Actual ‘victims’ first

CTALK - Cito Beltran (The Philippine Star) - February 24, 2021 - 12:00am

Before senators and other stakeholders talk about providing subsidies or using tax payments from imported meats as incentives to hog raisers, can Senators Villar and Pangilinan first make sure that the actual victims of the African swine fever actually get the “ASF indemnification fund” promised to us by the Department of Agriculture. It is called “indemnification” because we are supposedly being paid for being forced to kill all pigs, including healthy pigs, instead of slaughtering, selling or eating them.

It is commendable that Secretary William Dar and the Department of Agriculture immediately offered alternative livelihood assistance to backyard farmers to replace their loss. The DA actually gives out cows, chickens, tilapia fingerlings, etc. But speaking from experience as well as sentiment expressed by others, what the victims of ASF needed or could have used immediately after “depopulation” of their piggeries was CASH.

The alternative livelihood to hog raising is appreciated but that requires time to learn and literally time to grow. In the meantime most of the backyard raisers needed cash to pay for the feeds they borrowed, pay back cost of gilts or sows bought on installment, money to pay helpers and, like everyone else, money to support their families. The pigs may be gone but the obligations and burdens continue. As the sign on the sari-sari store says: “Your Credit is Good But We need Cash.”

Even before my backyard piggery got hit by ASF I already heard from earlier victims that the indemnification process was an added insult to injury, “pa asa” they called it, or giving people hope but making them wait while suffering in silence because none has arrived or has taken so long, if any. I suppose “false hope” for backyard farmers is better than the hopeless situation for commercial growers who won’t get a centavo even though they were critical links in the supply chain, drivers of the economy and legitimate tax payers for both local and national governments.

To be honest I immediately had my misgivings about the ASF indemnification process when I found out that each claim had to be packaged under 20 heads (sows and piglets) per claim because that is how the DA classifies backyard farms. During my time giving talks in BMeg Fiestahans, I learned that the industry practice is to classify the type of farm based on the number on sow-level. You need to have at least 50 sows to be called commercial. As a result, this bureaucratic anomaly of combining sows and piglets forces local agriculture officers, veterinarians and farmers to engage in “technical conspiracy” by splitting up the claims between husband and wife farmers, or owner and helper. As that happens it follows that a handful of corrupt officials at the local level will find another opportunity to collect facilitation fees. For classification follow industry. For indemnification pay what part of depopulation.

I am one week short of two months since local and national officials depopulated my piggery of 31 heads. Claims have been filed and I was told by no less than Usec. Willie Sembrano that once the claims reach the DA the indemnification fund would be released in a week. I am tempted to write down the travel time, filing time and processing time I estimate it takes to do the job but that would be splitting hairs. My point is if after seven weeks I have not received what’s due me for following government rules to prevent the spread of the deadly disease, how much more for those who really need the cash.

I am not belly aching for personal interest. The regional officials of the DA actually sent two calves, one for me and the other for my neighbor, but we returned it outright and asked that the calves be given to farmers who have nothing or have a greater need than us. We have jobs or livelihood other than backyard hog raising.

But as a whole, Secretary Dar and the bureaucracy need to understand that the indemnification fund was and still is a bridge to normalcy, a soothing balm even if temporary to the injury caused by having to kill all our hogs. If the funds are released in a week’s time, the DA could be heroes, but the unreasonable delay, whether at the local or the national level, gives rise and reason to the condemnation that the fund is both “pa asa” and “pa hirap.”

The more I think about it, the more I see similarities between COVID-19 and ASF. Both are killer diseases, highly infectious and economically disastrous to those hit. The delay in payments of the indemnification fund nationwide is reminiscent of the delay in the indemnification fund for frontliners who lost their lives and only because the media really hammered Secretary Duque and the DOH that the families were finally given monetary recognition for the heroism of frontliners.

I don’t expect as much drama in relation to the delayed ASF fund releases but there is the President’s directive on cutting red tape and there is the ARTA and the ombudsman. If appeals on behalf of the less fortunate and voiceless real farmers don’t work, then I suppose we can rally all those agriculture advocates to file cases. Like I said, the DA could have been heroes, but not anymore.

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