THE journalists who started out with Mr. Piñol in the late 70s, promdis who looked like promdis, had some redeeming virtues. They read books. The young journalists with tangled syntaxes and little formal education stuck to how-to-books on sentence construction and usage. Mr. Piñol, already well-versed with the craft of writing and trained by the Marist Brothers, voraciously read John Steinbeck.
Following Mr. Piñol’s lead, I tried to do John Steinbeck and started out with the Dustbowl Trilogy (In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath). The problem was my comprehension level was meant for comics and pedestrian literature. So I gave up on Steinbeck and left the serious reading to Mr. Piñol. Decades later, Bruce Springsteen and Rage Against the Machine would sing about “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and I realized what I missed when I gave up on Steinbeck that easily.
After the announcement that Mr. Duterte has named Mr. Piñol the agriculture secretary, many in the small farming movement asked me about the appointment. Here was my answer to Ka Leo, Ka Pruding and the like: Mr. Piñol read John Steinbeck and, for the meantime (meaning, until we see his policy formulations), that is good enough. I told them, in very general terms, that Steinbeck wrote about sharecroppers and alienation and struggles. That is us in the 21st century. The regime of Aquino/Procy/Kiko downgraded the status of small farmers into something that would fit into the horrific context of the Dustbowl Trilogy and, hopefully, Mr. Piñol will be a gust of fresh wind.
I told my colleagues in the small farming movement this. At the very least, Mr. Piñol will prevent police officers from firing point blank at drought-stricken small farmers begging for rice. Which recently happened in Mr. Piñol’s home province of North Cotabato. And, he will find time to listen to small farmers, their angst, their pain, their hopes and their struggles.
Ok, I will answer this. Why is allotting time for small farmers a good sign? Is that not a routine job of the agriculture secretary, given that agricultural policy should indeed focus on small farmers? It used to be that way. Mr. Aquino’s six years in power, and the regime’s brutal anti-farmer bias, changed all that. “Brutal treatment” may be an understatement. Small farmers do not even know where to start when asked to list their grievances against the trio of Aquino/Procy/Kiko. Six years of neglect and suffering can numb the brain.
Let us start with the Napoles scam, in which P10 billion in pork barrel money was siphoned off to the fake peasant and co-op organizations registered by Janet Lim Napoles. Do you remember the first move of Mr. Aquino after the unraveling of the scam? He used that opportunity, a crisis had to be exploited to shaft the small farmers you know, to cut off all forms of aid tokens to small farmers, from the token production support to the negligible seed subsidies.
We were dragged down by that scam, as phony peasant and co-op groups were used as fronts. We were victims as our identify was stolen to establish the fronts for the worst case of congressional corruption in the annals of congressional mischief making. What Mr. Aquino did was to further inflict harm on the victims, us, by scrapping, right there and then, the token support the government had been granting to small farmers.
The scrapping of the token farm subsidies would have been acceptable to farmers had the Aquino administration substituted these with well-crafted production support programs. But that was not the case. The DA bragged of huge budget outlays but showed no concrete results in terms of more productive small-scale farming. In 2015, the DA budget was close to P87 billion. The growth rate of the agriculture sector was less than 1 percent. Was it P87 billion for a 0.3 percent growth rate? Look at this figure and weep. The massive rice imports, excluding the rice smuggled into the country, was close to 2 million metric tons a year.
It even had the two secretaries, Procy Alcala, a former kontratista (public works contractor) and Francis Pangilinan, a former komentarista (radio bloviator). Both were clueless misfits who transformed the DA into the Department of Utter Mediocrity. Pangilinan was ranked first to third in the early senatorial polling. He was dragged down to ninth place by angry farmers, who actively campaigned for a zero vote for Pangilinan.
If I sound like an angry old farmer that’s the truth. I am Exhibit A of the brutal agricultural regime of Mr. Aquino, Procy the Kontratista and Kiko the Komentarista.
The trio of Aquino/Procy/Kiko saw to it that the smuggling of pork and chicken products from overseas thrived. The established hog raisers have noted the billions of pesos in discrepancy between what the volume of meat imports reported by the Bureau of Customs and the UN import and trade data. Smuggling of meat products, brazen and out-of-control, was not the only major problem. The quarantine permits given by the DA to the food processors exceeded normal volumes. The excess imports were diverted by the food processors into the public markets at great profits.
The established, big-time hog raisers suffered. But the backyard raisers to which I belong were utterly devastated.
Under the Aquino administration, even the empty and meaningless gesture of inviting peasant leaders to Malacañang for the most superficial of consultations vanished. The hacendero-President and his clueless surrogates at the DA could not probably stand the sweaty smell of the peasantry, the burned skin, the eyes drained of hope.
Mr. Piñol, by all benchmarks, will be a great relief from these Jokers.