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Voices from the field: Farmers need more gov’t assistance

Farmers say they need more government support for more sustainable livelihood

STRUGGLING FARMERS. Small-scale and subsistence farmers in rural communities in the Philippines are challenged by food insecurity, limited alternative sources of livelihood and poverty. Photo by Karen Liao/Rappler

QUEZON PROVINCE, Philippines – “Napakahirap sa lahat, ang matulog nang gutom (The hardest of all is to sleep hungry).” 

Rice farmer and fisherman Rolando Merto, 57, still remembers November 2004, when flash floods and mudslides swept through Infanta, Quezon Province. His village, Barangay Bubuin, was one of the many communities that suffered from the disaster triggered by a typhoon, along with those in Real and General Nakar, also in Quezon.

For farmers like him who rely on subsistence agriculture to feed families and for income, the loss was severe, and even traumatic.

Communities saw bodies on the shore or buried in the mud, or dogs underneath cut logs and uprooted trees. The fallen trees, locals say, were the consequence of widespread illegal logging in the province.

Plantations were ruined and some locals had to rely on fishing, which was also difficult due to weather conditions. Others ended up borrowing money from neighbors. Some locals would agree it was the worst disaster the province has experienced in years, that not even calamities brought about by more recent typhoons could compete.

Food insecurity

Merto said that during the days of the calamity, they did not have enough to eat. His family no longer had enough bigas or rice grains. They had to ration their meals. Relief efforts could not reach their area immediately, blocked by the flash floods, mudslides and heavy rain. Some aid eventually arrived but locals said it had to be transported across the sea. Many parts of the land area were uncultivated for a long time.

The time came when rice from the National Food Authority (NFA) was already being sold in town, after relief goods had already run out after a month’s distribution. Merto asked his son to buy a kilo. But when they cooked the rice, he said the rice smelled so bad, he could not eat it.

He believes the NFA rice bags were kept in storage for so long (to reserve them for calamities) it had gone stale. He said he tried to eat it, but he couldn’t. Hunger and frustration brought tears to his eyes. He ended up just eating fish and the soup that came with it. He still went to sleep with an unfilled stomach.

SURVIVING. Rolando Merto shares his experience of hunger during a disaster, and the challenges of being a farmer and a fisherman. Photo by Karen Liao/Rappler

Food security and poverty are everyday struggles for Merto and many other locals not only in Barangay Bubuin, Infanta, but in many other communities where farming and fishing are key sources of livelihood and alternative sources of employment and income are lacking.

Disasters and extreme weather conditions – from flash floods and continuous heavy rains to tropical storms and strong earthquakes – aggravate food insecurity for many communities. They increase the risk of hunger especially when access to food is blocked and relief distribution is limited.

But for small-scale farmers and fishermen in the countryside, in rural areas and in far-off provinces, their vulnerability is heightened not just by these environmental conditions, but also by the cumulative challenge of few livelihood opportunities, lack of education, and poverty. 

Filipino farmers like Merto can relate to the broader problem of hunger and food insecurity in the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), majority of hungry people in the world live in developing countries, particularly those in Asia and Africa. Many of them live in poor, rural communities and depend on agriculture for food.

The FAO estimates that nearly half of hungry people in the world live in small farming communities with some land area, while another 20% rely on farming but do not own land at all. Meanwhile, some 10% rely on fishing and forestry. 

HUNGER AFFECTS FOOD PRODUCERS. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says majority of the hungry live in rural areas in developing countries, including farming communities. Photo by Karen Liao/Rappler

Difficulty with fishing

We do get to eat, said Merto, who relies on both farming and fishing to feed his family and to earn some money. But it’s always not enough, especially if you speak of food with enough vitamins and sustenance. He said it is only pantawid gutom, which means it is food that only temporarily eases hunger.

“In my experience, it is not enough, if you ask about food. We fishermen, we eat the small fish. The big ones we sell. Why? If we eat the good kind of fish… we won’t be able to buy, first of all, tuition for the child. Second the bill for electricity. All that, clothes, or medicine, if you get sick,” he said in Filipino.

“Right now, if we talk about fishing, it really is not a livelihoodThere are months you get to catch, and you get a cut of P500. Three consecutive months, and then there are times you don’t catch anything. When this happens, they have no choice but to borrow money,” he added.

Merto said that it wasn’t always like this – there used to be more fish to catch, and money was easier to earn. He partly blames the bigger trawl fishing boats. When they catch bigger fish, they have to sell them to visiting middlemen who buy them at a cheap price, and who, in turn, sell them for higher returns in the cities.

Direct selling in the city is difficult and not doable for fishermen like him, who do not have enough financial resources for transportation and other expenses needed for moving fresh catch. 

SEASONAL FISHING. Small fishermen in Infanta seek out farming and other sources of livelihood. Photo by Karen Liao/Rappler

Need for capital

Though he owns a small parcel of land, Merto said capital is needed for cultivation, and that is something many of them don’t have.

Edgar San Jose, 59, also a farmer and fisherman in the same barangay, agrees. “May lupa, pero walang kapital (There’s land, but no capital),” he said. The situation is worse for other locals in the community who do not own land at all.

Without capital, for instance, Merto said he ends up borrowing money for land cultivation or preparation. This leaves them with little after the harvest, as they end up having to pay for the debt.

Agricultural initiatives like hybrid rice farming need capital and manpower as well, a challenge for poor farmers like him. For Merto, hybrid rice farming uses a lot of fertilizer and needs a lot of workers, unlike when one uses ordinary seed varieties.  (READ: PH allots P500-M to support hybrid rice farmers)

Fortunately for Merto, he can resort to different alternative sources of livelihood, like planting vegetables, raising pigs, or giving fishing enthusiasts from the city a ride out to sea. But he said that for the poorest of the poor in their community, many beg for money or medicine (usually from the barangay captain), when a family member gets sick.

Gov’t support

Merto insists that farmers and fishermen can be dependent and self-sufficient, and can adapt to changing environmental conditions. But this is less achievable without enough government support, whether through capitalization, financial and technological resources, and even land leasing for farming.

When asked what kind of support farmers like him would need, he said some forms of assistance can be fertilizers and seed supply, but he hopes these will actually materialize. In the past, he said, there were promises from local officials of distribution of tools to help fishermen, but these were rarely, if not fulfilled at all. He also believes he and his fellow farmers should not rely on dole-outs candidates give out before local elections.

Virginia Oanzon, 62, a rice and root crop farmer from Sorsogon and chairperson of the Municipal Agriculture and Fishery Council in her area, agrees with Merto. A former mathematics teacher at Sorsogon State College, she has been a retiree since last year and has gone back to farming. In the past, she used to help her parents, who were farmers.

Oanzon stressed that small-scale and subsistence farmers still need assistance from the government, especially capitalization and farm implements. Oanzon said that as a farmer, she really felt the lack of support from the local government unit (LGU).

That is why she now works at the Municipal Agriculture and Fishery Council to help farmers, like providing flat-bed dryers for seeds as an alternative to solar drying, which is more costly. She said she does this because she feels the LGU has to show farmers actual assistance. 

MULTIPLE ROLES. Virginia Oanzon of Sorsogon says her fellow farmers in the community need to feel local government support. Photo by Karen Liao/Rappler

For example, she said, with even just one hectare, she would need a tractor. With inadequate government support, even if she borrowed a tractor from the local government, she would need to source crude oil and a driver.

In Filipino, she asked, “So now, I told them, what farmer would be able to buy crude oil for the tractor? One ride for that would need a minimum of 35 liters, which costs more than P1,000.”

Training seminars

Both farmers nevertheless acknowledged efforts of both government and civil society groups in holding regular agricultural training seminars and farmer field schools. Examples include farmer field schools run by agencies like the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), PhilRice of the Department of Agriculture (DA) and also by some LGUs. Non-governmental organizations also engage in some field schools and training programs for farmers. Other projects involve distributing seed varieties.

However, initiatives and projects depend on their preferred agricultural methods. For instance, some groups oppose the use of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) and crop biotechnology, while others lean more towards organic methods or the use of traditional seed varieties. (READ: PH most ‘GMO-friendly’ country in Southeast Asia?

Oanzon in mid-October attended a seed fair and organic tiangge (READ: SEARICE: Promote indigenous technology, not GMOs), invited by organizers who held a plant-breeding seminar in Sorsogon.

Like Oanzon, some farmers want to steer clear of agricultural methods that involve chemicals or genetically engineered processes. They want to learn to breed their own traditional seed varieties and engage in “organic farming,” which they see does not include chemicals and fertilizers.

Fewer Filipino farmers

Without support for small-scale farmers who are also part of the country’s agricultural manpower, they could decline in number. Reports earlier this year suggested that the population of Filipino farmers is aging, and shrinking.

In a February report by news site Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), Department of Agriculture–Agricultural Training Institute director Asterio Saliot said that the average age of Filipino farmers is already 57.

Congressional Committee on Agriculture and Fisheries Modernization executive director Jocelyn Badiola also told IRIN that farming has been associated with poverty, and so younger generations are leaving rural areas for other jobs.

This is a reality Merto can relate to – none of his 4 children are farmers. Oanzon meanwhile is single and with no children.

In a plenary session at a social business summit in October, Agrarian Reform Secretary Virgilio Delos Reyes said that farming is one of the poorest sectors in the country, yet it has potential for the most immediate productivity in raising the poor’s output, as opportunities can also be found in small farm lands. –


Visit #HungerProject for stories on efforts to stop hunger in the Philippines and around the world. 

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