The need to produce healthy, yellow-colored rice is an unease that 66-year-old farmer Jose “Popoy” Bernardino feels daily. “Iyong ani kasi ang magiging pangkonsumo na namin para sa isang taon,” he said.
This is an anxiety that won’t let up for Bernardino and the farmers of Pook Aguinaldo in the coming months, as the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) forecasts an intensification of El Niño from November to early 2024.
The El Niño-Southern Oscillation is a climate phenomenon where the Pacific Ocean undergoes erratic increases in temperature. Occurring every two to seven years, El Niño is not anything new–yet it continues to spell dire straits for both producers and consumers. Next year, 267,000 hectares of farmland with a total output of 1.46 million metric tons of rice are at risk.
The climate phenomenon is poised to exacerbate the ongoing food crisis–farmers are forced to experiment with costlier crops, vendors sell old rice stocks, and consumers grapple with limited food. Yet the state appears unfazed. Instead, recent moves show its eagerness to use the climate phenomenon to legitimize its trademark import-oriented economy.
Since 2001, Bernardino has tended to the fields of Pook Aguinaldo. “Dati, noong nagka-El Niño, wala talagang laman yung bunga [ng palay].” Bernardino’s 2018 encounter with El Niño forced him to shift to gabi and kangkong, but even these did not withstand the dry spell. This shift brought about unprecedented difficulties for him as a consumer as well: rising prices of diesel for his tractor and the added number of seeds he was forced to order dried out his finances, making him unable to purchase the water he needed for a second crop.
In 2018, water shortages wrought by El Niño led to P8 billion worth of crop damage nationwide. This came at the heels of 2016’s El Niño, where damage to staple foods like rice and corn notched P4 billion. This led to a decrease in overall food consumption of 25 percent of all households in the country.
With no stable source of irrigation, Bernardino resorts to using a water pump. But this can’t cover his whole field, and pumpwater is infested with chemicals from neighboring residential areas. “Kahit maganda iyong barayti, iba talaga iyong lasa at kulay kapag tinamnan ng tubig kanal.”
Nationwide, analogs to Pook Aguinaldo’s water situation prevail, like in Negros where only nine to 10 percent of the 220,000 hectares of sugarfields have access to irrigation. Butch Lozande, secretary general of the National Federation for Sugar Workers, broods that El Niño will coincide with the harvest season. “Babansutin ng El Niño ang tubo ng 68,400 small sugar producers sa Negros.”
Pests in the Water
As early as March, PAGASA announced a 55-percent chance of El Niño in the coming six months. The state has had all the resources to counter the one-two punch that is El Niño and the food crisis. Yet hamstrung legislation continues to mar the national El Niño response.
In 2016, a P1.32-billion quick response fund was slated to be provided for El Niño-stricken farmers, but red tape severely hampered its transmission. By April, only 28 percent of it had been circulated, and when farmers from Kidapawan protested for more immediate drought assistance, police opened fire, leaving two dead and 116 injured.
Two years later, another El Niño episode left over 10,000 households bereft of a stable water supply. At the peak of the crisis, groups pointed to Republic Act 6716, which mandates the creation of waterworks during shortages. However, lawmakers used the crisis to accelerate the construction of Kaliwa Dam, which threatened to displace about 5,000 Dumagat-Remontados from their ancestral land.
“Kung matatayuan kami ng irrigation system, matatamnan ko ang bukid kahit sa tagtuyot,” Bernardino said. The prospects of this happening look rather dreary, however. The National Irrigation Administration is knee-deep in corruption issues, allegedly awarding anomalous contracts to the tune of P121 billion. Amid incoming El Niño, the agency will also suffer a billion-peso budget cut next year.
Fangless state action has pushed the country to a losers’ corner where, in the absence of dependable local production, importation becomes an exigency.
Last August, the Department of Agriculture (DA) unveiled its plan to import a total of 1.1 million metric tons of rice to cover lean periods from October to January. A month later, they floated the possibility of further raising rice import rates to counter El Niño.
Projections show that total rice imports in the Philippines, now the world’s top rice buyer, will notch 3.8 million metric tons by early 2024. Because policies like the Rice Liberalization Law careen towards deregulating importation over boosting domestic production, importation has become a nostrum for the nationwide food shortage, never mind the grief it brings to the peasantry.
Lozande is not counting on the government to change tack: “Binibigyang-pabor niya kasi ang mga interes ng transnational corporations.” Disturbances in the global market, however, show that the key doesn’t lie beyond national borders. Prices of Israel’s fertilizers, on which the country’s agriculture has grown dependent, have mushroomed owing to its attacks on Gaza. India’s rice export ban also led to a 20-percent increase in the price of rice from Vietnam. Continued importation will only spell more volatile prices of rice for consumers, and of seedlings and biofertilizers for producers.
Marcos Jr.’s subordination to foreign powers has locked both producers and consumers in a death grip—farmers plant their crops on dry soil, and buyers are forced to make do with the scraps this yields. Meanwhile, Marcos’s fixation on imported rice only serves to draw out this grueling process.
“Wala kaming nakukuhang tulong sa gobyerno,” Bernardino said. Efforts from the government to aid Pook Aguinaldo’s farmers have thus far been brazenly disconnected with their situation on the ground.
Last year, Bernardino was given rice seedlings for planting by the government, but the sacks showed that the seeds had been expired since 2018. He also received a tranche of organic fertilizers, but Pook Aguinaldo’s soil is not compatible with biofertilizers.
“Sabi ni BBM, bukod sa gagawin niyang libre ang lupa, bibigyan tayo ng puhunan para hindi na mangutang. Sana makamtan natin iyon,” Bernardino said. But the DA’s response, thus far, has been the 2023 El Niño Mitigation and Adaptation Plan, which touts the provision of hybrid rice varieties and fertilizers as its selling point.
The hybrid rice solution, however, imposes a jarring increase in production costs; in 2022, hybrid seeds were pegged at P366 per kilo, while inbred seeds sat at just P29 a kilo. To boot, hybrid rice needs myriad chemical inputs like organic fertilizers, which, apart from being costly, can make land fertilizer-dependent. Farmers may get 41 percent more yields with hybrid rice than traditional rice, but the consumer suffers. The lack of hybrid seed production areas in the country means that hybrid rice is sold in markets at a much higher price.
PAGASA projects 2024 to be the Philippines’s warmest year owing to El Niño. Bernardino chafed at this projection, but faced it with stoicism: “El Niño, La Niña, wala namang bago.” He makes a solid point: occasional disturbances are a concomitant of the climate cycle. What renders the peasantry and the consumers its prime victims is an economic program that subsists off the hunger of a nation. ●
All photos taken by Louis Malong.
First published in the October 20, 2023 print edition of the Collegian.
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