Politics of Poverty

Dispatch from the Philippines: Government must create a new economic future

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Rice Farmer Gorgonio Simborio holds his son Viran, age 3 in Leyte, Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda. He says, “Preparing our land for planting was delayed due to Yolanda coming and the money problems it caused us. At the moment we are relying on relief food. My wife is away in Manila working so we can get some kind of income. So for now I’m a single dad.” Photo: Jane Beesley / Oxfam

A dynamic vision for a new agrarian and fishing economy in the Philippines is needed to motivate citizens and attract investors.

A dynamic vision for a new agrarian and fishing economy in the Philippines is needed to motivate citizens and attract investors.

Typhoon Haiyan killed more than 6,000 Filipinos, left more than four million displaced, and left millions without the means to support their families. Fast delivery of emergency relief by the international community in the first three months has prevented widespread hunger and outbreaks of disease and now the challenge before The Philippines is to “build back better.”

But there is one major obstacle to building back better: land.

The agrarian economy of the islands is dominated by a handful of elite families who have owned vast tracts of land for generations. Their wealth, status, and political hold on the island’s economy rests on control of the land. Most of the owners have long since left and live in Manila, the United States, or Europe. A response to the looming livelihoods crisis in the Philippines requires the government and aid agencies recognize that the economic well-being of communities are beholden, in many cases, to absentee landlords and  stalled agrarian reform initiatives.

A drive through the rural countryside of Leyte and Samar quickly reveals that the coconut farms are poorly capitalized. One hundred trees are planted on one hectare of land, most monocropped and subject to erosion. This cropping system enables landlords to hold onto the land merely for its base value rather than concerning themselves with other valuable market and food crops for the tenants. Landlords can earn easy profits through sharecropping arrangements on coconuts alone, without investments in improving varieties or productive alternatives.

In speaking with various stakeholders within the Ministry of Agriculture, Philippine Coconut Authority, and aid agencies, I saw they all had a sense of urgency about addressing the livelihoods crisis within the coconut sector, but combined with a growing resignation about the feudal coconut economy. Restoring the present system will continue to contribute to a stagnation in agricultural production, livelihoods, and opportunity for thousands of tenant farming families who live on the margins of the coconut estates.

The question is: Who will seize this massive opportunity to transform this way of life?

One suggestion is for national and regional leaders to convene meetings of smallholder farmers, landholding families, and other stakeholders in the food supply chains for the purpose of proposing a vision for a new agrarian and fishing economy in Leyte, Samar and Cebu. That vision could modernize the sectors by:

  • accelerating agrarian reform;
  • encouraging investment in alternative high value crops;
  • expanding small and medium sized farming units;
  • engaging many of the tenant farmers as equity participants;
  • incentivizing investment in sustainable agroforestry initiatives; and
  • exploring fish farming and creating agro-processing employment that would draw some fishery families away from the water to new jobs in new value-added businesses.

Clearly government officials and aid workers can see the implications of reproducing the status quo. While the central government has played an excellent role in rushing resources and personnel to the islands to get power and water back up and running, they have been slow to produce a plan to avert the livelihood crisis that will unfold over the next several months and years.

The government is the only entity with the money and convening power to move such a dynamic vision, and to do it in such a way that it could be a win-win for those with land, as well as those without land resources. It will, however, require real courage and vision. Leaders at the central government level will need to give it form and legitimacy.

At present, the central government is still debating its role. It has set up a presidentially-authorized oversight body to guide the reconstruction process and placed at the head of it a man with a reputation for transparency and accountability, Panfilo Lacson. He sees his role as encouraging investment from government agencies and private sector groups in a government-created foundation that will provide funds for this rebuilding process. As of the end of January, they had raised just $36,000 from the private sector.

Meanwhile, there is potential for the government to secure additional loans from the World Bank and Asian Development Bank in Manila to match its own investments in this rebuilding process.

Unfortunately, while there is much discussion taking place in Manila, the central government has yet to deliver even the first tranche of promised funds to local governments intended to finance the rebuilding of public infrastructure: city halls, schools, clinics and markets. Mayors are keen to get this work going and are expressing frustration. Many have chosen to get work going as best as they can with revenues from local taxation.

Building back better and addressing the root causes of poverty and injustice in the Leyte, Samar and Cebu regions will require the central government to mediate the complex political interests that stand in the way of a more promising future for thousands of Filipinos. Only they can create the unifying vision that can motivate citizens and attract the investors at the national and international level that will bring the vision to fruition.

Will they see this opportunity and grasp it or will they let it pass and satisfy themselves with a return to a dismal past with even less opportunity for affected Filipinos across the region?

The region’s families watch and wait for an answer.

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