Merrily kicking 20 percent of our workforce in the gut

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Marlen V. Ronquillo

Marlen V. Ronquillo

The Napoles scam, and its sordid unraveling, has further diminished the already eroded self-esteem of the Filipino farmers, which make up at least 20 percent of the workforce. The scam proved, that on top of the many abuses they have been dealt with, the farmers can also be the refuge of scoundrels. Here were the ways by which the scam had proven this particular point.

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First, the Napoles NGOs, the SEC-registered sham entities used to perpetrate the scam, were all farm-based NGOs.

Second, the NGOs were named for farming jargon that denoted farm prosperity such as gintong butil or masaganang sakahan. A case of adding insult to injury.

Third, the SAROs that were exchanged for hard cash, were supposed to buy fertilizer and other farm inputs. Unsuspecting farming towns that could really use farm inputs to increase yields got dragged down in the SARO-for-Cash exchange.

The Napoles gang may have started the scam with this thought in mind: let us use that hard-luck sector as front for our operation. What was one more hard kick in the gut that farmers cannot take without complaint? And who ever paid attention to them? The Napoles gang was perfectly aware that farmers were a group invisible to government and that any punishment that would be inflicted on them would attract neither the interest of the most zealous sections of the media nor the government.

There is another sad truth worth stating: until today, even the hard core anti-pork protesters have not made the direct connection of the pork barrel scam with the long and systematic exploitation of the Filipino farmers. The hard-core protesters have been too busy projecting themselves and burnishing their personal portfolios that they had no time to notice that the farming sector was the sector most bludgeoned by the scam.

The impunity with which the Napoles gang used and abused the farmers would be given a reprise by government, days after the scam was revealed and President Aquino was forced to carry out immediate corrective steps to ease the public wrath over an unprecedented act of congressional thievery.

Did you know that one of the first officials acts of President Aquino was to stop all PDAF funding for farm projects, from the purchase of farm inputs to machineries and work animals? His order was not the immediate freezing of all PDAF releases but the stopping of PDAF releases that were intended for the farmers.

Why he took it on the farmers, who so far have not merited a presidential intervention of the positive kind, reflected the uncaring presidential mindset that has been the norm for the past three years. From Mrs. Aquino to Mrs. Arroyo, the practice was for the incumbent president to pose with the farmers during a day dedicated to remember their role in our society. Other presidents did it on multiple occasions, never mind if the photo ops were merely for optics and symbolism. A short list of influential peasant leaders had direct lines to the president. The incumbent president may have this idea that a day in a farmers’ gathering, or a day spent schmoozing with peasant leaders, were a waste of presidential time.

In fairness to President Aquino, it is worth mentioning that there is nothing personal about his snub of the farmers. He just doesn’t care about farmers, period. More importantly, farmers just don’t have a role to play in what President Aquino set out to do on Day One of his presidency—post steady growth rates and get the recognition due from the international institutions that the country’s economy was overseen by the president into a steady growth trajectory. The delivery of the country to promise land no longer has an agri component.

Based on the data, President Aquino can very well neglect the farming sector. Despite a slow growth rate for agriculture, just a more than one percent growth for 2013, the broader economy stood resilient and was one of the best performing economies in the region at a 7 percent or so growth rate. The incumbent president can ignore agriculture and the farmers and the economy still can perform creditably overall.

The data, man. The growth figures have justified the neglect of agriculture and the farmers.

The not-deliberate but otherwise crippling neglect of farmers and the agriculture sector, is not, however, in sync with the mood elsewhere. President Aquino is an outlier in his neglect of agriculture and the farmers. The most developed economies have not eased on their soft spot for the farmers and agriculture and you just have to see the special place of the soil and farmers in the policy-making of France to realize this.

Mr. Hollande may have been mired in the tangled affairs of his fickle heart. But nothing can be fickle about the respect for the land and those who till the French soil. In the US, the Congress can cut and eviscerate food stamps (an $8 billion cut for the current year) for those struggling daily for basic survival. But it would not cut farm subsidies.

There is a love for the land and for those who till it that has remained unchanged for generations.

Here, of course, Mr. Aquino can forget all about the farmers and the land and nobody will take issue with the neglect. The farmers are invisible to government. They can be kicked around without a backlash. The are below the radar of the media and the do-gooders. But history offers a caveat: not too long ago, a rag-tag peasant army nearly encircled the Palace from its redoubts in Luzon and came close to toppling the infant republic. The president knows this very well. His father was deeply involved in helping tame the peasant rebellion.

mvronq@yahoo.com

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