The lamentable state of the abaca industry in Catanduanes

Last week’s distribution of P5,000 cash to qualified rice farmers in the province of Catanduanes is pursuant to Section 13 of Republic Act 11203, or the Rice Tariffication Law.

Under the provision, if the annual tariff revenues from rice importation exceeds P10 billion in any given year within the six-year period following the Act’s effectivity, the excess tariff revenues shall be earmarked by Congress for other intended purposes, including the Rice Farmers Financial Assistance (RFFA).

The RFFA is intended for eligible rice farmers as compensation for the projected reduction or loss of farm income arising from the tariffication of the quantitative import restrictions on rice.

In December last year, Congress also passed RA 11598, or the Cash Assistance for Filipino Farmers Act, authorizing the Department of Agriculture (DA) to utilize the annual tariff revenues to directly provide cash assistance to eligible beneficiaries until 2024, in view of the urgency to assist farmers due to the declining palay prices and the crippling effect of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Naturally, the beneficiaries – registered farmers tilling two hectares of rice land and below – were excited to receive the cash, as it came with no strings attached.

There was no requirement for them to expand their rice farming areas or to plant hybrid seeds.

Certainly, at this time of natural and man-made crisis, the use of the excess tariff revenues for direct cash assistance to farmers is much better than utilizing them for the purchase of tractors and other farm equipment, from which hefty commissions go to powerful government officials.

For the 13,000 abaca farmers who are covered by the recently released P69 million for the revitalization of typhoon-damaged abaca farms in Catanduanes, the situation is different.

Under the project, the provincial government will procure 1,377,000 abaca planting materials (APMs) from a supplier, which in turn will provide the same to local abaca farmers at a minimum quantity of 100 APMs.

The 13,777 abaca farmers will have to plant the plantlets, seed pieces or corms using digging bars to be provided under the project.

According to the Philippine Fiber Industry Development Authority (PhilFIDA), each sucker, seed piece or corm costs around P25 to P30.

Assuming the purchase request for the APMs use the maximum of P30 per APM, the winning supplier (assuming there is only one qualified supplier) buys the planting materials from the abaca farmer at a lesser price so the supplier will have a satisfactory profit and still pay for taxes and the other unmentionable expenses that normally come with government procurement.

As it would not be practicable to require the supplier to bring the 1.3 million APMs for inspection at the capitol, it would have to be counted at the planting site before the planting materials are stuck into the ground by the very farmer who uprooted them for counting in the first place.

How the supply and delivery of the APMs goes is confusing and unfair for the farmers, who will once again wonder why the procurement law does not allow the government to eliminate the middleman and buy directly from farmers, who are expected to plant them in their own farms in the mountains.

The same imperfect procedure has been used the last time a similar abaca rehab program was implemented in the island.

Why the DA, through PhilFIDA, is not allowed to undertake a Cash-for-Work program similar to that of the DSWD and DOLE is difficult to fathom.

Perhaps the agriculture department is simply not trying its best to justify a Cash-for-Work program for abaca farmers, for fear of upsetting the gravy train of government procurement.

Sometimes, there is reason to wonder why Congress ever declared Catanduanes as the Abaca Capital of the country, when there is no commercial abaca processing facility on the island, the inadequately funded PhilFIDA provincial office does not even have its own building, and annual abaca production has been declining steadily for the past 10 years.

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