Budget Watch

Lawmakers want P5-B boost in DAR’s 2021 budget to fund ‘mega farms’

Mara Cepeda
Legislators also find the Department of Agrarian Reform's proposed P8.851-billion budget for 2021 too small

Legislators are eyeing to increase the Department of Agrarian Reform’s (DAR) proposed P8.851-billion budget in 2021 by another P5 billion to fund the agency’s “mega farms” project. 

This comes after legislators found the allocations for DAR in the proposed P4.5-trillion 2021 national budget too small, as the agency faced the House committee on appropriations on Monday, September 7. 

Ang Magsasaka Representative Argel Cabatbat proposed increasing the allocation for the DAR’s planned mega farms, where land given to farmer-beneficiaries would be developed into specialized crops production areas.

Cabatbat said these mega farms would help bring back the “economies of scale” that were supposedly lost when the country started implementing the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP).

“Kadalasan na criticism sa CARP, sa Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program, ay hinati-hati mo ‘yung lupa [at] nawalan ng economies of scale. Kailangan po natin maibalik ito into consolidated farms para mabawi ‘yung economies of scale at buhusan natin ng kumpletong tulong ‘yung mga magsasaka,” Cabatbat said. 

(The usual criticism with CARP, with the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program, is that you divided the lands and lost the economies of scale. We need to bring back these consolidated farms to recover the economies of scale and give the farmers the help they need.)

“Kaya naman po sana mapondohan natin ito, Mr Chair. And ako, I would move, Mr Chair, to accommodate [an] increase in the budget of DAR in the amount of P5 billion para po ma-accommodate itong pilot project na ito,” he added. 

(I hope we’ll be able to fund this, Mr Chair. I would move, Mr Chair, to accommodate an increase in the budget of DAR in the amount of P5 billion to accommodate this pilot project.)

Minutes later, Deputy Speaker Luis Raymund Villafuerte made the same proposal, saying he would move to give DAR between P3 billion and P5 billion for the mega farms program.

“Napakaliit ng budget ng DAR. Napakalaki ng responsibilidad pero napakaliit ng pondo…. I will strongly push na mapondohan ‘tong mega farming concept with at least P3 billion to P5 billion para matulungan ang ating mga farmer,” said Villafuerte. 

(DAR’s budget is very small. It has a big responsibility yet its budget is too small…. I will strongly push to fund this mega farming concept with at least P3 billion to P5 billion to help our farmers.)

During their budget presentation, DAR Undersecretary for Finance Lucius Jun Jun Malsi told the House panel that they initially requested a total budget worth P32.966 billion for 2021.

But the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) imposed a budget ceiling for DAR of only P8,850,769,000, which meant allocations for several programs – including the mega farms – were affected. 

DAR’s proposed P8.851-billion budget for 2021 is around 7% lower than its current budget for 2020 worth P9.135 billion.

The DBM putting a cap on an agency’s proposed allocations, however, is a normal part of the budget process. 

Government departments and offices can propose budgets as high as they want, but the DBM’s final approval depends on the agencies’ absorptive capacity or their ability to actually use the appropriations granted to them.

The DBM also grants budget proposals for infrastructure projects that are shovel-ready or whose construction activities can begin soon.

The appropriations committee terminated DAR’s budget hearing after 4 hours, which means lawmakers also approved its proposed P8.851-billion budget for 2021.

Lawmakers can still formally move to increase DAR’s proposed budget by P5 billion once the entire 2021 budget is brought before the plenary for debates and amendments.

What are mega farms?

DAR’s proposed mega farms initiative is part of the Balik Probinsya, Bagong Pag-asa program, Senator Bong Go’s pet project which he launched to decongest Metro Manila as a long-term solution to the coronavirus pandemic. 

President Rodrigo Duterte institutionalized his loyal ally’s brainchild in May through Executive Order No. 114.

DAR Undersecretary for Field Operations David Erro explained to lawmakers that support services for farmer-beneficiaries will be “fused” into these mega farms. The farmers will also be organized into a cooperative. 

“For example, one area in Central Luzon, we will be targeting around 50 hectares… Then you will infuse all the support services into that 50 hectares [of] land. They can develop the rice production in that area by infusing high technology,” Erro said. 

The DAR official said support services can come from various agencies, but the mega farms can also be opened to local or foreign investors.

DAR Undersecretary for Foreign Assisted and Special Projects Office Bernie Cruz then said the mega farms would help ensure food security while at the same time addressing perennial problems with CARP. 

‘Ang tingin po kasi natin dito, ‘yung nangyari sa CARP at that time, siguro tama siya, subsistence farming. So mabubuhay ang magsasaka pero ‘yung productivity natin para mabuhay ‘yung ating population para magkaroon ng food security ang bansa, parang nawala,” Cruz said. 

(We think that when CARP was first implemented, the subsistence farming under it was good. So the farmer would stay alive but the productivity to keep the rest of the population alive through food security in this country seemed to be affected.)

“Nag-conceptualize po kami ng mega farm. Magiging open po ito…para magkaroon po ng commercial farming na kasama ‘yung magsasaka natin,” he added. 

(We then conceptualized the mega farm. This will be open…so that we will have commercial farming that involves our farmers.)

CARP has long been criticized for its failure to lift farmers out of poverty, as agrarian reform beneficiaries are still accumulating debt and end up forging lopsided deals with landlords. – Rappler.com

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Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda specializes in stories about politics and local governance. She covers the Office of the Vice President, the Senate, and the Philippine opposition. She is a 2021 fellow of the Asia Journalism Fellowship and the Reham al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellowship of the UN. Got tips? Email her at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or tweet @maracepeda.