The landed poor

February 18, 2016 at 11:20

The landed poor

by: Ana Marie Pamintuan | February 17, 2016

A young man I know left his province in Bicol when he was just out of his teens to work in Manila. About a year ago he returned to his home village so he could always be with his teenage wife and their year-old daughter.

The wife had worked briefly as a maid in Manila, leaving their daughter in their Bicol village in the care of the guy’s mom, who also babysat regularly for her other sons’ children. The maid decided to return to the village after being told that her daughter kept looking for her and cried constantly.

The village is an agrarian community, where the guy’s brothers raise ducks for penoy, balut and meat. The guy tried his hand at growing rice, but gave it up after local officials banned them from drying palay on the pavement. Paying for drying and other post-harvest facilities was beyond their means.

Next the guy tried driving a tricycle. Recently he sent word that he wanted to return to Manila to find a job because his wife is pregnant again and his tricycle was going to be sold by the owner.

In 2014, the mother and daughter went to Manila to spend Christmas with the father. Mother and child looked malnourished; the toddler looked stunted for her age. These days with their money problems, they must look emaciated.

Bicol, my Tsinoy mother’s home region, is blessed with fertile soil and waters teeming with fish and shellfish. In my visits to the region I’ve stuffed my face with a type of giant razor clam caught in Sorsogon, sold along the highway and cooked at roadside stalls.

Driving up to Mayon Volcano, it was always a delight to see the road lush with vegetation. The slopes teemed with abaca and pili trees, with a dense undergrowth of pako – the edible fern that Bicolanos simmer in spicy coconut cream, sometimes mixed with various types of snails when available. Jackfruits kissed the ground, the trees bursting with so much fruit it must be how locals learned to cook the unripe fruit in coconut cream and boil the pits for a healthy snack. During the rainy season, residents collected edible mushrooms.

I always thought that you could stick anything into the ground in Bicol and it would grow. So it’s disheartening to see anyone, especially children, malnourished in the region due to poverty.

And yet this situation is hardly unique in our archipelago. Much of our countryside is agricultural. Economists and investors recently pointed out, however, that agriculture has been neglected, with the sector contracting over the years instead of becoming a key engine of inclusive growth.

Even the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program, derailed by the landed political class since it was launched during the administration of Corazon Aquino, has been hobbled by the lack of infrastructure and support services to sustain small farms.

The result, as described in a report by the Joint Foreign Chambers of the Philippines, is the emergence of the “landed poor.”

In several countries, social and political revolutions sprung from the peasant class. When the movements succeeded, the leaders gave priority to agrarian development, creating jobs and livelihood opportunities in the countryside and assisting farmers and agribusiness enterprises in penetrating markets.

This meant investing heavily in rural road networks, modern irrigation, seed and fertilizer support. It meant providing farmers access to affordable post-harvest facilities and farm machinery as well as credit under terms reasonable enough to encourage private sector participation.

In our case, our farmers have remained heavily dependent mainly on themselves for farm services, vulnerable to nature’s whims, clueless about potential markets even for great products.

Even in other aspects of agriculture – aquaculture, livestock raising, dairy, salt production – we have not only failed to maximize the potentials but are even endangering their existence.

Bicol’s goby called sinarapan, the world’s smallest commercial fish, for example, is disappearing from Camarines Sur’s Lakes Buhi and Bato, endangered by fish pens and pollution. In Batangas, Taal Lake’s distinctive aquatic ecosystem, which produces the delectable maliputo, is also threatened by tilapia pens.

Bohol produces a unique type of salt called asin tibuok. Over several months, coconut husks are soaked in seawater and then dried and burned. The brine is then boiled in clay pots to produce salt blocks that should fetch as much if not more than France’s fleur de sel and all those artisanal salts that are now in vogue. Asin tibuok is a labor of love, but it’s a dying enterprise. It deserves production and marketing support from the government.

Guimaras mango is incomparable and could fuel job-generating agribusiness. Yet a young woman I know who left Guimaras to work in Manila says her village in the province remains accessible only by an hour-long boat ride. The village is so poor there’s no electricity or piped water, and when she last visited she still had to climb up a dirt trail to reach her village on a hill.

The Ilocos Region should register its pungent garlic as a traditional specialty, appellation Ilocandia, together with its Vigan longganiza.

Even milk from our native water buffalo deserves widespread propagation. It’s unusually rich and would be perfect not just for milk production but also for mozzarella making.

Bicol itself can use a boost in its pili production. The nut tastes better than almond and can be used to make marzipan, and it has great potential for producing cooking oil.

We have excellent highland rice, including the varieties grown in the terraced paddies of Banaue and Bontoc, where younger generations unfortunately no longer want to become rice farmers. Today there are groups producing fine mountain coffee and there’s award-winning single-origin chocolate from Malagos in Davao. Tagaytay produces one of the best pineapples. I consider Iloilo’s guinamos the best shrimp paste in the world.

Approximately 73 percent of the country’s poor live in rural areas, with poverty incidence highest among farmers and fisherfolk. About 12 million Filipinos – close to a third of the workforce – rely on the agriculture sector for livelihood.

All the presidential candidates are mouthing promises about making economic growth inclusive. This cannot happen without greater attention being given to agriculture. The next administration cannot afford to keep the agriculture sector in a state of neglect.



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