My first actual lesson on the plight of vegetable farmers in Benguet was in the summer of 1973. A fresh college graduate, I was torn between going to the hills and starting out a family under a martial-law regime. Needing time to think things over and badly needing cash, I grabbed the first job offered. It carried a gofer’s euphemistic title “field survey representative” for the University of the Philippines College of Agriculture.
My task was to find and interview a list of Benguet farmers, using a questionnaire form issued by the college, which contracted out the task to the Bureau of Agricultural Economics office here in Baguio. I don’t know if that office still exists. I did find all the farmers on my list. It took me the whole 30 days I was contracted and eventually paid for to finish, the last among several “representatives.”
What struck me was the honesty of the respondent-farmers in reply to the question on pesticide use. Outright, several told me they normally harvested their crops three days after the last pesticide application. At least one said that time, in relation to the chemical input, didn’t fit into his equation. Harvest depended on the highly mercurial market price manipulated by greedy middlemen that one must always be abreast with the graph chart or suffer loss for a decision to reap an hour or so late.
During an agricultural forum at the Benguet State University, I came out strongly, demanding a higher sense of community and responsibility among farmers in the use of pesticides. A farmer responded as passionately. He directly asked if I could also be responsible enough to fund their next cropping season should their heeding my consumerism call leaves them with nothing to start again.
Developments over the years showed the complexity of the issue of pesticide use and the untold sufferings of Cordillera farmers. A notable study done by Dr. Charles Cheng and Katherine Bersamira which won the Raul Rivas award for public health from the Philippine Medical Association, showed the ill effects of uncontrolled pesticide use to the health of farmers and their families. The study confirmed the practice of “cocktailing,” or mixing highly toxic and banned chemicals to save crops and the urgent need for a more aggressive information drive to safeguard the health of farmers.
There were reports of efforts to dismiss, if not suppress, the study. There was also news of a similar effort to put under the rug another research on diadegma, an insect that controls the diamondback moth menace on vegetable crops but which is also being decimated by pesticide application. Time and again, we read about pesticides being banned abroad but curiously gets easily dumped into our Third World farmland.
The farmers’ woes keep mounting, triggered by the elements and manipulated by powerful, sometimes hidden hands, from production to marketing, only to be topped by the realities of global business competition. The Halsema Highway, which straddles the vegetable belt, remains the Mountain Trail that it has always been, with landslides trapping the highly perishable harvest that is often left to rot during the rainy season.
Until recently, the farmers had to bleed for the leeches along the long road to the Metro-Manila markets. The markets are now being flooded by better-looking, well-packaged and cheaper-priced produce being smuggled in from Taiwan and China.
Our Cordillera leaders, agriculture officials and experts know they have to see and act beyond the howls of protest over unfair competition to save the backbone of Benguet’s economy from total collapse.
The time is more than ripe to put to good use the lessons learned from those study trips to the highly successful farmland of Taiwan. To be competitive and to survive, it is also in order to refocus the multimillion peso support programs like the Highland Agricultural Development Program and the Cordillera Highland Agricultural and Resource Management that the European Community so kindly provided.
For one, it is time to go to the farmers instead of hauling them into plush seminar venues so these trainings are really grounded right in the middle of the cabbage terraces.
The bottom line of it all is the environment that continues to be sacrificed in the name of productivity. We can no longer afford to implement a farm support project without preserving the integrity of the resource base.
A case was point is the recent opening of a road linking the gentle Kalanguyas of Tinoc, Ifugao, to the rest of the world. That project provided access for bulldozers of rich farmers from the outside to clear up the mossy forests along the road for their farmland.
Like road projects, plans and proposals to tap our other water resources speak of sustainability but they feature only the concrete: inlet, outlet and distribution pipes and the dam. Nothing is mentioned about sustaining and preserving the water source.
While we discuss, the remaining watersheds, including sacred Mount Pulag, are being desecrated with more road openings and terracing. We would soon dry them up and put and end to whatever competitiveness we have left.
By Ramon Dacawi