Rice farmers in Nueva Ecija in a time of 'salot'
Rey Rodriguez takes a rest inside their family home in Guimba.
“Ito na nga yung sinasabi ng mga magsasaka, na ito na iyung salot sa mga magsasaka.”
(This is what farmers call a plague.)
Rodriguez has heard this familiar refrain from other farmers like him.
“Dahil nga sinasabing salot ay dahil walang sini-sino ito eh, basta’t magsasaka ka, basta’t nagtatanim ng palay, talagang sagasa lahat.”
(They say that it's pestilence, because it only afflicts farmers, if you plant rice, you’ll be in the pathway of this destruction.)
It’s a description that only farmers know too well. They have seen it all: weather devastation, occasional pests, low crop yields, and then there is “salot”.
Rey Rodriguez and Amang Dichoso are farmers in the town of Guimba, one of the biggest provinces in Nueva Ecija in Central Luzon, the rice granary of the Philippines.
Rey, 54, takes care of their land on the hills of Guimba. This presents a problem for him in terms of irrigation.
“Yun pong bukid namin ay may area na 9,000 (square meters), [yun] ang gamit ko po sa pagsasaka," he said.
(Our rice farm has an area of 9,000 square meters.)
“Medyo mataas at hindi inaabot ng irigasyon, mas malaki po ang gastos.”
(It is upland so water from irrigation becomes a problem, it also costs more for us.)
For now, they have to wait for the government’s intervention.
Amang and Rey have prepared some their rice fields and planted vegetables to augment their income amid the low prices of palay.
Several weeks ago, rice traders who buy their palay started lowering their buying price to P7 per kilo.
Farmers attribute the low buying prices to the passage of the Rice Tariffication Law. President Duterte signed the measure into law last February. The law restructures the National Food Authority (NFA) and seeks to modernize the country's rice sector in order to make Philippine rice competitive.
Last March 2019, the government stopped regulating international and domestic rice trade as the Rice Tariffication Law took effect.
The NFA said will stop licensing and registering entities engaged in the grains business, collecting regulatory fees, and enforcing rules and regulations in the grains business, among others.
The agriculture department says the law will help Filipino rice farmers compete with imported rice by planting better varieties of the grain. It is supposed to open a window of opportunity for Filipino farmers to provide consumers with good quality rice varieties.
The law provides P10 billion to the local rice industry via the Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund. Next year, the 35% tariffs collected from imported rice will be channeled to Filipino rice farmers.
Recently, more than 1,000 rice farmers received cash cards of P15,000 each as the Department of Agriculture (DA) launched its Expanded Survival and Recovery Assistance Program for Rice Farmers (SURE Aid). The loan can be availed by farmers tilling one hectare of land and below and is payable in eight years.
The program intends to serve a total of 100,000 rice farmers nationwide, some 2,000 of whom are in Nueva Ecija.
But farmers' groups have opposed the removal of import quotas on rice, saying flooding the local market with cheaper imported rice will kill the Philippine rice industry.
The Alliance of Rice Farmers Against Rice Tariffication said the measure, meant to make rice more affordable in the Philippines, will lead to the "death of the rice industry."
Amang Dichoso said many farmers don’t have much capital to invest in their rice farms. “Sa totoo lang po, wala pong (kapital).”
“Karamihan po sa magsasaka wala pong sariling puhunan”.
(Most farmers don't have funds.)
“Inuutang din po na meron pong tubo. Ganyan po ang buhay ng magsasaka.”
(We get loans, loans that have interest. That is the way with farmers.)
The weather also complicates their livelihood. There are two planting and harvesting seasons in the province. There is the summer harvest, wherein farmers take advantage of the summer to bring in their palay to millers properly so that they can sell at high prices.
There is also the rainy season harvest. Farmers need to be quick and safeguard their crops so that the typhoons won’t damage their palay before bringing it to millers. During this time, rice traders lower their buying price because the quality of rice has been affected by the rains.
“Katulad po nitong tag-ulan. 'Pag dumaan po ang bagyo at ganyan kababa ang presyo ng palay," he said.
(Just like this rainy season, once the typhoons come and the prices reach that low.)
This is a common lament of the farmers here, and while they have been used to adjusting their planting and harvest activities according to the seasons, they said the Rice Tariffication Law isn’t helping them.
“Dati-dati, pagka porme-pormero P20 and presyo ng palay, 'yung mga aning nauuna.”
(It used to be P20 per kilo. That's for the initial harvests.)
“Pero ngayon, 'yung mga naunang umani, siyete pesos na po ang kilo. Papano pa po mababayaran yung mga inuutang ng mga magsasaka?”
(But recently, based on our initial harvest, it has gone down to 7 pesos. How can rice farmers pay their debt?)
With the current low prices of palay, farmers here are in dire straits.
“Ay ‘ala na pong kita ang mga magsasaka, kung ang batayan ay siyete o sampu, wala po tayong kita diyan. Talagang palubog 'yung kabuhayan ng magsasaka.”
(There is no more income, if the basis for palay buying is 7 or 10 pesos).
“Lalong mababaon sa kahirapan lalo na yung mga kagaya naming ang sinasaka ay wala pang isang ektarya. Talagang mababaon sa utang.” Rey said.
(It will just drive us to poverty, especially for those like us whose farms don’t measure more than a hectare. We will surely be buried in debt.)
“Ala po eh, ay dahil nandyan na po talaga eh, yun at yun na rin ang mangyayari,” he said, noting the cycle of rising capital and the plummeting buying price of palay.
(It is what it is, it can’t be helped, what is happening now will continue to happen.)
“Ang batas ang salot, sa mga nagpasa ng batas na 'yan, sila ang salot sa mga magsasaka.”
(The law is the plague, those who passed this law are the ones plaguing the farmers.)