farmers in the Philippines

[OPINION] Why Filipino farmers suffer

John Patrick P. Habacon
[OPINION] Why Filipino farmers suffer

Graphic by Alyssa Arizabal

'Some [farmers] express that they do not want to see their children following in their footsteps, because they do not want them to suffer the same fate'

Our country is no stranger to crisis. From natural calamities to social and political turbulence, the Philippines consistently ranks among the riskiest countries in the world. 

Last year, we were subjected to a major crisis with the spread of COVID-19. And then, as if one humanitarian crisis was not enough, it was also during the spread of the virus when typhoons wreaked havoc on the country.

Indeed, to live in the Philippines means to live in constant danger and uncertainty. 

But there is one sector that bears the brunt of these crises the most. Considered the backbone of our society, the agriculture sector responds to our public health needs by ensuring food security for every Filipino. Yet despite their crucial role, Filipino agricultural workers remain among the poorest and most disadvantaged groups in our society.  The high level of poverty among our farmers also makes them highly at risk for the effects of these crises. 

With these things in mind, I wanted to know how these crises affected the agriculture sector specifically, and how our common farmers coped and dealt with the impacts of these crises. Essentially, I wanted to dig deeper and find the underlying reason why our Filipino farmers suffer. 

In November 2020, I decided to visit a small rice farming barangay in Laguna to conduct a study.

My stay in the community lasted for three days, and in that span of time, I was able to interview different farmers and hear their narratives. They shared that the pandemic had brought out certain issues such as mobility, but since farmers are recognized as essential workers, their agricultural work was generally unhampered.

They complained more, however, about the damage caused by the consecutive typhoons. The persistent rainfall and strong winds submerged their fields in floodwater and destroyed much of their crops. The farmers lamented that these impacts would affect them for months. 

What struck me most was how these situations had became normal among the farmers. They tended to view crises as “beyond their control,” and had gradually learned to develop an acceptance of their conditions. As one of the farmers put it, “Wala nang magagawa. Wala naman pating may gusto noon eh” (We can’t do anything about it. It’s not like anyone wants it to happen, anyway). For them, crises are a fact of life; they are inevitable risks associated with farming. 

We may consider their attitude a component of resiliency. It is their way of framing their situation in a more favorable manner. But it is also a symptom of a more complex and insidious problem that has been plaguing the agriculture sector for decades. 

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The underlying reason

When asked about the greatest problem they currently face, the farmers mentioned neither the effects of the pandemic nor the typhoon. What they were troubled about was the volatility of palay prices in the market – a longstanding concern among rice farmers even prior to the pandemic.

The declining prices of rice in the market can be attributed to the intensive neoliberalization of our country’s economy. There are hopes that neoliberalization can bring development and an improved quality of life, especially in developing countries such as the Philippines.

The liberalization process of agriculture in the country is then manifested through the following: the removal of price and market controls, the promotion of importation, the reduction of state intervention, and the privatization of services. The belief is that by opening the economy, reducing the barriers in competition, and allowing the private sector to take more active roles, these will ultimately enhance the quality of agricultural services and improve the lives of ordinary farmers.

But the experiences of the farmers tell a different story. 

Because the majority of farmers do not have their own land, they become dependent on tenancy or contract-growing arrangements, which put them at the mercy of landlords, traders, or middlemen. Due to the removal of state controls on agriculture-related commodities, the prices of agricultural inputs, such as seeds, fertilizers, etc. also increase drastically. Inadequate investment in infrastructure likewise add to the problems. Furthermore, the influx of huge quantities of cheap rice because of extensive importation causes the farm gate price of domestic rice to plummet. These factors force many farmers into debt-bondage, thus perpetuating the vicious cycle of poverty among them. 

Instead of delivering the promised development, the intensified liberalization of agriculture only resulted in greater burdens for the farmers to bear. Instead of empowering them, it only heightened their vulnerability. 

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Farmers’ aspirations

These challenges definitely dampen the spirits of the farmers. Some of them express that they do not want to see their children following in their footsteps, because they do not want them to suffer the same fate. They would rather see their children earning a college education and seeking  higher paying occupations, as farming is not remunerative enough. 

In addition, the farmers bemoaned the lack of adequate support from the government, leading them to think that it is only the big capitalists that benefit from the current system. If the status quo doesn’t change and their concerns remain unaddressed, they said there was a possibility that more workers in agriculture would develop feelings of resentment toward the state.  

But despite all these, many farmers remain optimistic about the agricultural industry in our country. Agriculture, for them, will always remain an important sector, vital in combating a lot of issues confronting contemporary society. Support, then, is greatly needed by agricultural workers and reforms must be done at the national level.

Before I bade the farmers goodbye, I caught a glimpse of their rice fields. The sun had already started to set, but I could still see the outlines of the plants, damaged by rain, the fields completely underwater. I glanced at the farmers, and behind their masks were tired and weary faces. Still, there was that spark of hope in their eyes.

Sure enough, crises put farmers in difficult and challenging situations. But it is not these crises that necessarily put them at a disadvantage. In my conversations with them, I realized that larger, structural forces may have increased their vulnerability and weakened their capacity to withstand such situations. It is the social and economic barriers, not the crises per se, that make it difficult for them to adapt and be resilient. 

So as long as these structural barriers are dismantled, the common Filipino farmer will continue to suffer. –

John Patrick Habacon is a social science instructor at Lyceum of the Philippines University and also a graduate student of Sociology at the University of the Philippines Los Baños. His research interests focus on agricultural communities and vulnerable groups.