Agriculture lag, other issues in final SONA

By Satur C. Ocampo
At Ground Level | The Philippine Star

A month ago I wrote in this space that at least two unresolved issues – his “dismal record” on human rights and impunity and the Mamasapano tragedy – will hound President Aquino in his sixth and last state-of-the-nation address on Monday.

That remains true. But surely there are far more issues that P-Noy needs to account for or to act on. Even his allies and supporters are remonstrating, urging him to move more decisively during his last year in office.

Among these issues are: P-Noy’s unfulfilled promise to attain self-sufficiency in rice production by 2013; failure to solve the MRT-LRT mess; the administration’s inability to implement budgeted projects and programs (“underspending”), causing economic growth to slacken; his centerpiece “public-private partnership” project that has failed to take off after five years.

On achieving rice self-sufficiency, P-Noy promised in 2011 to end the “overimportation” of the staple engendered by his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, which he said “only serve(d) to benefit the selfish few.” His target: by 2013 “the rice served on every Filipino’s dinner table is planted here, harvested here, and purchased here.”

By 2013, the department of agriculture was admitting that national rice production had reached only 97-98 percent of consumption requirements. Of course, there were the typhoons that visited the country, specifically Typhoon “Santi” which hit Central Luzon in 2013, devastated rice crops. Yet again (was it due to “Yolanda” that ravaged eastern Visayas and parts of western Visayas?), by mid-2015, the DA reported a lower rice output: 96 percent of the required sufficiency.

Thus, the National Food Administration, placed under the authority of the new office of the presidential assistant on food security and farm modernization, had to import 1.5 million metric tons of rice in 2014. It has ordered another 750,000 MT this year.

But rice is not the only agricultural produce we have been importing for years. We also import, among others, coffee (53.31 percent of consumption), mongo for my favorite dish ginisang munggo (50.96 percent), peanuts (43.71 percent), garlic (28.34 percent), pork (8.31 percent), shrimps and prawns (7.99 percent).

Which prompted Sen. Chiz Escudero, Senate finance committee chair, to observe two disturbing situations: our food import bill has run up to P300 billion yearly; and 36.7 percent of our farmers live below the poverty line, 41.4 percent in the case of our fisherfolk.

As to government underspending, Escudero urged the immediate release of P89 billion in budgetary outlays for agricultural programs this year – P51.7 billion to agencies under the DA and P37.3 billion under the food security and farm modernization office. He likened the appropriations to “something of a good conditional cash transfer” to the agricultural sector, which accounts for 12 percent of the nation’s GDP or gross domestic product, and 1/3 of the labor force (or 12 million persons).

On the other hand, Senate President Franklin Drilon, P-Noy’s partymate and supporter, said he would like to see in the latter’s last year in office “some firm executive action on the transport crisis,” referring to the MRT-LRT mess. And like Escudero, he called for stepped-up funding to sustain economic growth, pointing out that “20 percent of the economy depends on government spending.”

Something of a let-down for P-Noy are correlated reports of the Institute of International Finance and Standard and Poor’s, one of the three credit-rating outfits that have given the Philippines, under his watch, “investment-grade” ratings (mainly facilitating access to more foreign loans).

The IIF (it’s based in Washington) said in its June 2015 report that “persistent government underspending” and the slow rollout of the PPP program has slowed economic growth: GDP grew only by 5.2 percent in first-quarter 2015. Calling the PPP program “disappointing so far,” IIF shook its head:

“It took years for the Aquino administration to get the PPP framework up and running and it is still unclear to us if PPP will really take off in the second half of this year.”

Standard and Poor’s went further than IIF in assessing the country’s growth trend. It predicted that, in three years, the Philippines would cease to be one of the fastest-growing economies in Southeast Asia – projecting a flat or average three-year growth rate of only 5.4 percent. In terms of per-capita GDP, it noted, the Philippines ranks low “compared with similarly rated peers.” It explained:

“The key factor that we are following in the Philippines’ case is the very strong external position. We look principally to its quite high and rising foreign-exchange reserves [built up mainly by OFW remittances] and its relatively low external debt burden [accelerated repayments but with new loan availments]. That said, it is a relatively low-income sovereign for us in its current ratings category.”

On human rights violations and impunity: Human Rights Watch urged P-Noy to commit his administration’s last year to meaningful human rights reforms, as it deplored the last five years for being “marked more by rhetoric than concrete action to address serious human rights violations, such as extrajudicial killing [262 cases under P-Noy], torture, and enforced disappearance.”

While crediting the government for working closely with the justice department and the Supreme Court in pursuing steps to strengthen police investigative capability, prosecutorial competence, and the courts’ capacity to handle cases, HRW cited the following failures:

• Political activists and journalists continue to be killed, torture remains routine among the security forces, more military elements are implicated in serious abuses and rights violations against civilians in counterinsurgency operations.

• The PNP’s Task Force Usig has secured only one conviction out of 130 cases of activist killings since 2001; out of 51 cases of journalists killed it got eight convictions in the same period.

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Published in The Philippine Star
July 25, 2015

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