If there’s anybody to blame for making farm life in the Ifugao town of Alfonso Lista more and more miserable today, it should be the Arroyo government for its aggressive promotion of GMO in corn production in tandem with the TNC giant Monsanto and the Ayalas, among other corporations.
BY FERNANDO BAGYAN AND LULU GIMENEZ
BAGUIO CITY – The municipality of Alfonso Lista, known until recently as Potia, in Ifugao, hosts relatively young settlements founded within the last eight decades.
The first settlers on this remote upland town in the Cordillera region, northern Philippines were Ilocanos who were plucked by American colonial authorities in the 1920s to start an agricultural colony. The colony was to replace indigenous shifting cultivation with sedentary farming. Somewhat successful, the Ilocano farmers’ colony eventually attracted Gaddang and Ibanag from the Cagayan Valley to the east, and Kalinga from the Cordillera foothills to the north. From the 1950s to the 1970s, Bontok, Kankanaey, and Ibaloy from the Mountain Province and Benguet, and Ifugao from the municipalities of Mayoyao, Banaue, Lagawe, and Kiangan, settled here as well, drawn by reports of a warm place with a fertile land that could yield more than the aged wet-rice terraces and over-tilled swidden sites of their cold villages in the interior Cordillera.
Today, nearly 65 percent of the town’s land is devoted to agriculture. Roughly, half the agricultural land is used for crop production; the other half for pasture. Rice used to be the main produce. Now, corn occupies at least 63 percent of croplands. The only crops that are still grown in the traditional way are bananas.
The National Statistics Office (NSO) branch in Ifugao reports that the total population of Alfonso Lista as of 2004 was 24,151 individuals or 4,650 households. Almost all are peasant households who own the land they till under homestead patents received from government for settling in the area.
Modern corn breeds spread to Alfonso Lista from Isabela, where agriculture authorities promoted them through various campaigns. These included Maisan (Corn Country) 77, the Ramos government’s Medium Term Agricultural Development Program, the Estrada government’s Agrikulturang Makamasa (Agriculture for the Masses), and most recently, Macapagal-Arroyo’s Ginintuang Masaganang Ani (Golden Harvest of Plenty).
The breeds that first gained entry were the public varieties developed by the University of the Philippines Institute of Plant Breeding. Soon these were replaced by corporate-developed varieties – specifically those of San Miguel Corporation, Corn World, Pioneer Hy-Brid, East-West, Cargill, Monsanto, and Syngenta. With the seeds came the chemicals purposely designed for them.
From 1997 to 2000, monocrop production of corn expanded by 253 percent, and production volume rose by more than 1,000 percent. (See Table)
Analyzing the terrain
The use of high-input varieties in Alfonso Lista has not significantly altered the traditional, peasant pattern of land tenure in the area: almost all households here still own most of the land they till. Under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law, the old homestead patents were merely subdivided, with each lot covering at least 24 hectares.
Most landholdings planted to corn range from one-half to three hectares. Some households with less than a hectare rent additional land from those with larger holdings.
In general, implements used by corn farmers still include the simple plow, harrow, and carabao, and traditional handheld tools. But some modern mechanical equipment have been introduced, like small tractors and row planters, backpacked sprayers, threshers and shellers.
Not owning any vehicle at all, most households hire truckers, paying them at a rate of P1 ($0.02, based on an exchange rate of P55.71 per U.S. dollar) for every kilo of corn transported. The dealers to whom the corn is to be delivered own some of the trucks.
Use of high-input varieties like Bt corn
All corn-producing peasants in Alfonso Lista grow high-input varieties because they find these more productive and marketable. Some are GMOs, but the majority are simple hybrids.
The peasants of Alfonso Lista were introduced to genetically-engineered varieties of corn by agricultural input suppliers in Isabela who entered into dealership contracts with the corporations that developed these, the promotions personnel of those corporations and the agricultural officers of government.
Bt corn was brought to Isabela by Monsanto. This was during the field trials the company conducted in the year 2000. In 2003, Monsanto’s Dekalb Yieldgard (DK 818 YG) reached Alfonso Lista.
Two years later, however, Bt corn has yet to become the seed of choice in the area. Farm operators choose it only when they are late in starting their crop, and the crop is thus more vulnerable to weather problems and pests.
Many peasants of Alfonso Lista avoid Bt corn because they have experienced severe itching when handling the plants in the course of crop care and during threshing; also when handling the corn grain during shelling and drying. In addition, they have heard reports from fellow corn producers that there have been cases in the neighboring municipality of Lamut of carabaos that died after eating the vegetative parts of the corn, and of cattle’s hooves being cut when trampling corn stubbles in newly harvested fields.
Moreover, the seeds of DK 818 YG cost about twice as much as other corn seeds (P4,650 or $83.47 vs. P2,300-P2,800 or $41.28-$50.26 per 18-kilogram sack). The herbicides required in the care of the crop are also more expensive (P1,350 vs P250 to P900 per 1-liter bottle). The Bacillus thuringensis in Bt corn transfers to any weeds surrounding the corn plots and makes these weeds just as sturdy as the corn crop. It is therefore necessary to use a very powerful herbicide that is specifically formulated to kill “Bt weeds.”
The peasants of Alfonso Lista are still unaware of reports that the Bacillus thuringensis protein in Bt corn can be transferred to other plants, including any food crops that they grow near their corn fields for their own households’ consumption. Neither are they aware of the findings that the antibiotic markers which allowed the Bacillus thuringensis protein to get spliced into corn DNA can significantly reduce the ability of both people and livestock who consume Bt corn grain to make use of antibiotics like Streptomycin. It is possible that if they were to be made aware of the aforesaid findings, the peasants of Alfonso Lista will become even less receptive to Bt corn than they are at present, notwithstanding the aggressive promotion of this GMO by their agricultural input suppliers, Monsanto, and government.
Most of the corn farmers of Alfonso Lista lack money to spend on the inputs they need and thus have to avail of credit. However, there are no credit institutions within the municipality. Both government and private agencies have tried to establish cooperatives here but those that they started went bankrupt due to mismanagement.
Some of the peasants get credit from the Santiago, Isabela branch of Quedancor, the Quedan and Rural Credit Guarantee Corporation that used to be attached to the DA but has been re-organized by Macapagal-Arroyo and placed directly under her office. Its main function is to provide credit for endeavors that are in line with the President’s agricultural modernization priorities.
Most peasants prefer to enter into a credit arrangement with one of Santiago’s agricultural input dealers. Under the deal, the creditor will provide all the inputs at an interest of 30 percent per cropping, and the debtor is obliged to sell his or her crop to the creditor even if other dealers offer higher prices. No collateral is needed.
Reneging on the terms of the loan will have dire consequences, however. The debtor will be blacklisted by the creditor and lose access to future loans if the debtor is unable inability to deliver his or her harvest and pay the loan. The loan will then have to be paid at the next harvest – double the interest. Meantime, the debtor will have to take out another loan to produce the next crop that he or she must deliver.
The government’s responsibility
Government has played a key role in promoting modern corn breeds among the peasants of Alfonso Lista.
The Municipal Agricultural Office (MAO) of Alfonso Lista has conducted field trials and technology demonstrations using different corn seeds provided free by the agricultural input producing firms Monsanto (through its Philippine research partner, Ayala), Syngenta, Pioneer, Corn World, and BioSeed, plus Asian Hybrid. In addition, the MAO has been selling these firms’ corn seeds to first-time users among Alfonso Lista’s peasants at a subsidy, for only half the prevailing market price.
The experiences of corn-producing peasants in Alfonso Lista underscore the negative effects of the Philippine government’s promotion of the market-oriented production of modern plant breeds through its agricultural modernization programs.
No such modernization is taking place, however. The programs just promote the intensive use of inputs which can only be acquired after spending so much. To access the inputs, the peasants thus need access to credit. Nowadays, the Philippine government, through Quedancor, offers such credit, but on conditions that include the surrender of collateral in the form of landed property – a condition that peasants coming from indigenous Cordillera cultures find hard to live with.
Worse, in a market flooded with cheap imports, the prices of the peasants’ produce have become inelastic. Most likely, they will earn only enough for their households’ subsistence. Most likely, they will have to again borrow money or inputs for their next harvest.
Not only is debt repeatedly incurred; the debt continually increases as the peasants get caught in a pattern of increasing loan-dependent input utilization.
It may not have happened yet in Alfonso Lista, but in other parts of the Cordillera , peasants have also become dependent on credit for access to the most basic subsistence goods. This is particularly true along the Vegetable Belt that extends from La Trinidad in Benguet northward to Bauko in the Mountain Province and eastward to Tinoc in Ifugao.
Clearly, the situation in the Cordillera shows the risks that peasants face when they give up producing food for their own consumption and abandon the diversified cropping system traditional to peasant agriculture. With research from APIT TAKO Ifugao Organizing Committee (Bulatlat.com)