The future of rural roads

Fritzie Rodriguez
Roads in remote rural areas tend to be ignored, while those closer to Manila are prioritized.

FUTURE ROADS. Will the Philippines have better rural roads in the future? The Department of Agriculture is optimistic about the future of agricultural infrastructure like farm-to-market roads. File photo from EPA

MANILA, Philippines – The Department of Agriculture (DA) plans to improve the future of farm-to-market roads (FMRs) by employing a more systematic and scientific approach. 

The DA has earned a negative reputation over the past few years after being linked to corruption scandals such as ghost projects, the Malampaya scam, the pork barrel scam, fake special allotment release orders (SAROs), and the fertilizer fund scam.

With a budget of P12 billion for this year’s FMR projects, DA hopes to prove its critics wrong.

Department of Agriculture
Farm-to-Market Road Development Program
CY 2014
REGIONALLOCATION (In pesos)
CAR 750,000,000.00
1 660,000,000.00
2 650,000,000.00
3 750,000,000.00
4a 1,030,000,000.00
4b 950,000,000.00
5 950,000,000.00
6 660,000,000.00
7 780,000,000.00
8 800,000,000.00
9 610,000,000.00
10 700,000,000.00
11 800,000,000.00
12 730,000,000.00
13 830,000,000.00
ARMM 350,000,000.00
TOTAL 12,000,000,000.00

“In the previous administrations, there were many issues with the DA. Ngayon dapat maibalik ang tiwala ng mga magsasaka at mangingisda. (Now, we have to regain the trust of farmers and fishermen.) They are our priority,” DA Projects Assistant Director Bea Agarao said.

In 2014, Region IV-A received the biggest share of the FMR budget, P1.03 billion.

Isagani Serrano, president of the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement (PRRM), argued that rich regions in Luzon usually receive bigger budget allocations than the poor ones in the Visayas and Mindanao. “A lot about poverty and hunger is associated with inequality,” he added.

Roads in remote rural areas tend to be ignored, while those closer to Manila are prioritized. “The closer you are to Metro Manila, the richer you are,” Serrano quipped.

FMRs  are vital in sustaining the livelihood and food security of farmers and local producers.

What the government is doing

The DA identifies priority locations of FMRs, in coordination with local government units (LGUs), resident farmers and fishers. The DA, together with the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), monitors and ensures the timely completion of FMRs.

The selection and prioritization criteria include:

  • Location in production areas linking to major markets/trading posts, assembly areas, fishing ports/landing sites, fishponds, mariculture zones, postharvest facilities, processing zones
  • Poor and vulnerable areas, (i.e., calamity-hit areas, armed-conflict areas)
  • Areas implementing agricultural development programs funded through Private Public Partnerships (PPP) and Foreign Assisted Projects (FAP)
  • Areas where LGUs prioritize FMR investments

LGUs may also request for FMRs, which will be evaluated by the DA. The proposals will be sent to the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) for budget realignment. 

Validated requests will be implemented with the help of the following partners:

  • LGUs
  • Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH)
  • DA Regional Field Units
  • Other implementing agencies through Memorandums of Agreement (MOA) or contracts

DPWH District Engineering Offices will prepare designs, cost estimates, and ensure that the project follows Philippine Agricultural Engineering Standards. LGUs are required to provide a “counterpart fund” of not less than 10% of the FMR project cost. However, according to Agarao, LGUs classified under 4th-6th income class may be exempted.

Difficulties

The DPWH reported that as of 2012, 81% of national roads are already paved, from 72% in 2007. However, these figures do not include FMRs. The DA reported that the FMR deficit as of 2013 totaled 13,873 km.

Priority locations for FMR projects for the entire year are already fixed in the year’s General Appropriations Act (GAA). Those not included in the GAA will no longer be prioritized. This inflexibility is criticized by some groups.

In case of emergencies or calamities, the DA and the DBM may respond to FMR requests faster. However, in normal cases – in which there are no calamities and the areas are not included in the GAA – FMR requests and repairs will most likely have to wait.

“Unfortunately, we cannot take action on all requests within the year, unless there is an immediate need,” Agarao explained.

“What’s good about the GAA is its transparency. Early on, we already know where the budget will go. What’s difficult is when there are sudden FMR requests, the process may be slower. But at the end of the day, this is still the safest way to go,” Agarao added.

Meanwhile, the Kilusan ng Manggagawang Pilipino (KMP) complained of “bogus projects” in the guise of FMRs.

May mga sinasabing ‘FMRs‘, pero doon sa wala namang palayan. Converted na sa ibang uses ang lupa. Ghost project lang pala,” KMP deputy secretary-general Willy Marbella said. (There are so-called “FMRs” but there are no rice fields there. Land is converted to other uses. It’s only a ghost project.)

KMP also reported FMR repairs using low-grade materials. “Maglalagay lang ng gravel sa ibang portion, sa iba wala na. Putol-putol na semento na.” (Gravel will be placed in some portions. There will be spaces between cemented areas.)

Given these problems, it is no surprise that farmers had the 2nd highest poverty incidence among all basic sectors, according to latest poverty statistics on the basic sector by the National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB) from 2009.  Their poverty incidence of 36.7% barely changed since 2003, when it was at 37%.

Innovations

The DA Mindanao Rural Development Program (MRDP) pioneered the use of geo-tagging among government agencies. 

Geo-tagging allows LGUs and citizens to monitor the progress of government projects like FMRs. It uses a global positioning system (GPS) technology and may be accessed through Google Earth. Financial records may also be geo-tagged.

The technology helps track projects, especially those in isolated areas previously unmonitored due to logistical and financial constraints.

Geo-tagging began in 2012 as a response to challenges in Mindanao, according to Philippine Rural Development Program (PRDP) Deputy Program Director Arnel de Mesa. As of now, geo-tagging for FMR projects is only accessed by LGUs, bidders, and those directly concerned with the project. The DA is still working on extending access to the general public.

The DA is training other government agencies like the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), National Irrigation Agency (NIA), Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), and the Commission on Audit (COA) in using geo-tagging for more government transparency.

Meanwhile, the DA Philippine Rural Development Program, in partnership with the World Bank, aims to improve the country’s agriculture through its four components:

  • Infrastructure Development 
  • Enterprise Development 
  • Local Planning 
  • Program Support 

Under its infrastructure component, the DA will require LGUs to prepare a solid plan regarding its commodities and infrastructure needs. The plan must be backed by science and research, according to PRDP Luzon Director Shandy Hubilla.

For example, Bicol’s prime commodity is coconuts, hence infrastructure projects shall be designed to improve the transport of coconuts in the area. PDRP ascertains that infrastructure projects cater to the specific needs of each province. 

PDRP also prohibits local officials from claiming infrastructure projects as their own.

“FMRs were a political commodity. In the road itself, you can see the faces and names of politicians,” De Mesa said. Some of these politicians submit the same FMR requests every year without studying the real needs of their constituents.

The DA expects PDRP to go into full swing by mid-year, according to De Mesa. His team looks at the future of rural roads with much optimism sufficient, well-planned, well-funded, and good-quality roads.

Those who actually and frequently experience and traverse Philippine rural roads are perhaps less optimistic, but nonetheless dreaming of a similar future. – Rappler.com