Apr 11, 2008

Solutions to the Philippines Rice Crisis?

Just to make sure that I'm not stealing anyone's thunder, I want all of you to know that JEN (not I) came across this article from UPI Asia Online written by a Mong Palatino, a Filipino youth activist commenting on the government's proposed solutions to the current rice crisis. Here is a good portion of the article:
MANILA, Philippines 

Earlier, the government had proposed the reduction of tariffs to ease prices of agricultural products, especially rice. A Cabinet member is appealing to the public to reduce consumption of rice or to replace rice with other root crops. Restaurants are asked to serve a half-cup of rice to their customers. The private sector is enjoined to practice corporate farming or to ensure that employees are given rice subsidies through planting of rice by the country's biggest corporations.

Public universities are told to open their gymnasiums so they can be used as rice warehouses. Agricultural colleges are encouraged to increase farm demonstration laboratories to bolster the administration's food security and stability program.

The military was ordered to make military trucks and aerial logistics available for the delivery and distribution of rice around the country. Police forces were mobilized to guard against rice smuggling. The government cancelled the licenses of rice traders to weed out unscrupulous merchants. Agricultural officials are conducting spot inspections of rice warehouses to monitor the rice supply in the country.

President Arroyo reported that she has succeeded in persuading Vietnam and other countries from Southeast Asia to continue exporting rice to the Philippines.

Is the government doing enough to avert a full-blown rice and food crisis? Many people are not satisfied with the proposed action plan of the government. Senators are looking for a master plan which will comprehensively tackle the modernization of Philippine agriculture.

Many people believe the government failed to act quickly when Thailand and Vietnam restricted rice exports to the Philippines a few years ago. What was done to raise rice production in the Philippines? What support programs were implemented to boost productivity of Filipino farmers? The government-sponsored food summit was a belated effort of the government to compensate for its initial failure to draft a sustainable agricultural program.

Accusing the people of wasteful consumption of rice is unfair. The Senate president was right when he asserted, "There is nothing wrong with our eating habits, but there is with the government's spending priorities." Another lawmaker also argued, "The problem is not wasteful consumption but inadequate consumption. How can you waste rice when there is no rice to waste in the first place?"

Opposition parties are proposing the immediate release of local calamity funds for farmers. They also suggest that local governments should establish a food security early warning mechanism to ensure targeted distribution of rice.

The opposition believes that reactivation of peace talks with rebels will allow the unimpeded cultivation, planting, tending and harvesting of crops in conflict areas. Finally, creation of special investigative and prosecutorial teams is proposed to run after hoarders and corrupt elements in the agriculture department.

The government's proposed solutions to the rice and food crisis can be described as palliative. They do not address the root of the problem. The government continues to endorse rice importation and agricultural liberalization despite its failure to revive Philippine agriculture.

In fact, peasant groups explain that the country's growing dependence on rice imports is the reason behind the worsening rice crisis. A senator notes that rice importation "symbolizes the government's neglect of the local agriculture sector." An NGO adds, "Rice importation has not resulted in lowered rice prices, but worsened the bankruptcy of farmers and even placed the country in greater food insecurity."

Peasant groups want the government to increase local procurement of rice instead of relying on imports. The government, not rice traders, should buy more rice and other agricultural products from farmers. This will improve farmers' income while preventing greedy merchants from exploiting poor farmers.

Land-use conversions of rice lands should be stopped. Food crops should be prioritized over cash crops and biofuel crops. The bloated funding for debt and war spending should be realigned to food production. The rice cartel should be dismantled. Rice smugglers should be charged with economic sabotage.

Finally, the rice crisis today is an opportunity to review the land reform programs of the government in the past four decades. Landlessness remains a fundamental problem in Philippine society. Agricultural production is still backward. Perhaps it is time to implement a genuine agrarian reform. A sound agricultural system will propel the Philippine economy. At the same time, it will ensure that all Filipinos have access to food at all times.
**Read the complete article

Personally I think the government's agricultural reform is too little and too late. Self-sufficiency should be the first priority. Instead of over-relying on imports, they should try investing in the domestic rice trade and develop locations like Mindanao, where there is so much potential to grow and mass produce rice. All these farmers need is an incentive to grow–to be able to make a profit AND feed their own families at the same time. No straight-headed farmer is going to work the land if they don't reap any benefits right?

It's definitely a win-win solution for the Philippines if they invest smartly in their own agricultural sector. This would mean less foreign dependency, more supply and affordable rice for the nation, and a chance to stimulate the local economies of neglected (but resourceful) regions of the Philippines.