Same old challenges

The author is a team leader, Advocacy Component, ADB-DA Grains Sector Development Program and undersecretary for Policy and Planning, DA, 1988-1992

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo recently showed Leonardo Montemayor
the door and ushered in Cito Lorenzo as the new secretary of Agriculture.

So far, 12 men have served as secretary of Agriculture since 1971.
Since EDSA1 in 1986, the average period in service of Agriculture
secretaries has been a mere 21 months.

Department of Agriculture (DA) leadership, 1971 – 2002

From – To Secretary of Agriculture Months of Service
Jan. 1971 – June 1984 Arturo M. Tanco* 162
July 1984 – Feb. 1986 Salvador H. Escudero 20
March 1986 – Feb. 1987 Ramon V. Mitra 12
March 1987 – Dec. 1989 Carlos G. Dominguez 34
Jan. 1990 – June 1992 Senen C. Bacani 30
July 1992 – Feb. 1996 Roberto S. Sebastian 44
March 1996 – June 1998 Salvador H. Escudero 25
July 1998 – April 1999 William D. Dar** 9
May 1999 – Dec. 2000 Edgardo J. Angara 19
Jan. 6 – Feb. 15, 2001 Domingo F. Panganiban 1
Feb. 2001 – Nov. 2002 Leonardo Q. Montemayor 21
Dec. 1, 2002 – ? Cito Lorenzo, Jr. ?

* Including Environment, Natural Resources and Agrarian Reform.
** Acting Secretary

We have yet to hear from Mr. Lorenzo, but bar none, each of the
previous secretaries of Agriculture said their priorities included
poverty alleviation and food security. Indeed, equity in access to land
resources for all, food security and rapid rural growth are important
goals for any administration. What makes the critical difference for
success is focus and implementation.

Success in the implementation of the strategy outlined below will
secure not only the completion of land transfer as mandated under the
Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law, adequate, cheaper food, more jobs,
increased incomes and reduced poverty, but also rapid and sustainable
advances in national growth.

Basic Problems and Constraints

The fundamental causes of food insecurity and poverty in the
Philippines have been intensively analyzed. The key factors are lack of
public investment and weak governance in the areas of irrigation, rural
infrastructure and agriculture and fisheries technology. The
antecedents of these ills include the:

  • near cessation in new public investments in irrigation since the early 1980s;
  • drastic drop in public investments in other rural infrastructure,
    especially rural roads since the early 1980s and their weak recovery
    only in the 1990s; and
  • inadequacy in public investments in technology development and
    dissemination, exacerbated by the fragmented management and allocation
    of such resources.

The Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) still has to be
completed. The program was to have come to a close in 1998, but poor
performance and the continuing concern for equity enabled the extension
of the life of the CARP into the new millennium. Furthermore,
inadequacies in support services endangered the limited gains achieved.

Reversing the downward trajectory of agriculture sector productivity
and completing agrarian transfer has been made much more difficult by
weakness in the governance of the agriculture and fisheries bureaucracy
due to discontinuous, fragmented authority and responsibility and the
unresolved effects of devolution. Weak governance has also allowed
substantial waste – exemplified in:

  • non-targeted subsidies provided through the National Food Authority;
  • sluggishness in implementation at the National Irrigation Authority; and
  • divided leadership and roles in rural development and agrarian
    reform between the DA and the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR).

These infirmities were at their worst during the first half of the
1980s. Between 1986 and the present, the administrations of both
presidents Corazon Aquino and Fidel Ramos were in most cases able to
only “hold the line” on these problems. At their best, presidents
Aquino and Ramos achieved some advances but their efforts still fell
short when compared with our ASEAN neighbors. Since President Estrada’s
watch, the state of agriculture has turned from bad to worse. There has
been back tracking in recent years, particularly in agricultural trade
policy – involving especially rice, sugar and coconut.

The government, particularly the DA and the DAR, must focus, focus,
focus on the fundamental problems and finally defeat these – once and
for all – to succeed in attaining food security and alleviating
poverty. The problems of inadequate public investment in, and weak
governance of, the agriculture and fisheries sectors are paramount and
should be attended to first and foremost.

Certainly there are many other concerns in the agricultural and
fisheries sector. However, most of these other problems are symptomatic
of, or are rooted in, the fundamental inadequacies in public investment
and governance. Therefore the government, the President and the DA must
not be distracted from attending to the fundamental issues, since the
resolution of these root causes will greatly reduce the effort required
to deal with the other and more peripheral concerns.
{mospagebreak}
There are many other concerns in the agriculture and fisheries sector.
However, most of these other problems are rooted in the fundamental
inadequacies in public investment and governance. Therefore, the
government must not be distracted from attending to the fundamental
issues since the resolution of these root causes will greatly reduce
the effort required to deal with the other and more peripheral concerns.

The specific thrusts that must be executed to rapidly attain the overall goals of food security and poverty alleviation are:

  • Strong and Unified Leadership of the Department of Agrarian
    Reform (DAR) and the Department of Agriculture (DA) – Public resources
    for agricultural and rural development, particularly those for support
    services, are split between the DAR and DA, which needlessly compete
    and sometimes work at cross purposes. The leadership of both
    departments should be unified – so that institutional resources are not
    only properly allocated between land acquisition and transfer and
    support services, but also that the management of such functions is
    closely coordinated.

Unification can be achieved by simply appointing a
single secretary to lead both the DA and the DAR, and having the DAR
focus purely on land transfer functions and the DA on support services
for all farmers, whether agrarian reform beneficiaries or not.

  • Irrigation – Major expansion and acceleration of the construction
    and rehabilitation of irrigation facilities, especially private,
    farmer-owned systems and communal irrigation co-financed with local
    government units (LGUs). Put strong management into the National
    Irrigation Administration (NIA), focusing it on engineering and
    contract oversight, not actual construction. Enable technical
    assistance and policy reforms to encourage farmers to set up private
    systems.

Measures include refocusing the NIA from construction to
technical assistance, liberalized trade in pumps, shallow tube wells
and other irrigation equipment. The government’s role will be limited
to aquifer identification, engineering specifications and contract
oversight. In the short run, the construction and commerce arising from
irrigation programs will push rural employment. In the long run,
irrigation will ensure plentiful, cheaper food and higher wages for all.

  • Rural Roads, Ports and Transport – Major expansion and
    acceleration of the construction of rural roads, particularly through
    local contracts administered by local government units and the
    Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH). These construction
    programs must be complemented by accelerated liberalization of policies
    in land transport, interisland shipping, cargo handling and
    telecommunications. The focus on transport infrastructure will bring
    down production and marketing costs across all sectors – not only in
    agriculture.
  • Technology Budgets, Clear Accountability for Research and
    Development (R&D) and Rapid International Technology Transfer –
    Substantial increase in the budget for technology development, to
    achieve the 1% of gross value added (GVA) in agriculture benchmark,
    about P1.83 billion. R&D resources must be distributed across
    commodities according to the share of the commodities in GVAA. The
    management of R&D resources must be consolidated into the DA. The
    most efficient way to access world technology and push HRD is to
    multiply the provision of graduate-level scholarships, research grants,
    continuing education and academic chairs. Given the growing
    disenchantment of the academic and science community with government,
    these support opportunities will build not only technology, but also
    solidarity with the scientific elite.
  • Partnership with LGUs to Revitalize Local Agriculture –
    Technology and support services must be delivered to farmers, fishermen
    and rural households. The central government cannot handle the task
    alone and thus must mobilize the entire nationwide network of LGUs,
    schools and universities, nongovernment organizations (NGOs), people’s
    organizations (POs) and the private sector to rapidly and effectively
    extend the resources for productivity and rural income generation. The
    co-financing by DA of LGU agricultural development plans and programs
    is extremely important, and will also build a nationwide support
    network for agriculture and rural development.
  • Immediate Reductions in Food Prices and Targeted Food Subsidies
    to the Poor – The National Food Authority (NFA) has maintained its
    monopoly of rice imports. Rice imports are unavoidable in the medium
    term because population growth is rapid and agricultural productivity
    will take time to recover.

We should take advantage of the currently very low world prices of
rice. The NFA can bid out import contracts to many more private traders
and also earn much-needed revenue. Also, the distribution of the cheap
imported rice should be targeted at the poor through joint effort of
NFA, Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) and LGUs. Thus
simultaneously achieved is the reduction of budget support for NFA,
improved revenues, targeted support for the poor and partnership
between NFA, DA and DSWD.

In all of these initiatives, the unified DA and DAR must lead and be
supported by the rest of government, including Congress. The Government
must set directions and devolve authority, responsibility and funds to
its partners and implementors – the LGUs, NGOs, POs, universities and
technology institutions.

The President and the unified leadership of DA and DAR must not waste
this opportunity. Strong, determined leadership is critical. The
leadership must focus, focus, focus like a laser on the basic issues
from day one, and not waver until the task is done.

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