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Philippine farmers in the sunset

August 8, 2014 · 

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By Narciso M. Reyes Jr. |Philippine Daily Inquirer
| Friday, August 8th, 2014

Extract.

Like Don Quixote tilting at windmills, we are fighting an agrarian reform battle in a futile fashion, almost comical were it not so tragic. And we are doing it more than four decades late, in a world where high technology and bigness hold sway.

While our prosperous neighbors like Japan, South Korea and  Taiwan initiated their genuine agrarian reform programs immediately after World War II, under the driving force of authoritarian regimes backstopped by Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s directives, Philippine land reform (in the 1950s) was emasculated from the start by a landlord-dominated ruling class. Even the final product, the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) and the CARP Extension Reforms (Carper), is a case of a good medicine given too late to an ailing patient.

Space constraints prevent me from elaborating on Washington’s puzzling behavior. Suffice it to say that in US eyes, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan were frontline states that had to be economically and institutionally strengthened to contain communism, and the Philippines was not.

In retrospect, the 4-decade head start of those countries in agrarian reform gave them the human-resource edge that would eventually form the base of their large middle class, as they successfully made the transition from agrarian to fully developed economies in record time.

Recently, Raul Fabella, a former dean of the University of the Philippines’ School of Economics, caused a stir with his article, “CARP: Time to Let Go.” The gist of Fabella’s contention, for which he was vilified (for voicing an unpleasant truth), is that despite CARP’s outstanding land redistribution record, it has failed to lift farmers from grinding poverty.

One doesn’t have to be a development expert to see, in bold capital letters, the gloomy handwriting on the wall for our small farmers: Their impoverished farms—romanticized by Amorsolo’s charming rural scenes of farmers planting rice, vivacious women basking in the warm sun as they walked the rice fields harvesting the season’s crop, an innocent boy with his carabao and quaint nipa huts in the background—have all but vanished from the countryside, replaced by subdivisions, factories, commercial establishments, honky-tonk and sleazy bars, and other hallmarks of rapid urbanization. But sadly, most of our small farmers were never able to make the transition from human bondage to land ownership and viable modern farming.

Aside from the urbanization juggernaut, our aging farmers have three formidable problems to deal with. First, with their meager farm income, their children (often with their encouragement) are flocking to the cities, drawn by the bright lights and much higher income.

Second, their small farms can never compete with the huge and fully integrated agribusinesses which are squeezing them out of existence. Third, the geographical handicap of violent weather, with typhoons averaging 15 annually, is ravaging their fields. Agribusinesses are also affected by bad weather, but they have the superior resources to cope with nature’s vagaries.

A recent news report about the poignant plight of the Ifugao rice terraces highlights the reality of our farmers in the sunset: A farmer in his fifties plowing his small plot of land, like his ancestors did during the millennia, laments the crumbling landscape that was once touted as the eighth wonder of the world, as more and more farmers are unable to work in their advanced age and their children are unwilling to continue the ancient tradition.

“It’s getting very difficult… None of our children want to follow our footsteps. They are attracted by the better life in the cities… Who can blame them?” the old man said.

Narciso M. Reyes Jr. (ngreyes1640@hotmail) is a former journalist and diplomat. He has a farm in Romblon.

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