What’s happening?

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

“Bukid” | Photo by Shan Sheehan via Flickr/Creative Commons CC BY 2.0

I know Willie Dar, have known him from the 90s and his short stint at the same Department of Agriculture. There is nothing I know about him and his family that comes close to tainting his integrity, his expertise, and his fierce industriousness. I know about his work abroad as Director-General of ICRISAT where he served with great distinction for 15 years. I know his love for the land, for the farmer, and for the nation. William Dar is a patriot.

I also know that Willie Dar is not a politician. He has worked all his life from merit, not from connections. If I worry about him now, as I worried about him when he was appointed Secretary of Agriculture in August of 2019, it was because he did not have the natural aptitude for the management of politics. I do not mean only the politics of public service but even the politics of bureaucracy, the politics of vested interests in agriculture, of which there are many.

In 1970 or 51 years ago, I started my work as a personal secretary of the Chairman of the Rice and Corn Administration (now NFA). One year later, in 1971, I was hired as a clerk in Planters Products Inc (PPI) and stayed there for 15 years. During that time, I worked in several departments, from materials management, the importing, storing, and formulating agricultural chemicals, sales, and distribution, and coordinating with the manufacturing group in Bataan.

It was part of the job to engage distributors and dealers of fertilizers and chemicals, warehousing and distribution activities, and even monitor the hundreds of farm demonstrations that PPI initiated to show more modern farming technology at that time. Most important of all, the farmer buyer of agricultural products that PPI sold were documented as the future owners of the company with no owners according to the volume of their purchases.

In other words, while the last three decades of my life have been around the work of community development, poverty and hunger intervention, my connection with agriculture has never been severed. I accept that I am no expert in academic preparation, but I also know not many have seen and experienced the length and breadth of the agricultural spectrum like me. So, when I speak out for Willie Dar today, it is not only about someone I know in friendly terms but as someone with enough history and practical sense of our agriculture scenery.

” … as a citizen concerned with marginalized communities and the perennial hunger haunting the poor Filipino, I worried about food. After the fear of Covid-19 infections, I felt that it was fear of hunger or food shortage. I knew the government was also fearful of the same thing. Food riots can topple governments no matter who is president.”

Because our worlds do not often meet, to my regret, I have seen Secretary Dar exactly once since his appointment, and it was in a room full of so many other people, workers, and outsiders. In other words, I was able to listen to him give a summary of the main programs that the government was focusing on, and devoting budgets for. It was also when the African Swine Flu (ASF) and the Rice Tariffication Law issues were front and center. I thought that Willie could handle the ASF well enough with his technical background. But the rice tariffication was something else. It was there I feared for him. He had waded into something that he was not an expert in – balancing political interests.

There was something else that I was afraid for the new Secretary. It was the bureaucracy of the Department of Agriculture itself. In any long-established organization of the government, there is also an established culture and power centers inside. When it is worse than others, it is usually where politicians have eternally been dictating to employees and officers or involved themselves in operations. I knew that the Department of Agriculture had its own share of politicking and shady deals. I had known this for 50 years. Dar should not underestimate this culture because it will try to swallow him.

As a friend from afar, I could only wish Secretary Dar well and do what I can in any position or opportunity to promote the department’s best programs. As fate would have it, the pandemic came when the new Secretary was barely 8 months in his office. And from the outside, as a citizen concerned with marginalized communities and the perennial hunger haunting the poor Filipino, I worried about food. After the fear of Covid-19 infections, I felt that it was fear of hunger or food shortage. I knew the government was also fearful of the same thing. Food riots can topple governments no matter who is president.

Well, well, instead, what happened? NO FOOD SHORTAGE. Yes, hunger did shoot up but that is not because of food shortage but money shortage. And when well-meaning people and groups engaged in hyperactivity, feeding, and distributing food packs, the 31% hunger incidences were cut almost in half in just two months.

In 2020, when most industries experienced serious drops in growth, productivity, and income, agriculture managed itself better than most.

Has pork supply contracted because of the ASF? If yes, then prices will go up. Price control will be imposed if there is a political fallout from the shortage and increased prices, and Duterte did order price ceilings. However, price controls will not add to supply, only increased production will. When, how long? If too long, rest assured that importations will follow. But if management is good, a special program and financing for jumpstarting production will also happen.

“Small producers like rice and corn farmers or backyard hog and chicken growers have not been profiting. Small consumers and this is all of us, we have not been earning more. But in between, a lot of money is made.”

Throughout 50 years, this is one clear observation that I have. Small producers like rice and corn farmers or backyard hog and chicken growers have not been profiting. Small consumers and this is all of us, we have not been earning more. But in between, a lot of money is made. The small and the poor are not heard until their numbers swell dangerously. But those who make money are heard. That is simply our history.

Secretary William Dar cannot always be right, and neither will those against him who may have achieved even less for the public good. But there is always common ground if people listen to one another.

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