Farmers and fisherfolk

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

“Stock Photos (2003)” | IRRI Images via Creative Commons CC 2.0

This year, 50 years ago, I was employed in what was then the largest agricultural company in the Philippines engaged in marketing fertilizers, agricultural chemicals, and industrial gases. At its peak for several years, it was serving 70 percent of the market. For 15 years, through that company, I was introduced to the different crops and sectors using our products, from small farmers to sugar planters, from ordinary fishpond operators to banana and pineapple estates.

The 70s to the early 80s were tumultuous years, domestically and internationally. There were wars in our region as there were in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Central, and South America. It was a period where autocrats and dictators were very much alive and many were, in fact, supported by the most democratic of countries in North America and Western Europe. For the older generations including that where I belong, the conflicts today may have changed in personalities and countries, but the issues remain basically the same. Lust for power and economic control, greed, religious bigotry – then and now.

“For the older generations including that where I belong, the conflicts today may have changed in personalities and countries, but the issues remain basically the same. Lust for power and economic control, greed, religious bigotry – then and now.”

Then, too, as now, it is always the poor and ordinary people who suffer the most from the dynamics of the powerful. One side may rise, another may fall, but the poor and the ordinary people hardly see any sustainable beneficial change on their part. It was less the unique despotism of the global powers in that era than a continuation of despotism in recorded human history – and most probably well before it. It has simply been that way for so long that change has not been as fast as changes in leadership. Somehow, human behavior and established habits die hard.

That is why the last 50 years have told a similar story about the poor and ordinary Filipino, most of whom were, of course, farmers and fisherfolk from the rural areas. Today, I am told that small farmers and fisherfolk are as poor as ever. They still cannot make their hard work, their farming, and village fishing enterprises profitable. As recently as a few months ago, hunger reached record highs in our history and included them as well.

Because I have seen it for 50 years, I have some institutional memory, so to speak. This memory is not just from reading books or following news. Yes, that is part of it, but not close to being the most of it. My memory is deepest and clearest from my direct experience and exposure, whether it is social, economic, political, or religious. It is the same for others my age if, and only if, they had the same penchant for reflection and analysis, and engaged in the work of engaging in communities and various interest groups with one sustained dream – building a better Philippines.

“If the fate of the small farmers and fisherfolk today approximate the same fate of their recent ancestors despite the advance of science and technology, then root causes for their continuing suffering have not been substantially resolved.”

I have good insights from the long years of experiencing the march of time in the Philippine scene. I know of many others who have gained the same depth of knowledge from their own experiences, especially the more painful ones. But it has always puzzled me why the wisdom of our past is always challenged by the obstinance or arrogance of leaders of the present. It is as if they, too, would first have to dive into painful failures before they learn what generations before them already did – but were not listened to. The curse of followers, of the poor and ordinary, is that when leaders fail, they are the ones who suffer first and most.

If the fate of the small farmers and fisherfolk today approximate the same fate of their recent ancestors despite the advance of science and technology, then root causes for their continuing suffering have not been substantially resolved. There is one clear difference from 50 years ago. That is on the matter of land ownership or control. Today, there are decidedly many more farmers who own or who have rights to their own small piece of land. And because that is true and ought to be a significant factor for their progress, the only conclusion I can arrive at is that having their own land has not delivered the promise intended by it.

The few exceptions of thriving farmers are, of course, being used to proclaim that hard work and perseverance combined with land ownership or control is key to agricultural prosperity. I believe that is a line we must stop using. It is not a new line but the only line, in fact. We are fed with stories of how a poor person can succeed and become rich. We have well-known personalities that have become poster boys for this storyline, several of them among the richest today in Philippine society. Well, what about selling the story of winners of the Sweepstakes or Lotto? What’s the difference?

“The successes make good examples. But when they are the only examples we use, they become propaganda to justify the extension of the failures that define our society. Let us focus more on the state of our small farmers and fisherfolk.”

Can someone tell me how many losers there are for every winner, how many fail for every success? Can someone tell me how many farmers are succeeding and how many are caught in their historical poverty? I do not think so because that line of thinking is not what is being peddled. The other and more truthful way is also being monitored but they become statistics that many of us cannot interpret correctly. Even when such statistics occasionally reach us, we gloss over them – or at least leadership apparently does.

We were very recently told by SWS that Filipinos, telling their own story, say that only 16 percent do not consider themselves poor. The same storytelling has Filipinos saying they are hungry or prone to hunger – meaning they do not have the confidence for 3 meals a day.

The successes make good examples. But when they are the only examples we use, they become propaganda to justify the extension of the failures that define our society. Let us focus more on the state of our small farmers and fisherfolk. Let them tell us their story, how they farm and fish to make us eat yet risk hunger themselves, not just monetary losses. If we listen well, many good answers will present themselves.

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