Agri cursed by Local Government Code

CTALK - Cito Beltran - The Philippine Star

What proved to be an instrument of unlimited power to petty politicians has become a curse in many forms to Philippine agriculture.

I refer of course to the Local Government Code that effectively caused the devolution or turn over of many services from the national government down to the provincial, municipal and even barangay level.

Devolution has relieved the national government of many of its responsibilities as well as services such as education, public health and agriculture at the local level. Teachers and principals now have to play nice and play politics with many mayors because they directly influence the budgets and priorities that go into the annual operations of public schools, as well as their tenure.

I remember one instance when a former secretary of health lamented how political agendas directly impact the delivery of services, construction of facilities, even professional staffing of primary health care units all over the country.

As far as Philippine agriculture is concerned, the Local Government Code has given the power to politicians whether they will prioritize agriculture or their twisted illusions of urbanizing their domain. In the last 20 years, I have seen so many towns in the Philippines slowly lose agricultural land that have been “zoned” on office tables and converted to commercial zones, all for the single purpose of generating higher property taxes or in collusion with land developers.

I once got into a serious discussion with a tax official who insisted on applying “residential” tax on agricultural land just because a nearby district had their area rezoned and were allowed to put up a golf course and a country club. When I pointed out the fact that land titles indicate the use or classification as agricultural, the tax official suddenly acted very diplomatic and compromising.

I also remember a time when a certain “ordinance” was reportedly issued banning the presence of “farms” in the city of Lipa. When resident-farmers like myself decided to raise the issue in media, people from city hall reached out to disown such an ordinance and blamed it on the previous administration.

During the time when lockdowns were slowly easing up, one of the last places allowed to open were cockpits or sabungans purportedly because of close contact and a lot of shouting. But even in cockpits where owners instituted limited entry, testing and compulsory wearing of masks, many cockpits were shut down or kept shut.

That was because the power to close or open cockpits are in the hands of the LGU, not to mention the commonly held belief that during the time of the controversial online sabong, many mayors in major towns and cities were suspected to be invested in or corrupted to keep traditional cockpits closed so that local online betting stations could rake in the profits. As a result, thousands of people lost their livelihood and the sector suffered economic setbacks never before imagined.

All that hurts, but what has really cursed agriculture in the hands of local officials is their mentality that farms are nothing more than a source of taxes or fees. Many mayors have no understanding or appreciation of the role they play in promoting, developing and making farming commercially profitable for all their constituents.

To begin with, farming is not just planting seeds into the ground. Farming now covers many forms, from land-based operations as well as on rivers and the sea itself. Farming is not just about plants and produce but covers livestock and fisheries.

But in order for any locality to benefit from all that, the local leaders must educate themselves or consult with real experts on the true potential of their territory, their people and their location. Ignorance is a thief. You don’t see it in the open but it steals so much potential wealth from those who choose to ignore it.

Local leaders make so little from collecting fees from agricultural businesses that remain undeveloped and unsupported. The best analogy is like depending on a sari-sari store that allows “utang” or credit and buys its stocks from a supermarket or third level supplier.

You cannot expect that sari-sari store to post real taxable profits.

In the same manner, if LGUs were wise and humble enough to take time out to study their options, they might discover that developing their local agriculture first to meet the food needs of their constituents and subsequently to expand their markets will create more jobs, stimulate local trading in terms of construction supplies, agricultural inputs, as well as transport or mobility. “Local food” means savings that are spent on other vital needs.

If you think this is nonsense, just visit Thailand and Vietnam and Indonesia. We use to be ahead of them in the 70’s up to the 80’s. Back then we had respectable knowledge, expertise and investments in agriculture. Then our neighbors pirated our technicians, copied our programs and, most importantly, their governments gave importance and priority to agricultural development.

Because of the devolution courtesy of the Local Government Code, such prioritization is like running a race with one leg. As a result, many city and municipal veterinarians and farm technicians are treated like 15/30 employees with second-class stature. Vets and farm extension workers are the vital link for information, training and technical assistance such as disease prevention, but their numbers have dwindled, all thanks to “devolution.”

I once went to Puerto Galera in Mindoro and visited a couple of barangays to check out the state of backyard chickens. To my horror, I discovered that almost all of the native chicken had been killed by the “peste” or avian influenza. Ignorance did that!

We have lost hundreds of millions if not billions to AI, ASF, lost farms, lost jobs and money spent needlessly on food from other areas. Wise mayors can be the key to bringing it all back.


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