On the road to concrete developments: Farm-to-Market-Roads

CONJUGATIONS - Lila Ramos Shahani - Philstar.com

During campaign season, it becomes harder and harder to keep familiar words and phrases attached to real things. As every candidate for office—from LGU to national—makes “motherhood” promises, it becomes all-too-easy for concepts like “inclusive development” to lose much of their meaning. As a partial remedy for this situation, I have been writing a number of columns here about the government’s Accelerated and Sustainable Anti-Poverty Program (ASAPP), not so much to glorify the Aquino Administration, as to draw attention to recent examples of what “inclusive development” might look like.

Smallholder farms are home to many of our country’s rural poor. According to conventional development theory, the escape from agrarian poverty comes from two sides—what we might call “bottom-up” and “top-down.” From the bottom-up, small farmers are supposed to improve agricultural activity, bringing in more and better produce for better incomes, while at the same time educating their children for work elsewhere because land for new farmers is finite and limited, especially since more mechanized farming of larger holdings seems to be where significantly better profits lie.

At the same time, the “top-down” side of the equation purports to expand employment opportunities through manufacturing, tourism and agricultural processing. Agriculture, tourism and manufacturing are recognized to be the key drivers of our economic growth. They are expected to provide jobs for those—of whatever age—leaving the farm, while at the same time making more worthwhile markets more accessible to more farmers.

Since top-down and bottom-up development cannot always be depended upon to unfold at the same rate, one role of the government is to provide balance on the process—especially among those experiencing the worst poverty.

Those, at least, are the theories. Our rural poor are the reality.

In Manila, theory tends to override reality because so much of whatever gets done happens at a distance from the capital and “farm news” is far from the most popular aspect of media. The government stands at the intersection of top- down and bottom-up development—and it is often a lonely post. But to make the metaphor concrete, there is a physical intersection—the Farm-to-Market Road (FMR). FMRs get mentioned in this column almost every time rural poverty is discussed, yet the words themselves can lose their meaning.

FMRs are the means whereby bottom-up and top-down development ultimately intersect. They are the concrete means for making possible the circulation of goods and labor at the heart of economic development.

Though their potential is far greater, small farmers currently contribute to export industries like coconut oil, Cavendish banana, mango, and pineapple. They are hampered, however, not only by the lack of FMRs, but also by the lack of other means of infrastructure, like electricity, water, and communications. This state of isolation makes it difficult for small farmers to feed their families and earn a living by tilling the land. FMRs translate into the efficient transport of farm produce, and increasingly fair market prices and profits.

Brgy. Lapulubao in Hagonoy—a third-class municipality in Davao del Sur—is one place that sorely needed a Farm-to-Market Road. Hagonoy, with a 2010 census population of 49,107 is—along with nearby Magsaysay and Digos City—identified as an ASAPP priority area because of the 111,655 of poor households found there. Hagonoy, with a land area of only 114.28 square kilometers is a relatively small municipality, representing only three percent of Davao del Sur’s land area. Brgy. Lapulabao’s farmers have faced production shortfall and post-harvest loss because they lack good roads.

In the words of farmer Florentino Algones, “We could hardly transport our produce, especially during the rainy season… Before, it was difficult to transport our produce as the bumpy roads affected the quality of our goods. We also needed to contract a hauler who charged us a hefty price.”

The LGU addressed this need by proposing the rehabilitation of the village’s FMR. Funded under the government’s Bottom-Up Budgeting (BUB) program, the Department of Agriculture in Region XI expedited the implementation under ASAPP.

According to Lapulabao Brgy. Captain Roger Monteza, the P4-million, 480-meter FMR rehabilitation—started in December 2014, completed July 2015—has significantly improved the community’s economy. Though making virtually no media splash, it nonetheless has facilitated the transport and delivery of goods and farm inputs such as seeds and fertilizers. “These increased our agricultural production. As a result, the profits and livelihood for our farmers have greatly improved,” Monteza said.

Hagonoy Municipal agriculturist Felix Bariquit confirms the increased profits of the farmers traversing the FMR project. “During the implementation up to the road completion, the Department of Agriculture has been very active in monitoring the project,” Bariquit notes. “We are very thankful to the agency and to the project as it has alleviated the poverty incidence of this municipality.”

Hagonoy farmers themselves testify to the improved transport of both goods and services—agricultural and non-agricultural—due to the rehabilitated FMR. Significantly, it also improved mobility of people—giving them better employment opportunities within and outside the area—while improving access of farmers, fishers and residents in the area to basic services, such as education and health. The connection of farms and coastal areas to main roads also adds the potential of promoting agro-tourism. 

With better roads, farmers are motivated to plant more because they now have more efficient market access. This resulting increase in production and income improves the quality of life in remote rural areas.

Magsaysay is another one of the poorest municipalities of Davao del Sur. Through bottom-up funding, the Department of Agriculture allotted around P4.9 million to the municipality for paving the 600 meters of the Malano-Bob Barayong FMR. Other livelihood allotments there included P680,000 for the expansion of existing rubber production and almost P2.5M for a cattle farming program. 

Brgys. Hagonoy and Magsaysay are not the only beneficiaries of ASAPP projects in Davao del Sur. As of September 2015, ASAPP projects amounting to P140 million have been completed there, generating 5,181 jobs, and benefiting more than 1.4 million rural poor. These projects include cattle fattening; establishing communal nurseries; a sustainable organic fertilizer production livelihood project; and technical and support service for livestock and rice production enhancement. Additional projects, budgeted at P692,433,770, are either ready for implementation or are already under way.

Rural infrastructure has been a top government priority for the past 6 years. The Department of Agriculture has undertaken various infra-projects including the construction, restoration and rehabilitation of irrigation systems, post-harvest facilities and rural roads—all of which increase farmer income by increasing production, reducing production costs, minimizing post-harvest losses, and expanding market opportunities. The goal is better living for both producers and consumers. 

By August 2015, the Department of Agriculture-Farm to Market Road Development Program had constructed and rehabilitated 5,985 km rural roads, benefitting almost 1.3 million farmers nationwide. Driven by its continuing commitment to countryside development and the production of agricultural products sufficient to feed the nation, the Department of Agriculture targets construction of 13,999 km of FMRs by 2017.

ASAPP projects are only one aspect of the Department of Agriculture’s more familiar activities. In the last three years, it has provided P153 billion in public investments to sustained rice production—increasing the country’s rice self-sufficiency ratio from 81% in 2010 to 96% in 2013. It also provided timely support in raising corn and cassava production; providing new export markets for livestock and poultry; intensifying coconut planting, fertilization and intercropping; and maintaining sugarcane export markets meeting world demands and the US quota.

For many years, neglect has kept small farmers from living up to their potential. At the same time, lack of transparency, accountability and reports of corruption have plagued certain agencies—the National Food Authority, National Irrigation Administration, Philippine Coconut Authority, and Fertilizer and Pesticides Authority—causing the Aquino administration to transfer them from the Department of Agriculture to the Office of the Presidential Assistant for Food Security and Agricultural Modernization (OPAFSAM) in May 2014. 

The transfer appears to have worked well. In a that short period of time the OPAFSAM has stabilized food prices through aggressive market participation, reduced a coconut scale insect infestation from 57 hotspots to only 1 affected area, and completed 402 new irrigation projects serving 124,633 hectares of agricultural lands, benefiting 48,234 farmers.

The Department of Agriculture has been the frequent target of criticisms by those who have rightly focused on the alleged corruption and mismanagement among some of its personnel, though no cases have been filed by the Ombudsman. But in all fairness, the agency has also had to struggle with the effects of natural disasters beyond its control. Hence, despite frequent typhoon damage and the El Niño dry spell—and while still in the midst of its recent reorganization—the agency, during the third quarter of 2015, still managed to expand agriculture by 0.65% overall, with increases in poultry production of 8.76%, of livestock production by 3.25%, and made improvements in the production of banana, pineapple, mango, abaca, cassava, camote, eggplant, and calamansi. These are things we love to eat and that we take for granted unless we can’t get them.

Granted, these are meager increases. But the conditions for reform, once in place, should allow for some improvement--or so we can hope.

Understandably, the paving of three-quarters of a kilometer of rural roadway in a distant province is not a big media event, but when something like the ASAPP FMR project starts adding up to thousands of kilometers, the entire nation—rich and poor—can see and feel (and taste) the benefits. That’s really the exact meaning of “inclusive development”—not a theory, not a promise—but the actual physical outcome that moves the country closer to genuine progress.

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