A ‘Letter’ From Rice Farmers

Rice farmers from all over the country will converge on Manila next week for a National Rice Summit, and they will ask for new kinds of assistance from the government. Many are shifting from chemical-intensive farming to organic and other sustainable methods, and they are discovering that sustainable farming is better for their bottom line, for water and the environment, and for health. Until the current administration, the government has largely been hostile to this shift.

As we crisscrossed the Philippine archipelago in July, interviewing dozens of organic rice farmers along with rice experts, we asked what the government could do to support the transition to more sustainable farming. We told them that Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala had emphasized two goals in his early pronouncements: achieving Philippine rice self-sufficiency within three years, and promoting organic farming.

Many farmers were pleased to hear this, but almost all were wary that much would really change. Still, the farmers acknowledged that they needed help. So, we pushed them to tell us what the government could do to assist them and to attain Alcala’s two goals. We got a wide range of answers, but here are the seven ideas we heard most consistently and which are a preview of what government officials are likely to hear from the farmers at the summit.

Training: Farmers told us that their main interaction with the national government was via agricultural extension workers who mostly promoted chemical farming and hybrid seeds in their trainings. “Train the extension workers to promote organics and have them give out traditional seed varieties,” was one farmer’s advice. A self-trained “farmer scientist” told us: “The government is focused on yields; we farmers are focused on health, environment and income.” He and other creative farmer scientists in both Mindanao and Luzon taught us the latest in organic technologies. His suggestion: The thousands of extension workers should meet with them for training so that they can share this expertise with other farmers.

The next generation: More than one farmer suggested that change needs to start in elementary schools: “Put organic farming in the social studies and science curriculum. Focus on the children; they will understand the health and environmental issues.” Others said this shift in content needs to go all the way up to the agriculture schools, where graduates described to us how chemical agriculture is often all that is taught.

Irrigation: Most of the irrigation canals in the country are decades old and farmers want them repaired and upgraded. Agricultural experts at the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement and at Rice Watch and Action Network told us that upgrading the irrigation system should be a government priority. This could add 10-20 percent to the country’s rice output, which would eliminate the need for imports. Rice Watch experts explained that a key part of the problem is that many of the watersheds that feed the irrigation canals are stressed by deforestation; hence they also see a key role for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Crop insurance: The Philippines suffers more typhoons than any other country. For rice farmers in Luzon and parts of the Visayas, this means frequent destruction of crops, yet there is no viable, government-subsidized crop insurance program. Farmers want and need one.

Fund the organic law: Over the past year, organic farmers and their advocates successfully spent enormous energy pressing Congress to pass a very good Organic Agriculture Act in April 2010. The act mandates the government to promote and further develop the practice of organic farming in the Philippines, in part through farmers’ and consumers’ education. Unfortunately, Congress failed to provide adequate financing for the act. Farmers want it well funded.

Speed up land reform: Too much of Philippine farm land remains in the hands of the few. Too many of the country’s small farmers do not own the land they till or have been forced to mortgage their land, and they are burdened with debts. Several farmers and advocates told us that in his first year in office, President Aquino would do well to initiate land reform on his family’s sprawling Hacienda Luisita. This action would have huge symbolic significance to the farmers.

Protect rice from “free trade” agreements: Some farmers and their advocates explained that the World Trade Organization, with the strong backing of global agribusiness firms, is trying to eliminate the protected status of Philippine rice by 2012. Some farmers told us that the government should insist that rice be included among the “special products” that the WTO exempts from large tariff reductions. In addition to the WTO, there is a trade agreement among Southeast Asian nations, AFTA, which is trying to reduce tariffs on most goods to zero; again farmers and advocates want the Philippine government to fight to have rice exempted. Farmers want and need the government to offer protections against cheap rice imports

Organic rice farmers we interviewed were proud to tell us about the positive changes they have initiated in their rice fields, and they want the government’s support. Filipino farmers often compare themselves to the rest of Asia, wanting to shine above others. Here is the government’s chance. The Philippines could be the organic rice superpower of Asia. And the beneficiaries would not just be farmers, but also the millions of Filipinos who would eat healthier rice in a cleaner environment.

Robin Broad is a professor at the American University and John Cavanagh co-chairs the New Economy Working Group at the Institute for Policy Studies.