As is typical when it comes to most laws, civil society groups have taken different positions with regard to the recently passed Republic Act 11203, otherwise known as the Rice Tariffication Law (RTL). In the midst of the continued decline in palay prices at the farmgate, some groups, led by Bantay Bigas, have launched a petition to have the law repealed. Meanwhile, Omi Royandoyan of Centro Saka and Alyansa Agrikultura wants a suspension of the law, but does not want to go back to quantitative restrictions. Rather, he wishes government to observe the rice market for six to eight cropping seasons (three to four years) and use flexible tariffs to protect the rice farmers. Other groups within the circle of the Rice Watch Action Network that are equally critical of the law have diverse positions, from outright repeal to amend, but they are united in saying that, definitely there is no more going back to quantitative restrictions. And then there’s the Federation of Free Farmers (FFF), led by Raul Montemayor, which does not see the need to repeal or even amend the law at this time. FFF points out that the Safeguard Measures Act can be invoked to protect the rice industry from the onslaught of imports which can be implemented alongside other measures.
But common to all these groups are calls to make sure that rice farmers survive by:
• Putting together a mix of interventions to immediately assist farmers who have definitely lost farm incomes due to the steep decline in the buying price of palay. This includes unconditional cash transfers and direct procurement from rice farmers by institutional buyers like the National Food Authority (NFA), local government units, the Department of Social Welfare and Development through its rice subsidy allocation to 4Ps beneficiaries, and other government agencies that have rice allocations. All these would need Congressional action, from enacting a supplemental budget to adequately fund the transfers, or procurement, or both to enacting Joint Resolution Nos. 2 and 8. In fact, the President should seriously consider calling on Congress to come back from their junkets and hold a Special Session to quickly act on these two emergency measures for our rice farmers.
• Giving farmers debt relief, especially for farmers owning one hectare and less of land who have outstanding debts with the Land Bank of the Philippines. Strengthened crop insurance and an increase in the buying price at the farmgate are likewise demanded.
• Further studying the charter of the NFA — which was left hanging in the frenzy to pass the RTL — should there be need to have government levers to regulate and accredit importers. Further, the charter review and eventual amendment should be able to address NFA’s operational and procurement budgets.
• The judicious use of the Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund (RCEF) to make sure that the revenues derived from the tariffs slapped on rice imports go to farmers to improve their productivity.
Indeed, the problems besetting the rice industry will not be solved by the RTL. We need to address the systemic issues that serve as bottlenecks in making our agriculture sector predictable and competitive, like the enactment of the National Land and Water Use Policy, to the obliteration of the cartels and smugglers. Lest we forget, our small farmers and small holder agriculture producers must be organized and empowered.
Painfully ironic, but the more than two decades of postponing the shift from quantitative restrictions to tariffs has not made our rice farmers more competitive. Rather, they were just given a false sense of security that government would be doing something to the point that not much has been done to get them organized and prepared for this eventuality.
Jessica Reyes-Cantos is with the Action for Economic Reforms.