President Aquino started his term with a strong message to the Filipino farmers. I don’t care about you and the agriculture sector. Fittingly, he named a former contractor, Proceso “Procy” Alcala as agriculture secretary. Ok, a minor correction. Mr. Alcala, just like many members of the House, had a background in public works construction before the smooth transition to this exalted title: lawmaker of the realm.
Mr. Aquino’s appointment of Mr. Alcala said in so many words that Philippine agriculture was to sink or swim on its own, and the nation’s farmers would be without the steadying, nurturing hand of a leader. What did Mr. Alcala really know about agriculture, its long history of neglect, and the brutal wages dealt on the sector by the liberalization of agricultural trade? Of the many cabinet appointments made after his May 2010 victory, Mr. Aquino’s appointment of Mr. Alcala was one of the least inspired.
Appointing a former contractor/congressman to the DA was an act unguided by history and tradition. The late Salvador “Sonny” Escudero III, was, indeed, plucked from Congress to serve the DA. But Sonny Escudero topped the vet doctors’ board exam (one of the highest grades ever) at a tender age of 19 and became dean of the UP College of Veterinary Medicine in his early 20s. Before reaching 30, he was already director of the Bureau of Animal Industry. At an early age, he was a leader of men.
Farmers asked this question then. Just what was in the CV of Mr. Alcala that really impressed Mr. Aquino? Was there something in his former professional life that suggested a broad grasp of both the deep issues and minutiae of agriculture, just like, say, the late Bong Tanco? Or the operational, ground-level skills of Ding Panganiban? Recall that Ding Panganiban got his TOYM for helping Ninoy Aquino contain the rat plague in Tarlac and other farming areas in Central Luzon.
This question on Mr. Alcala’s fitness for the DA job was worth asking in 2010. Despite the low, low priority of the agriculture sector under Mr. Aquino, agriculture remains the main occupation of 20 per cent of the work force. Just a decade ago, it was more than 30 percent of the entire work force. I belong to that 20 percent, the majority of which is made up of people with marginal lives.
Mr. Alcala’s fitness for the critical job from our reckoning? Zero. Zilch. Nada.
Except for helping pass an Organic Farming law, and coming from the coconut planting area of Quezon, Mr Alcala became DA secretary of Mr. Aquino without a solid grounding on the critical agriculture issues. Did he know how the Uruguay Round paved the way for the accession to the WTO? Did he know of the broken promises and shattered hopes post-accession? Was he well aware of the important issues on international trade which have made the PH the dumping ground for imported toyo and patis? Did he have a mastery of the many acronyms, such as QR and MAV and many others, that one often encounters in many agri forums and discussions?
To his credit, Mr. Alcala promised to do well l upon his assumption of his DA job —including the attainment of the near-impossible feat of self-sufficiency in rice. 2013 was his target year for rice self-sufficiency. We not only failed to do just that in 2013.
This year, we will import more than 1 million metric tons of rice. The old, old script again: a nation of rice farmers importing rice due to production failures and the failure of the government to put in place the wherewithal to close the gap between actual production and actual need.
Mr. Alcala was a high school student the last time we were self-sufficient in rice, when the Green Revolution program under the stewardship of the late Rafael Salas was in full bloom. Lawyer Francis Pangilinan, the former senator, and recently named as co-secretary of the DA by Mr. Aquino was probably in his short pants then.
Farmers are likewise baffled by the decision of Mr. Aquino to name the former senator, and husband of “megastar” Sharon Cuneta, as the man in charge of the four critical agencies under the DA, with a cabinet rank at that.
What was in his background, training and experience that would equip him with the competence to bring the food security agenda into something close to the Salas achievement? Is Kiko an organization and management man? Is he bright and compelling enough to craft and get funding for a program at the level and scale of Paeng Salas’s Green Revolution? Does he have the smarts and persuasive powers to tap institutions and individuals for the great cause of reversing the historic failures of the agriculture sector?
Here is a trivia to show you how amazing was the organizational skills of the late Paeng Salas? Two future agriculture secretaries, Ding Panganiban and Ed Angara, were two of the many young men asked by Salas to help in the execution of the Green Revolution and other supervised food production programs.
At best, Kiko Pangilinan play-acted as a farmer. There is nothing in his history, track record and professional career that would make him the ideal replacement for Procy Alcala. Was there ever a landmark measure on agriculture written by Pangilinan, which he himself shepherded through congressional approval?
Mr. Aquino said that Kiko Pangilinan would beat the crap out of the scalawags at the DA and cleanse the Aegean stables of corruption.
But that is not what the farmers need right now, another high-profile fight against corruption. We want better yields and better lives, not the endless hectoring about integrity. A DA leader dedicated to production, marketing support, new farming technologies. If that package comes with a little sleaze, we won’t even mind.