NEWS | Groups urge PH government to protect Filipino farmers
By Elaine Diaz and Jaxine Laguio
Farmers in the Philippines are faced with problems such as the low cost of palay, passing of the controversial coco levy fund, and rampant killings of farmers. As the country celebrates Peasant Month this October, the call for government support for farmers and end to peasants killing and attacks continued.
State of Filipino farmers
In a recent statement by Senator Cynthia Villar, she criticized and labeled Filipino farmers as less competitive compared to those from Vietnam and Thailand. However, this received backlash from Filipinos stating that unlike those in aforementioned countries, farmers in the country are not given proper support by the government.
According to farmer groups, the farmgate price of palay dropped from ₱20 a kilo earlier this year to just ₱12 this month. A major factor that affected the cost of palay is the movement restrictions during the pandemic that put on hold the rice shipments. Farmers continued to cry for help as the start of harvest season is expected to depress palay prices.
“That means farmgate prices would decrease further because millers are not willing to buy palay anymore because they are also losing,” Samahang Industriya ng Agrikultura Chair Rosendo So said.
Furthermore, the Federation of Free Farmers (FFF) urged for the review of the rice tariffication law (RTL) to impose additional taxes on imported rice. The tax collected will be the source of funds for the Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund (RCEF) which aims to lower the production cost of Filipino rice farmers by providing free seeds and mechanization.
Several industry groups also called for an increase for the Department of Agriculture’s (DA) budget to arrest any price drop and to save farmers from debt due to competition with imported rice.
The Distrust in trust funds
The Senate Bill №1396 or the “Coconut Farmers and Industry Trust Fund Act,” was passed on its third and final reading on Monday, October 5. The said bill will allow poor Filipino coconut farmers to benefit from the taxes unwillingly extracted from them during the Marcos regime which is estimated to have grown to more than ₱100 billion.
Consequently, the government is mandated to render P75 billion cash of the coconut levy assets in the next five years to generate a trust fund for the coconut farmers. The proposed measure would aid an estimated 3.5 million coconut cultivators, who do not own more than 5 hectares of farmland, from 68 coconut-producing provinces.
However, farmers expressed dismay over the constituted management committee that is set to strategize the investment of the trust fund as it only consists of representatives from the Department of Finance (DOF), Department of Budget and Management (DOBM), and Department of Justice (DOJ). The plea to include a farmer representative and an official from the DA were rejected by the rest of the senators, excluding Senators Francis Pangilinan, Risa Hontiveros, and Franklin Drilon.
“We respect the decision of the body, but we strongly believe that our coconut farmers should be involved in all aspects of the decision-making process in the management of the coconut levy funds. It is, after all, their money — the blood, sweat, and tears of our coconut farmers,” said Pangilinan, the principal author of the bill.
In addition, Pambansang Kilusan ng Magbubukid sa Pilipinas (PKMP) Chairman Ed Mora questioned the government’s plan of involving the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) since its Board, which consists of 15 members, only allotted three seats for farmer representatives.
“Why do they want to give it to PCA? What we want is for the government to create a trust fund committee composed of many farmers. This fund should be under the OP [Office of the President] and farmers should have direct access to it,” Mora said in an interview. “PCA has a very poor track record in terms of supporting the farmers. I have nothing against PCA but it has been there for a long time and yet coconut farmers are still poor. Why are we trusting them with the implementation of the Coco Levy Act?”
Oppression amidst the pandemic
Despite the strict imposition of lockdown protocols set by the Philippine government, the number of peasant attacks and killings continues to rise. According to the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) and Tanggol Magsasaka (TM), a total of 262 farmers and peasant leaders were murdered since July 2016, 190 of them were assassinated in the past seven months.
“It alarms us that even Filipino farmers, who are food security frontliners, in a country barely winning the battle against the COVID-19, have become targets of the Philippine government’s more brutal crackdown,” said Peter Murphy, Chairperson of the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP).
The latest case happened last September 29, where the beheaded body of a local farmer identified as Bernardo Guillen was retrieved in Baranggay Tan-awan, Kabankalan City in Negros Occidental. Reports indicated that the victim had gone AWOL since September 17 after a said encounter between the military and the members of the New People’s Army occurred in the area. Guillen’s son, Bernard Guillen, an activist and member of Mabinay 6, was also arrested by the military on the mere suspicion of being an NPA rebel.
“We call on our international colleagues to press for the accountability of state forces in the killings, arrests and other human rights violations in the Philippines,” ICHRP said in a statement.
On October 16, the government is set to announce its National Food Policy (NFP) as part of the World Food Day celebration. Expectations are high as Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles announced that the programs planned will target to increase farm productivity and the incomes of farmers.