The author is the team leader of the advocacy component of the ADB-DA Grains Sector Development Program and Agriculture undersecretary for policy and planning, 1988-92.

This piece was written on Jan. 24, 2001 – at the time that President
Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo assumed office in the wake of EDSA 2. It is
useful to revisit the recommendations outlined here for the recovery
and growth of the rural and agricultural sector, one year after the
entry of the post-Estrada administration.

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
CARL, 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 CARP still has to be completed. Originally, 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: (a) non-targeted subsidies provided
through the NFA, (b) sluggishness in implementation at the NIA and (c)
divided leadership and roles in rural development and agrarian reform
between the DA and the 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 to our ASEAN neighbors. Worse, there has been
backtracking in recent years, particularly in agricultural trade policy
– involving especially rice, sugar and coconut. Finally, during the
brief period under president Joseph Estrada, prospects for agriculture
sector recovery only worsened.

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 agriculture 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.

Focused Agenda

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 DAR and 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 DA and DAR, and having DAR focus purely
    on land transfer functions and DA on support services for all farmers,
    whether agrarian reform beneficiaries.
  • Irrigation – major expansion and acceleration of the construction
    and rehabilitation of irrigation facilities, especially private,
    farmer-owned systems and communal irrigation co-financed with LGUs. Put
    strong management into the NIA, focusing it on engineering and contract
    oversight – not actual construction. Enable technical assistance and
    policy reforms to encourage farmers to set up private irrigation
    systems. Measures include refocusing of NIA from construction to
    technical assistance, liberalized trade in pumps, shallow tube wells
    and other irrigation equipment. 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, thus, 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 LGUs and the 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
  • Technology budgets, clear accountability for R&D and rapid
    international technology transfer – substantial increase in the budget
    for technology development – to achieve the one percent of GVA in
    agriculture benchmark of about P1.83 billion. R&D resources must be
    distributed across commodities according to the share of the
    commodities in GVA. 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 the 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, NGOs, 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 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 cheap imported
    rice should be targeted at the poor through joint efforts with NFA,
    DSWD and LGUs. Thus, simultaneously achieved is the reduction of budget
    support for NFA, improved revenues, targeted support for the poor and
    partnership among NFA, DA and DSWD.

Attitude and Opportunity

In all of these initiatives, the unified DA and DAR must lead and be
supported by the rest of the 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.