"Here’s how it works."
Jose Rizal’s family, history tells us, planted rice and other crops in their property in Calamba, Laguna -- part of it no doubt for home consumption, the rest presumably for sale, as they engaged successfully in business during their time.
This small detail in our history serves to remind us of two things. One, that rice remains the staple food of Filipinos, and two, that rice production and trade have been part and parcel of our economic history, and likely to continue as such in the years to come.
The current situation of our rice farmers, however, leaves much to be desired.
The experience of Guillermo Villareal, a rice farmer from Puting Tubig in Gapan City in Nueva Ecija province is typical:
“Noong nakaraang tag-ulan, nagpaani ako. Inalok ko sa trader. Katawad-tawad nila, sampu! Sabi ko doon sa trader, ‘Diyos ko naman, maawa naman kayo sa amin. Parang gusto niyo hingin na lang yung palay namin. Baka pwede naman dagdagan niyo kahit konti sa sampu.’ Ang ginawa, 10.10. Naku, naluha ako! Napakamura talaga, sabi ko... Kawawa naman kaming magsasaka. Dinadapurak kami nang todo... Alam niyo ang naramdaman ko, para akong pinagtakluban ng langit at lupa. Kung walang bigas, mabubuhay ba tayo?” (During the last rainy season, I harvested palay. Traders offered to buy my produce at 10 pesos per kilo. I told them, have pity on us. Maybe you could add a little more to 10 pesos. They said, we’ll give you P10.10. I told them, ‘the price is so low’, like they just wanted us to give it to them for free...We farmers are being treated like dirt, and our lives have turned really miserable. Rice is a vital part of our livelihood. Without rice, would we still be able to live?)
The province of Nueva Ecija is considered the country’s “rice bowl,” sometimes as its “rice granary,” since it is the leading producer of rice in Central Luzon and in the entire archipelago.
The Philippines recorded its highest rice production level at 19.44 million metric tons (MT) in 2020, according to the Department of Agriculture. This figure is higher than the 18.81 million MT produced in 2019 and the 19.07 million MT recorded in 2018. The increased palay output was achieved despite the destructive typhoons that hit several provinces and the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the high rice production level in recent years has not led to a corresponding increase in the lives of rice farmers.
Part of the reason is the Rice Tariffication Law (RTL) or Republic Act (RA) 11203 passed by Congress in 2019. This law replaced quantitative restrictions on rice imports with a 35-percent tariff for ASEAN imports and a 50 tariff for non-ASEAN imports. Given these rates, rice imported mainly from Thailand and Vietnam sells at very low prices, putting local farmers like Guillermo Villareal and others like him at a clear disadvantage.
The RTL also removed the regulatory functions of the National Food Authority (NFA) over rice importation and streamlined the process of acquiring import permits. As a result, big corporations with massive capital have been able to dominate the industry and bring in huge amounts of cheap imported rice.
Aside from liberalizing and deregulating the rice industry, the RTL also provides for mechanization which will result in the massive displacement of rural workers.
With rice farmers in Nueva Ecija now also bearing the brunt of the adverse effects of the Rice Tariffication Law, the provincial government led by Governor Aurelio Umali has moved to provide responsible and decisive leadership to help them cope with hard times through the Palay Price Support Program (PPSP).
The program, first implemented in October 2019, seeks to augment the income of marginalized Novo Ecijano farmers affected by weak palay prices by giving them remunerative assistance.
Here’s how it works.
The provincial government directly purchases the harvest of beneficiary farmers for a premium price higher than the prevailing farmgate price at the time of procurement. Palay procured under the program is processed and traded by the Provincial Government in its dry form or as “Malasakit Rice” which is then sold at an affordable price to ordinary consumers as well as institutional buyers.
The scheme follows the social enterprise concept that seeks to respond to a pressing social need while ensuring sustainability in its operations.
The target beneficiaries of the program are actual rice producers in the province who may be owners, tenants or tillers working the farm not exceeding three (3) hectares in area and are considered poor farmers based on socio-economic vulnerability indicators.
The program provides an additional safety net for smallholder Novo Ecijano farmers who are most affected by the continued decline in palay prices. It’s a precious shot in the arm for impoverished small rice farmers as it gives them sufficient marginal income, and reduces their dependence on traders/intermediaries and their vulnerability to price manipulation and price slumps. Plus, it makes affordable local rice available to consumers.
Governor Umali’s program is timely and looks just what the doctor ordered, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But let us allow farmer Angelita Valerito of Kalikid Sur, Cabanatuan City to say what’s on her mind on this issue: “Sang-ayon ako sa ganitong proyekto na nabibigyan pansin kaming mga maliliit na magsasaka. Kung umani man kami ng ganon karami o ganon kaunti, hindi na kukurot pa sa puhunan. Kahit papano mayroon kaming kita na masasabi....Yun talaga ang kaibahan na meron kaming Gov na maaasahan sa panahon ng anihan. Malaking tulong para sa amin ito.” (I support this project as it gives attention to small farmers like us. Whether we earn enough or very little does not matter as we still have enough income to speak of. We’re fortunate to have a Governor we can depend on at harvest time.”
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