Feast or Famine? RP-China Farm Deals and Local Agriculture

China is looking at the Philippines to meet its domestic food and energy requirements even as the Chinese economy is being restructured into an enormous assembly hub of manufactured goods for the American, Japanese and European markets.

IBON Features
Posted by Bulatlat
Vol. VII, No. 34, September 30-October 6, 2007

During Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s state visit here last January, the country signed some 18 agreements on the agriculture sector with the Philippines. These efforts form part of President Gloria Macapagal- Arroyo’s 2004-2010 Medium-Term Philippine Development Plan agriculture target of additional two million agribusiness lands, which is expected to generate at least 2.8 million additional rural jobs. But while some non-government organizations and civil society groups criticize the concerned government agencies for not consulting the farmers first and for lack of transparency, the more fundamental issue is that the deals would further worsen landlessness, undermine genuine agrarian reform, national food security, and rural development – and these threats are imminent.
At least four of the farm deals involve government’s commitment to provide at least 1.24 million hectares for hybrid corn, hybrid rice, and hybrid sorghum farming, leasing for sugarcane and cassava plantation; demonstration farm for sweet corn, and rice and corn production, agro-tourism, and organic farming. In addition, local bioethanol producers signed four joint venture deals with Chinese partners for domestic bioethanol production that also involve hundreds of thousands of hectares of agricultural lands; and three joint venture deals on aquaculture production.

Remiss in land reform implementation

For the China deals, the Department of Agriculture (DA) has already identified and certified as “available for investment” at least 127,000 hectares covering 32 municipalities in five provinces for the production of sweet sorghum, rice, sugarcane, corn and cassava. Government justifies these arrangements by arguing that Chinese intervention would help improve agricultural productivity and incomes as it targets lands distributed under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) but are “unproductive,” as well as alienable and disposable lands and forest lands that remain idle. So-called idle A&D lands are around 4.8 million hectares while idle forest lands that can be used for agricultural purposes are around four million hectares.

But such CARP lands should have been made productive by government as part of a comprehensive and genuine program for development of local agriculture, even without the Chinese deals. Further, if there are 8.8 million hectares of idle A&D and forest lands for production, why does landlessness remain rampant in the country despite numerous attempts at land redistribution dating back to the American colonial period? It should be noted that poverty in the country is most prevalent in the countryside, and a major cause of such poverty is the landlessness of the farmers and peasants.

These points go straight to the heart of the issue of the Chinese deals: that past and present administrations have been remiss in implementing a true agrarian reform program, that CARP is flawed and the deals will only aggravate the problem of widespread landlessness of farmers. Land reconcentration is also highly possible if these deals will be fully implemented because by experience, arrangements wherein farmers are asked to enter into production and marketing tie-ups with agri-business corporations lead not only to farmers losing control of their lands, but losing ownership altogether.

Worsening food security

Another major concern about the deals is the possible aggravation of the country’s food security. Since the mid-1990s, the Philippines has completely turned around from being a net food exporter to a net food importer with a yearly food trade deficit of $754.7 million from 1995 to 2005. This shift is because of crop conversion and land use conversion to meet the global demand for high-value crops have compromised domestic food production. The shift to biofuels production is a continuation of this trend and, given the growing demand for bio-fuels, may increase the risk of inadequate and inaccessible food supplies.

China’s rapid economic expansion makes it one of the most voracious consumers of fuel in the world and its demand for biofuels is expected to rise in the coming years. But its domestic production of biofuels is not likely to meet growing demand as it prioritizes its food supply over its need for biofuels.

This means that for its supply, China must increasingly turn to East Asian producers such as Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, which recently enacted the Biofuels Act of 2006 to establish the needed policy environment. Thus, China is actively pursuing joint bioethanol production arrangements with Filipino firms and has taken a keen interest in developing lands that could be used to cultivate “energy crops” or crops that can be used as feedstock for biofuels.

This restructuring of domestic agriculture has already taken away all state guarantees and mechanisms to guarantee food security. In the case of the Biofuels Act, for example, there is no provision to prevent corporate growers from converting lands dedicated to food crops to large-scale bioethanol and biodiesel production for export if they find it more profitable than producing crops for domestic food consumption.

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