Department of Agriculture

[OPINION] Sea monsters and the DA’s uncharted waters

Dean de la Paz

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[OPINION] Sea monsters and the DA’s uncharted waters

David Castuciano/Rappler

'We pray the new DA secretary does not warp and wane as cynical and disillusioned as Verne’s antihero, Nemo'

When Ferdinand R. Marcos arrogated unto himself the agriculture portfolio, he said it was to vest the Department of Agriculture (DA) with the powers of the presidency. What a cabinet secretary cannot achieve, Marcos imagined he would. That says a lot about his self-concept of power.

It harks to his DNA. His programs reflected what he thought were the most popular his father pursued. From the Masagana 99 to the Kadiwa Store Program, Marcos reactivated the same-old, same-old, enabled by presidential fiat where his father employed dictatorial powers. Sitting back, it must have been comforting. Believing he did not need to reinvent the wheel; he failed to analyze deeper, thus ignoring their fatal downsides.

Marcos also said he would pursue structural changes, and step down only when these were established. What those “structural” changes were in his mind; we do not know. But his successor should, lest the promise be another political lie. Unfortunately, what remains continues to reflect systemic structural ills along both the agricultural value chain and the dynamics among producers, traders and importers, and consumers. On those, other than the usual preambles about venturing forth, he and his eventual successor simply reiterated crusted clichés and political promises.

To the misfortune of most, what was fortunate for Marcos turned unfortunate for the public. The proof is in the record high food inflation and a policy of default importations as turn-to palliatives.

His record absenteeism from critical meetings – dilatory dereliction at best – and his ill-advised pronouncements reveal a hollow understanding of basic economics.

Normally, both would have gotten him sacked. But the bureaucracy treated Marcos, not as an experienced and competent technocrat, as should be required of cabinet men, but as the Apo, the president, the Head of State, the commander-in-chief, and, more important, as the namesake and heir of a predicate dictator. That explains the reprising of crusted old initiatives. Its only upside was Marcos’ successful infusion of autocratic influence on a bungling bureaucracy. Never mind the anachronism founded on failed agricultural structures. And never mind the outcome.

Succeeding Marcos is a commercial fishing magnate similarly pedigreed in some ways. Justifying his credentials, he prefaces by evoking Melville’s literary romanticism saying he was educated by the sea. But so was Blackbeard. While Marcos considers his campaign donor an old friend, hopefully the latter does not learn piracy and plunder – also learned from the sea. Note how career official’s reputations have been torpedoed and sunk since Marcos took on the DA portfolio.

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But may the wind be behind his back. We pray the new DA secretary does not warp and wane as cynical and disillusioned as Verne’s antihero, Nemo.

As ancient nautical charts typically depict uncharted waters with the warning “There be dragons,” applying the analogy, largely in the periphery, agriculture’s criminal cartels, and pirates plunder scot-free. Comprised of the most moneyed and influential, like Ahab’s elusive ghostly leviathan, the DA’s sea monsters threaten the small and weak. And like the Kraken, they are multi-tentacled.

Allow us to postulate the systemic challenges Marcos failed to address, perhaps was unaware of, and in fact might have worsened. Analyze specifically the food value chains and its weakest links, whether in land-based agriculture where food inflation was highest, or in the niched aquaculture sector, in both municipal waters and open seas.

Inside a couple of weeks, Marcos kept the Rice Tariffication Law intact. Coupled with an order to increase importations to the detriment of local farmers, this guaranteed continuous profitability for private importers.

Then Marcos attempted to repeal the law of supply and demand by imposing an unsustainable rice price cap ironically as harvesting started. That trapped poverty-stricken farmers in a vicious cost-price pincer as Marcos officials callously timed private importations when global prices were highest. When mid-chain traders withheld selling, threatening to riding out the cap period, Marcos offered them tax-funded subsidies, prioritizing the few before those helplessly condemned as domestic upstream producers.  Eventually, recalling historical grain crises that sparked insurrections, the government would purchase from the farmers at a tad higher price upon realizing the price cap had turned untenable.

Discern in the foregoing the structural systemic inequities Marcos promised to address.

Now let’s go retail.

His epic failure as DA secretary is exemplified by the highest prices of rice among the Philippines’ poorest. Mindanao is a case in point where a kilo costs over P59 today. Rising within a month, that’s over a 30% increase from his highest price cap. Not only will his successor need to fix the disaster caused by incompetence, he will also need to shatter the obvious structural aberrations Marcos effectively perpetuates given a bias for larger scale enterprises operating post-farmgate and the virtual abandonment of local farmers to inequities inflicted by a trader-centric pot-bellied value chain.

Given the foregoing, the likelihood that such structural biases will perpetuate, and factoring-in the business interests of Marcos’ successor, allow us to raise the periscope and focus on our fisherfolk and the seafaring coastal communities.

Their common concerns range from an erratic and quickly dwindling revenue stream, inadequate revenues and underemployment, the absence of scale economies, the lack of financial resources and inclusion, their vulnerability to volatile geopolitical powder kegs, the loss and destruction of fishing grounds, and cutthroat competition from highly capitalized large-scale commercial fishing fleets.

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Discern each and consider the cumulative effect of the whole, analyzing from both the systemic structural perspective to the biases against the retail fisherfolk.

One unique affliction where the Marcos bureaucracy and new DA secretary is concerned is the negative impact on coastal communities and fisherfolk of aberrant developments aggressively pursued by other agencies. The dwindling revenues and loss of fishing grounds are caused by land reclamation and coastal pollution. The lack of financial resources, by prohibitive interest rates and disappearing rural credit sources. Geopolitical threats, from our failure to secure our nautical borders and ensure the safety of our fishermen. And finally, competition, from large-scale commercial fishing fleets.

Indeed. There be dragons. –

Dean de la Paz is a former investment banker and managing director of a New Jersey-based power company operating in the Philippines. He is the chairman of the board of a renewable energy company and is a retired Business Policy, Finance, and Mathematics professor. He collects Godzilla figures and antique tin robots.

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