domestic market, the country does not have to depend on the good graces of another country. Cynthia’s parting shot: “If you can make your population educated, they know how to work, they have good values, then even if we have a large population, we can manage. The problem is that we are not able to manage our population.”

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