When President Rodrigo Duterte assumed the Presidency in 2016, his agriculture secretary Manny Pinol glowingly predicted the coming of the golden age of Philippine agriculture under the new administration.
It’s been almost 3 years since that highly optimistic forecast, and this is where we are now:
We are importing from China our own fish caught in the waters of our West Philippines Sea; With a President who is unabashedly very cozy with China, we have virtually abdicated out rights over these rich fishing grounds. In so doing, we have also abandoned our poor fishermen to the clutches of the Chinese and literally gave up our fishing industry to a foreign power.
Rice, our staple, is still being sold from other countries in quality our grandparents would never have touched. Worse, it is also sold at atrocious prices after disappearing for several months in 2017;
Tons and tons of vegetables – tomatoes, garlic, onions, cabbage carrots – are left rotting in upland farms every now and then. The standard answer here is that a glut was the reason why these happened. No one it seemed had addressed the rumors that midnight importation from China had caused the glut that led to the tragedy of our farmers leaving their precious produce to rot because they can no longer compete in their very own market.
The same thing is happening to sugar, our sugar, except that we have planters who are ready to fight to protect the industry even if our government refuses to. And in very critical times, people themselves have proven they will rise and rally behind our planters as in that time when government – yes, including Pinol – allowed the importation of high-fructose corn syrup which unfairly competed with our sugar.
Now, they’re pushing for the liberalization of sugar, which simply and starkly means the death of the industry. It will allow the entry of foreign sugar into our country and as things now stand, we cannot compete nor survive.
Imagine if our planters were as timid and voiceless as our vegetable farmers, We surely would again have the glut that preceded the sugar crisis in the 70s and 80s. Perhaps we can check what is happening in the communities where our vegetable farms are located. It wouldn’t be a surprise to find Joel Abong living there now.
The National Economic Development Authority is saying liberalizing sugar will redound to the country’s good because consumers will now have cheaper sugar. With cheaper sugar, so NEDA thinks, manufacturers will b encouraged to produce more, making more commodities. This, of course, is backed by logic found in the books.
Our experience tells us something else. As with other goods that have been liberalized, a mafia will rise that will control the importation of sugar, a ring that will still control the prices. How sure are we then that liberalization will lead to lower prices? All we have to do is look at the rice industry. Importation has not helped bring the prices down, even as it has strangled rice farmers to near extinction.
Maybe then government can impose price ceilings for these goods, but then again, our experience with price controls has always been traumatic for us, the ordinary consumers. Tell me: is rice in this rice-consuming country affordable? That’s one commodity that has been under price control and we could still barely afford it. And worse, the quality of the rice on our tables has deteriorated as well. More than market forces, the rice industry now is controlled by cartels. And our government wants to do that to sugar
Too, after liberalization kills sugar, will there even be consumers who will buy those “cheaper” goods that will cheaper sugar will inspire?
The usual accusation of those economic bright boys in Manila is that our sugar planters are brats who want to hold on to the past. Maybe. But let us also ask them: what has government really done to grow the sugar industry? This industry once helped feed this country, what did it get in return from government to ensure its survival?
We once seriously tried to diversify as fall back in case sugar stumbled. The best and brightest among us tried. There were prawns, ramie, guapple and other fruits. But it was left to the provincial government to support their efforts. The national government showed token support. Our growers were left on their own to produce these new crops. They did not have the technology nor the needed research arm, nor the marketing means to sell these new agricultural products.
No, Mr. Pinol, there will be no golden age for Philippine agriculture. That’[s all a dream that will mean a life-and-death nightmare for us here, in the country’s sugar bowl.*