“The weather is unpredictable now,” says Generoso Bicaldo, a farmer, as he sits in the shade of a thatched grass awning. “It changed. Before, when it rained, it would just rain a couple times, not constantly.” The sky is a fierce blue and the sun is beating down on wide green rice fields in Pecuaria, Camarines Sur, an eastern region of the Philippines. “In summer we have the rainy season now, and when it should be rainy, it is like summer.”
All over this warming planet, from India to Sudan to Peru, farmers are struggling with lower yields and greater uncertainty. Smaller farmers, of course, who lack the resources to adjust, feel the pain sharpest. As the world faces the uphill battle of feeding its people in the coming years, neoliberalism and globalization only add insult to injury. Seventy percent of the world’s population are small farmers, according to the United Nations. Their survival is essential to feeding the hungry, but trade injustice, a lack of state support and corporate agriculture threaten them. The Philippines is, sadly, just one venue of many where global factors are wreaking havoc on small farmers and their food.
I asked Walden Bello, a Philippine Congressman, why his country’s economy fails to produce enough staple crops for its teeming masses, when the bulk of its workforce—a full third—is employed in agriculture. Though imports are down from last year, and Aquino has launched a “food self-sufficiency” plan, the Philippines is still among the world’s top rice importers and is a net food importer. The massive typhoons that slammed the islands in September, destroying hundreds of thousands of tons of paddy rice, mean imports are likely to exceed next year’s targets.
At a Mexican restaurant near SUNY Binghamton where he guest lectures, the soft-spoken and diminutive Bello told me about how structural adjustment in the 1980s, towards the end of the era of dictator Ferdinand Marcos, sparked the “demotion of agriculture.” “We’ve lost thirty years,” he says. “At the start of the Marcos period the Philippines was more developed than Thailand.”
Back then, according to Bello, irrigation got ten percent of the national budget, but that was reduced to about three percent as the global South underwent the collective belt-tightening prescribed by the International Monetary Fund after the 1980s Third World debt crisis. The Filipino government’s National Irrigation Administration says the amount of land under irrigation has plummeted since then, with only half of potential farmland irrigated and infrastructure crumbling. President Benigno Aquino III’s administration is planning to expand irrigation, but it will have to play catch up. Right now it is “mainly trying to shore up the irrigation facilities that have been established,” says Bello.
Farmer support services were slashed under structural adjustment too. During the Marcos era, those who tilled the land were buoyed by credit programs and price supports, on top of free fertilizer, pesticides and seeds. Marcos’ “Masagana 99” program, coupled with Green Revolution technology, brought rice self-sufficiency to the country in 1977 and 1978. According to Bello, when strong state support dropped off in the 1980s, what was left was expensive, high-input farming that impoverishes farmers. The corporate biotech rice that this and past administrations have promoted force many farmers into debt, according to Val Vibal at the Integrated Rural Development Foundation in Manila.
The result? Forty-four percent of farmers live in poverty according to the latest numbers from the National Statistics Coordination Board.
Further threatening farmers’ access to support is the predictable World Bank panacea of privatization. The Aquino administration is still toeing the “Washington Consensus” line, abandoning state involvement in order to close budget gaps, even though privatization of the country’s water and power has resulted in astronomical usage fees for consumers.
Bello senses irrigation is on its way to being privatized too. The World Bank says “there are current initiatives…that look at possibilities for public-private partnerships” for irrigation. But they know better than to chop all at once these days. Instead they are sponsoring a plan that involves slowly transferring the management of local state-run irrigation systems to farmers’ Irrigators Associations, cutting labor costs.
Avelino Mendoes, a farmer in the eastern province of Sorsogon is thin and wiry with short, gelled hair and tattooed wrists. He says the farmers in his community are unable to maintain the local irrigation systems that serve their lands. A dam that was damaged in a 2008 flood was only partially repaired last year. “We still need 500 meters of concrete,” he says. “We don’t know what will happen.”
According to Bello, an even more fundamental threat to the survival of small farmers is trade liberalization. “Whether you look at corn, vegetables, poultry—major sectors of the agricultural economy have been devastated by imports.” Since the Philippines became a net food importer in 1994, when it joined the World Trade Organization, many small farmers have been priced out of the market by countries with more advanced technology or bigger state subsidies.
Julian Merina is a farmer in Batanes, the northernmost islands in the archipelago. He grows watermelon, sweet potato and purple yam on steep green hills overlooking the South China Sea. Coconut groves partition his fields from his neighbors’ plots. His fields are rain-fed, not irrigated, and he uses traditional seeds and traditional labor—family and caribao, a domestic water buffalo common in the country. Merina used to grow garlic, but was priced out by imports. Now he uses the land for pasture and earns significantly less. Because he owns property, cattle and caribao, lost income has not yet pushed him off his land. Many others are not so lucky. In the past thirty years the percentage of Filipinos working in agriculture has plummeted from half of the population to one third, according to the World Bank.
Free trade means farmers are squeezed both externally and internally. On the global market, their produce is undercut by cheap international prices, and at home, the “cheap” fertile land that is their heritage is snapped up by international investors. Land-leasing for cash crops and commercial use is yet another factor pushing families off their farms. “The government’s focus is not towards insuring common food security. It is towards the international market,” says Vibal.
Evidence of this is, literally, everywhere. Hardy sugar cane rustles for miles along the highways on the central island of Cebu where workers harvest wearing thick gloves to protect their hands from the punishing stalks. The “coconut corridor,” which runs all the way from Mindanao in the south up through Luzon in the north, is lined with trees, some short and squat, others tall and limber, all with sweet buko juice inside.
These, along with pineapple, banana and rubber, are traditional export crops that have encroached on subsistence farmers’ land since the Spanish colonial days. They have now been joined by agro-fuels — the current hot crop. According to a recent study by Oxfam Great Britain, a charity that fights global poverty, 1.37 million hectares are currently under negotiation for foreign and domestic private sector investment, mostly in biofuel feedstock. Riza Bernabe, a leading expert on Philippine trade and agricultural issues and staffer for Bello, says that farmers commonly enter into contracts with investors to relinquish their land titles. “Technically it’s their choice,” she says, “but their options are limited, because it is easier for them to sell their land since, in the absence of government support, they don’t have the money to till it.” If the farmers are tenants, the landowners can enter into a contract with the corporation under which there are no employment guarantees for the tenant.
Neoliberal agricultural and trade policies leave farmers vulnerable to the violence of the free market. The result, says Bello, is an agriculturally-based economy that, paradoxically, is not agriculture-focused. He says the Aquino administration needs to enact real structural economic reform in order to save farmers’ livelihoods and, by extension, the economy at large. “We’ve been trying to push it to do that, but when it comes to economic policy there’s just kind of groping around.”
This means small-scale farming is often unsustainable. Farmers either work extra jobs or migrate to urban centers in hopes of finding better work. If they end up in Manila, they will likely join the ranks of slum-dwellers and beggars living off of the filthy, trash-clogged Pasig River and relying on cash hand-outs from the government to subsidize the purchase of what is often imported food, instead of harvesting their own.
In Manila, clusters of homeless families live under colossal smog-blackened overpasses and behind subway stairwells, while sidewalk vendors hawk mint lozenges and sliced mangoes for a few pesos a few feet away.
One hot summer afternoon, I witness a scene that seems to sum up the devastating effects neoliberal economic policies and globalization have had on the Philippines.
I am walking through an alleyway between the highway and the fish market. It is strewn with garbage and foul-smelling water runs in the gutters. I usually hurry through this alley, but what I see today stops me in my tracks. A bone-thin woman and her pants-less child are squatting near the gutter, eating off the ground. In a country that not so long ago fed itself with rice grown in its own paddies, this mother and child, and millions like them, are reduced to eating others’ trash. Then I look closer. What they are eating is even more cruel. They are picking bits of white rice off of a scrap of plastic bag.
Erika Eichelberger is a freelance journalist and an intern at The Nation. She has written for the Indypendent and the Brooklyn Rail, among others, and has also interned at Democracy Now!.