Philippine agriculture

Poe to new agriculture secretary: Don’t let farmers, fishers stay poor

Iya Gozum, Kaycee Valmonte

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Poe to new agriculture secretary: Don’t let farmers, fishers stay poor

DONOR. President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. swears in Francisco Tiu Laurel Jr. as agriculture chief.

Presidential Communications Office

Lawmakers express relief that President Marcos has appointed a full-time Department of Agriculture secretary, and hope Francisco Tiu Laurel Jr. can fix the deep-rooted problems of the agency

MANILA, Philippines – Lawmakers on Friday, October 3, called on the new Department of Agriculture (DA) Secretary Francisco Tiu Laurel Jr. to use his experience and knowledge as a businessman to ensure the welfare of the sectors he serves and to address the agency’s deep-rooted problems.

Senators and district representatives also expressed visible relief that President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. finally appointed a fulltime DA chief after he held the position concurrently for more than a year.

Senator Grace Poe said identified two things that Laurel must have the “focus [and] fortitude” to ensure: the economic well-being of farmers and fishers, and going after market and price manipulators.

“Our hardworking farmers and fishers who bring food [to] the table must not go hungry and must not remain poor,” Poe said.

The DA is responsible for the promotion of agricultural and fisheries development. In its purview is a sector that employs a huge chunk of the Philippine labor force. Despite the Philippines being considered as an agricultural country, the sector has been historically neglected in terms of development.

“As the first order of the day, we hope the new DA chief would take to heart the President’s warning in his SONA against smugglers, hoarders and price fixers,” Poe added.

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Senator JV Ejercito poked fun at the agency’s name to stress what kind of a “very complicated problem” it had become. Laurel, a successful businessman and trusted by the President, “might just be the right person to fix the problems of the Department of Importation este Agriculture,” he said.

During the sugar, onion, and rice crises, the DA resorted to importations that either led to controversies or to the disappointment of several lawmakers.

The Marcos government believes that cartels that controlled the market compounded these crises.

High time for a full-time secretary

Relief was palpable among lawmakers after Marcos appointed Laurel. Senators had urged the President to appoint an agriculture chief instead of concurrently holding the post amid several crises.

“It’s a good decision to appoint a full-time secretary for the Department of Agriculture as increasing our ‘food production’ must be our top priority,” said Senate Minority Leader Koko Pimentel.

House Speaker Martin Romualdez said Laurel’s experience at the helm of Frabelle Fishing Corporation “gives him insights into the intricacies of supply chains, market demands, and global trends.”

He said in a statement, “With a leader who understands both worlds [of the private sector and agriculture], we can anticipate policies that balance profit with public welfare, ensuring that our farmers and fisherfolk receive fair compensation, access to modern technologies, and opportunities for growth.”

Quezon 3rd District Representative Reynan Arrogancia called Laurel’s appointment a “prudent choice,” while House Majority Leader Manuel Jose “Mannix” Dalipe said he was “well-suited” for the post.

Senator Francis Tolentino’s reaction to Laurel’s appointment was guarded. He pointed out that the DA’s purview extends beyond fisheries, where Laurel’s expertise lies, so “only the passage of time will reveal whether the President’s decision to appoint him was a wise one.”

Reclamation project, conflict of interest

Another lawmaker was more forthright with her misgivings about Laurel’s appointment, which she called a “political payback” for the businessman’s contribution to Marcos’ 2022 presidential campaign, expressing doubt that the secretary would serve the farmers’ interests.

Hindi dapat ginagawang pambayad utang ni President Marcos Jr. ang mga posisyon sa gobyerno. Mas mainam na maghanap na lang ng ibang mas babagay sa posisyon at tunay na maglilingkod sa mga magsasaka,” House Deputy Minority Leader Representative France Castro said.

(President Marcos should not appoint individuals to government posts as a means to pay his debt of gratitude. It would be better to look for someone qualified for the position and who would sincerely serve our farmers.)

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Citing fishers’ group Pamalakaya, Castro also noted Laurel’s company was “the driving force” behind a 420-hectare reclamation project along the coastal villages of Bacoor City in Cavite. The project reportedly left more than 700 fishing families displaced.

The reclamation project is supported by the Revilla clan, which controls politics in Bacoor, and is opposed by Senator Cynthia Villar, who is worried about the flooding threat that the project poses to her home city of Las Piñas.

“The President will be able to channel his attention to other equally important matters of the country while leaving the department in very capable hands,” said Senator Ramon Revilla Jr.

Villar, who chairs the Senate committee on agriculture and food, said that Laurel’s appointment was Marcos’ prerogative and that the decision must be respected.

Opening up to private sector

Senator Sherwin Gatchalian, whose family’s business, like Laurel’s, is involved in another reclamation project in Manila Bay, said the new secretary’s business experience would serve the agency and the sector well.

“It is high time to open up the sector to corporations to invest in, especially in mechanization and building economies of scale, which the secretary [has] experience in,” Gatchalian said in a statement on Friday, November 3.

Marcos had the same sentiment during Friday’s announcement, saying Laurel’s appointment would make the private sector a more active partner to the DA.

Agricultural stakeholders and economists have been pointing out the private sector’s crucial role in improving the sector’s ability to scale production. (READ: No future in agriculture without private sector investments, say economists)

To do this, they said the government should enhance the business environment to encourage companies to invest in a sector otherwise considered high-risk. – Rappler.com

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Iya Gozum

Iya Gozum covers the environment, agriculture, and science beats for Rappler.