Local problems first

CTALK - Cito Beltran - The Philippine Star

Charity begins at home and so should agricultural development.

Judging from what incoming Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol has said in recent interviews, I’m afraid that his priority is to focus on export products and agricultural trade agreements instead of prioritizing agricultural self-sufficiency to address poverty on site, strengthening food production, security and distribution, and the sustainability of Philippine agriculture.

This is not meant to criticize Manny Piñol’s announced plans to go abroad particularly to the US to discuss or negotiate better terms for Philippine agricultural exports such as sugar, banana and coconut. But judging from the failures of the past administration and the complaints hurled at it from the agricultural sector, the common complaint were all about domestic issues and not exports.

Exports may be a concern for Davao and Mindanao in particular, but the rest of the country complained about smuggling of agricultural products, no irrigation, no subsidies or government help in the face of widespread disasters due to El Niño, Cocolisap, no government action against hoarders, under pricing buyers of farm products conspiring with over-pricing Viajeros or Middle men. Even during the presidential debates, we heard the poor fisherman who could not fish in waters now patrolled by the Chinese Coast guard.

If President-elect Rodrigo Duterte was voted into office as a form of protest for the failures of the P-Noy Misadministration, the sensible thing for Manny Piñol to do would be to list down all the lamentations and assign people to find real solutions.

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We have one of the longest coast lines in the world, majority of our 20 poorest provinces are near the sea or are island provinces, and yet the government has not managed to set up aquaculture farms all over the country. If the government did this, fishermen won’t have to sail out to Mischief reef to go fishing! Why is the government limited to research stations whose research and technology end up with politicians, businessmen, generals and corporations who build the Tilapia, Bangus, Lapu-Lapu, Samaral, Talakitok floating cages/farms and export all their produce abroad!

Remember the lesson “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, teach him how to fish and he will eat everyday”? So how come the people at the Department of Agriculture never really gave their all to setting up the aquaculture farms or floating cages for poor families? Is aquaculture strictly for rich politicians and businessmen?

Based on my personal experience in Palawan, putting up floating cages does not require rocket science and costs less than putting up a basketball court, or digging up roads every three years before elections.

You can even buy the fingerlings from Sarangani Frys/Fin Fish Hatcheries at the Alsons building on Chino Roces (Pasong Tamo) in Makati.

In fact friends have told me about multi-level fishponds in Taiwan! These marine farms would create “self-employment” opportunities as well as a stable food source for fishermen without having to borrow money for supplies and fuel and risk their lives to go fishing in the open sea.

The Landbank and the DA -BFAR and DOST experts can get together and put up these aquaculture farms all over the Philippines where poor families become interns and OJTs until they have actual success in running and managing the business and their finances. They can use the US model where banks foreclosed so many farms, they realized that banks had to help farm owners manage their books and their business so they could be viable once again.

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Speaking of the US experience, more and more people as well as towns and cities are going back to natural farming, local food production, and using local agriculture as the tool to reduce poverty. They have discovered that food produced locally is cheaper with fewer chemicals and reduces use of fossil fuels, traffic and pollution. Wealth stays in the community and people who grow their own food are able to use the money they save on other needs.

Fortunately people are beginning to realize or promote the idea of urban farming, weekend farming as well as organic farming and free-range farming. Secretary To Be Manny Piñol could make this a key program of the Duterte administration by having a six-year plan to promote a “What I Grow – I Eat” or “Tanim Ko – Pagkain Ko” program. I have seen walls of lettuce in areas of informal settlers, schools used to have a very strong campaign for vegetable gardening, the DA or was it DILG that used to have competitions for barangay vegetable gardens.

The reason all this has stopped is because people have lost the knowledge and the appreciation for vegetable gardening or planting for food. Landscapers plant exotic trees instead of local fruit bearing trees, people don’t know what to plant, when to plant and all they do is over water plants with water that’s full of chlorine and other chemicals!

It’s time the DA becomes the champion of the plant your food movement by making it a real program and not just an activity.  Place someone in-charge, find icons and ambassadors, work with the DILG, the DepEd, the PNP and the AFP. Back it up with logistics as well as a full-blown sustained media campaign especially on Social Media. Establish “bagsakans” or weekend markets devoted to agricultural produce. Then set it down for a full six-year run and see how it takes root and grows even beyond the Duterte administration.

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Lastly, secretary to be Manny Piñol simply has to put his foot down and implement a “Buy Local First” policy! Most companies buy agricultural products that are much cheaper simply because they are subsidized or are excess or dumped by other countries. In exchange for buying cheap, many companies end up destroying the real local price structures and killing local producers. Yes we have international trade commitments but government and even Filipino companies and consumers must learn to “Buy Local First, Import Last” or at least be severely restricted in volumes and process. The DA and the DTI needs to get serious about this campaign because people need to see, know and buy Local First!

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Email: [email protected]


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