WE small farmers have to admit this. QR, or quantitative restrictions, on rice imports, is an issue that is debatable up to the ends of the earth. If you are against the lifting of QR next year–which I am–I can argue that we, small farmers, need any kind of win, even token ones, and the fight to retain QR on rice imports is worth the effort and the time.
The pro-lifting faction of the debate will slap me with this fact. At an allowable MAV (minimum access volume) of 850,000 metric tons a year—the fault of the previous government—retaining the QR would be a worthless victory. With a mandatory importation of 850,000 MT of rice a year, the QR does not serve any purpose at all– except maybe to demonstrate that the government stands for small rice farmers and would not allow the reckless importation of rice, which would take place with the lifting of the QR.
The pro-lifting side—mostly commercial rice importers and profiteers with backing from the NEDA—have this argument: rice economics says that we produce rice at such a high cost that we can’t compete with Thailand and Vietnam, the region’s most prodigious rice producers, and also the two countries that supply us with most of our imported rice. So, there is really no sense in negotiating for the extension of the QR, which will lapse next year.
We can’t compete, they repeat, no matter what.
On voice timbre and decibel, very few can beat the powerful voice of Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol. But the power of his voice cannot seem to rise above the arguments of the technocrats in Mr. Duterte’s Cabinet. The secretary, arguing on our behalf, has been telling them that QR is important and has to be extended. It is one thing to have a large MAV. But an open season and an open port for rice importation would be disastrous for small rice farmers, he said, in his passionate defense of the need for a QR extension.
That is true. Once the QR is lifted, and the ports are clear to accept any and all volume of rice imports, the last line of defense against reckless rice imports would be gone. The dream of small farmers to produce at least 90 percent of the country’s rice needs with government support would vanish. Mr. Piñol, more than anything else, is concerned that the QR would relegate the country to a permanent rice importer status, the farmers (and the proud rice-producing tradition) be damned. The squandering of the opportunity to make us, the small farmers, productive and proud.
What if rough weather were to make Thai and Vietnamese rice production crash and burn? Where will we get our supply of the staple food? And at what cost?
Mr. Piñol’s arguments are grounded in reality. And his fear of a weather-induced drop in the regional rice production has solid basis. Better to help the rice farmers (the funds for supervised food programs have been promised by Mr. Duterte, anyway) than to plunge on clueless into the unknown.
Still, Mr. Piñol and the small farmers have been losing in the debate.
Manny’s neighbor at the Elliptical Road, Mr. Mariano of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR), sad to say, is also losing the big policy debate over land conversion, a double tragedy for agriculture and small farmers .
Ka Paeng, by which Mr. Mariano is popularly known, has proposed a halt to land conversion, which is the right policy to adopt, instead of the reckless practice of real estate developers using prime agricultural lands for housing and subdivision projects. The real estate people have been able to get away with murder because there are so many loopholes to exploit, especially with the LGUs having been given the power to make decisions on land conversions.
Ka Paeng wants the ban to be a national policy.
The real estate sector, the sector where the players are the wealthiest dollar billionaires, multi-millionaires and plain hucksters, have led the opposition to land conversion. Mr. Pernia, invoking voodoo economics, provides the supposed economic justification against the moratorium on land conversion.
And the winners are predictable. Mr. Pernia and his bunch of billionaires. I am a small farmer and my economics cannot even distinguish between Samuelson and Krugman (the progressives) and Taylor and Cochrane (the conservatives). How can we argue against the multi-degreed Mr. Pernia? To support Ka Paeng, who made his name marching on the streets and not on getting multiple degrees in macro and micro.
And their victory is a national tragedy.
The Philippines is short of arable, prime rice lands to begin with. The maximum that can be developed for full-time, year-round irrigated production is only 3.5 million hectares. The developed area is less than 2 million hectares, 1.5 million hectares by our count. In terms of rice culture, no country can beat the Filipino farmer. But we are short on land, and government support for rice production was practically zero under Mr. Aquino.
Vietnam, in contrast, has 5 million hectares of prime lands for rice production with full-year irrigation. Thailand has around 9 million hectares. And government support is a year-round thing and an inspired one.
Mr. Duterte should come to the aid of the pro-people and pro-poor members of the Cabinet to change the outcome of the debate. After all, his government is supposedly about that–coming to the rescue of small people.