[OPINION] The price we pay when we neglect our farmers
What extreme circumstance could have possibly compelled a 58-year-old farmer to take his own life?
That question has been nagging at me since I learned earlier this week that I will no longer see Mang Dante* when we go back to Nueva Ecija for our planned medical mission.
The first time I met Mang Dante was when I did an interview with him, along with two other farmers, prior to the event that Team Pilipinas sponsored for them last December.
The second was during the event itself, the Maagang Pamasko para sa Magsasakang Pilipino, an early Christmas party that we threw for our beloved Nueva Ecija farmers who were severely affected by the implementation of the Rice Tariffication Law early last year.
During those two occasions, I remembered one thing about Mang Dante. He had the saddest eyes I had ever seen.
I was not sure if it was due to the years of working like a horse tilling his land from sun-up to sun-down, and moonlighting as a construction worker – two backbreaking jobs that, sadly, both yield a meager income.
Is it due to the incessant stress of having to feed, send to school, and financially support 5 children?
Together with his wife who works as a dressmaker, Mang Dante hoped that, through education, the next generation of their family would be able to break the shackles of extreme poverty that crippled them and the generations before them.
Is it because he could no longer work his beloved land after he had a stroke one and a half years ago, a condition which left him partially paralyzed?
Nobody really knows. But Mang Dante was a dignified man, who felt he was bonded to the precious farmland that he was used to working for so long.
Last December, when Mang Dante received his Noche Buena packages and other Christmas gifts (the same items that we brought for all 106 of our recipient-farmers), as well as a cash gift from a donor for his therapy, I witnessed a glimmer of happiness in his usually tired, dull eyes.
I mourn the fact that I will never see Mang Dante again.
Aside from regret, there is that guilt that we were not able to do more for him, and the frustration of not having enough resources to alleviate our farmers’ suffering. The feeling that’s gripping me right now is resentment. (READ: [ANALYSIS] Plummeting rice prices: How will our rice farmers cope?)
The Philippines was the world's biggest rice importer in 2019 due to the lifting of quantitative restrictions on rice imports. We got that rank despite the fact that we are a predominantly agricultural country. (READ: [ANALYSIS] Duterte's ban on rice imports: Enough of these capricious policies)
Meanwhile, our local farmers went bankrupt. Some could not even sell their palay unless they offered it at an extremely low price. (READ: Rice tarrification: Birth pains force farmers' kids out of school)
The government was also able to get more than its estimated P10 billion in tariffs from these imports, yet when our local farmers struggled to make ends meet, they were offered loans and credit instead of sufficient grants and cash subsidies.
Hoping to be heard, farmers' groups submitted some 50,000 signatures for its petition to repeal the Rice Tarrification Law to the House of Representatives. But so far, there are hardly any plans to repeal, revise, or suspend the said law.
The government has been repeating promises to put an end to corruption, and stop rice cartels and other entities from manipulating rice prices. Until now, farmers continue to lose big-time to unscrupulous rice traders, smugglers, cartels, and hoarders.
Finally, I resent how there are government officials who add insult to injury through their insensitive public pronouncements, such as “Baliw na baliw kayo sa research (You're going gaga over research),” and “Why eat galunggong if it’s too expensive?”
There are also those whose insatiable greed drives them to buy rice and corn farms and convert them into subdivisions, without consideration of future generations that will be deprived of their staple food.
If not for these kinds of power wielders, our farmers will not be as miserable as they are now. They will not be suffering as much.
Mang Dante may even be alive today.
Binhi ng pag-asa
Mang Dante’s story became our inspiration for the next Team Pilipinas project, tentatively titled Binhi ng Pag-asa.
Our aim is to provide a lifeline to farmers who need moral and financial support until an actual solution is in sight. We want them to know that there is hope, and that there are people who would like to help.
Plans are still tentative, but we would like to cover as many towns as our resources would allow. We plan to coordinate with the municipal agricultural offices, and distribute seeds and fertilizers to approximately 100 farmers from each town or two per barangay.
We plan to do this for each crop cycle, or 3 times a year.
To this end, we would like to make an appeal to generous ninongs and ninangs, whether as individuals or as corporate sponsors, to pledge an estimated P1500 per year.
Last Christmas, the municipal agricultural office of Talavera distributed free seeds, and we gave each farmer 2 bags of fertilizers at P250 per bag. Assuming this price is standard in all the areas covered, P1500 should be enough for one year’s supply of fertilizers.
We also hope to gather government officials, agricultural experts and NGOs in a forum to work together to share best practices – both in planting and in marketing – and share the forum’s recommendations to all interested farmers.
Finally, we would like to keep our promise to Mang Dante to return to Talavera with a medical and dental mission this March.
Please email email@example.com if you would like to volunteer your services for the medical mission this March. We will be needing doctors, nurses, dentists, dental hygienists, as well as civilian volunteers. We will also be needing various medicines and hygiene kits.
For financial donations and pledges, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. We will get in touch with you as soon as we’ve set up our accounts. – Rappler.com
*Note: Name has been changed per the daughter's request to hide her father's identity.
Lorelei Baldonado Aquino, 46, is a University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman alumna. She works as a freelance writer and an active volunteer for Team Pilipinas, a group established for those who want to do their own small share to be part of the solution to our country's myriad of problems. She is also the blogger behind Mom on a Mission.