By Walter Balane, Armando Fenequito, Rey Garcia and Julie Jubelag/Aspire 5 News
SINAYAWAN, Valencia City – Francisco Matulac never got tired. At 68, he still farms rice like he did in 30 years. His neighbors would always see him as an able-bodied old man. He never runs out of anything to fix. Work in the farm and the household make him happy.
But not on this particular cropping season. In a backyard shed are 50 bags of organic fertilizers he bought but cannot use. For the past days, he has been cursing about it. He and the 38 members of the Lateral G-7 Bayanihan Irrigators Association here were unable to plant rice due to lack of water. Bukidnon, initially not in the forecast, is among the 32 provinces affected by the El Niño.
He knew they cannot blame it all on the weather. The other problem, Matulac added, is that the government did not act swiftly to help farmers prepare for the dry spell.
“Wala na gani ulan, manhid pagihapon kaayo ang NIA (National Irrigation Administration) sa ilang mahal nga irrigation fee (While we have no rains, the National Irrigation Administration refuses to waive irrigation fees),” he said.
Bobo Narciso, head of the Abag Kalambuan (Support Development) peoples’ organization, one of the biggest associations of farmers in southern Bukidnon, said the concerns of small farmers like Matulac should be at the core of the 2016 national election candidates’ agenda for Mindanao – considered the country’s food basket.
“The problem is they are giving us motherhood statements about their plans,” he added in a telephone interview Thursday night.
Narciso cited the promises of presidential candidates to work for an increase of the budget for Mindanao to boost agriculture and the economy of the region as a whole.
During the presidential debate in Cagayan de Oro on February 21, Sen. Grace Poe and Davao City mayor Rodrigo Duterte spoke of the need to increase the budget share, which at present is P380.9 billion or 22.2 percent of the P3 trillion national budget in 2016.[VIEW INFO-GRAPHICS: Regional Share of Mindanao’s P380.9 billion budget (Source: MinDA)
“The electorate should push for the candidates to cite concrete examples. The devil is in the details,” he said.
Narciso speaks to farmers in a forum in Don Carlos, Bukidnon, Philippines
Narciso’s FB Account
Narciso said they wanted to check if candidates are with them on specific concerns.
Farmers feared the unknown about their fate in the economic integration brought by the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations), he said. He explained that with zero tariff on agricultural products, among others, they cannot compete without sufficient and appropriate government support.
“We need price subsidies for major farming inputs such as fertilizer. We want to decrease irrigation service fees, among others. Are they in favor of that?” he asked.
He said pushing for an increase in the budget for Mindanao is not enough. The candidates should also reveal how they will use the budget, he added.
“If we have an increased budget, well and good. But if they will just use it to build airports and seaports in the urban centers, then it doesn’t directly help ,” he said.
Farmers in Mindanao needed more and longer farm to market roads, post harvest facilities, cold storage and other facilities.
“Is their bigger budget for Mindanao going to agriculture and is it intended for the small farmers or for the multinational corporations?” he asked.
Except for Senator Miriam Santiago, all four other presidential candidates, Vice President Jejomar Binay, Duterte, Poe and Manuel Roxas III have expressed more than one specific programs on agriculture as of February 25, based on an online research by Aspire 5 News.
All the four, except Roxas, pronounced making irrigation available for free. [VIEW INFO-GRAPHICS: The Presidential Bets and their Agriculture Agenda]
According to gov.ph, the over-all budget for the Department of Agriculture for the country in 2016 is at P93.4 billion. This is nothing compared to the budget of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) at P766.5 billion with about P268.4 billion intended to pave all national roads by 2016 and construct access roads to airports, seaports, and tourist destinations.
In North Cotabato, the farmers’ group Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) said the additional budget increase will not help the plight of the farmers.
Jerry Alborme, KMP spokesperson told Aspire 5 News via telephone the farmers are always left behind in the budget even this year with a 25.7 percent increase or about P78 billion additional allocation for Mindanao.
“Wala man gyud na (nila) matilawi sukad pa na sa una (They have never experienced any development),” he said.
Alborme said that until now farmers still face woes like lack of water system and farming assistance. LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW : Jerry Alborme, KMP-North Cotabato
“Kanunay gyud naga krisis ang kinabuhi sa mga mag-uuma nga mao man unta ang nagahimo og mga produkto sa atong nasod (The life of of the farmers are always in crisis even if they are the ones who made the food products),” he said.
Most farmers have been buried in debts especially that the province has experienced dry spell.
“Here in North Cotabato, the only response of our government is the P4 million cloud seeding,” he added.
Alborme said for the farmers, the dry spell is just a secondary concern.
The primary disaster, he added, is that their farm products are bought at a cheap price (in the market).
Romeo Montenegro, director for investments and public affairs of the Mindanao Development Authority (MinDA), in a telephone interview said the issues raised by the farmers are valid.
But he clarified that while it appeared that the budget for farm to market roads is smaller compared to the budget for highways, airports, and seaports it doesn’t mean small farmers were neglected.
He said the cost of building airports and seaports is always higher than how much it would to build farm to market roads.
Montenegro said increasing the budget for Mindanao has always been the goal. But it should be viewed at per capita share. He argued that Mindanao’s per capita share of the budget is now higher compared to those of Luzon and the Visayas.
“(This means Mindanao residents are better off compared to years ago),” he added. As of midnight, Montenegro was unable to send a copy of the report showing the per capita figures.
The farmers are worried about another thing.
Alborme from KMU’s North Cotabato chapter said any additional budget might be diverted.
“It has been a tradition of our politics in the country that the candidate of the administration will use it to buy votes,” he said.
Armida Pajaron, a community officer of a non-government organization supporting farmers in Valencia City said agriculture is one of the sectors prone to corruption.
“I observed that most budgets for farmers implemented by DA (Department of Agriculture) go to whoever is close to their heart,” she added.
A farmer in Dabongdabong, Valencia City inspects a rice stalk
Photo courtesy of Masipag Mindanao
At the time it reaches the farm level, she said, it has already gone through a lot of cuts. She said the government should address this problem.
“You can have a big budget on paper high above, but it doesn’t mean that intended recipients at the grassroots get it all,” she said in the vernacular.
Some of DA’s projects on fertilizer and seed subsidies became controversial. VIEW RELATED STORY: DA investigators find irregularities in P30M NIA organic fertilizer project.
Alborme said that the government should provide assistance to farmers for fertilizers and seedlings, especially in times of calamity.
The farmers, he said, are always short of money because calamities damaged their crops.
He urged that the next national government officials should pass the Genuine Agrarian Reform Bill into law to address the issue of land distribution, one of the major factors of production.
Alborme said he also urged other farmer groups to exert pressure on Congress to pass the bill.
The problem with Congress, he added, is some of their members are also big landlords.
Abag Kalambuan’s Narciso said farmers want their government to listen to their needs.
“They can’t make plans addressing poverty and development here if the government don’t come and talk to us,” he said.
Bukidnon and North Cotabato were two of the 16 poorest provinces in the country in 2014.
Francisco Matulac, the farmer from Sinayawan, Valencia City, is cursing as he covered his bags of fertilizers with tarp late that afternoon.
He said it’s the government who earned his ire for its failure to act on the farmers’ needs.
“The El Nino is bad for us, but their slow response is the worse disaster,” Matulac said. (Walter Balane, Armando Fenequito, Rey Garcia and Julie Jubelag/Aspire 5 News)