By CLEMENTE BAUTISTA JR.
With the toll of stress and anxiety that COVID-19 pandemic brings us, biking provides an inexpensive and healthy way to rejuvenate our body and mind. As the Omicron virus infection rears its ugly head, I did one long bike-ride before 2021 ends.
It was a 148-kilometer ride from Makati City to Batangas. It was my longest and hardest ride so far yet it was very satisfying. It was an opportunity to see the scenery of the countryside in the provinces of Laguna and Rizal, to do kamustahan and exchange banter with local folks, and to see how far our rural areas have progressed.
Rural scenery started at the upland outskirts of Antipolo City. At the Zigzag road connecting the city to the municipality of Teresa you will have an overlooking view of the vast expanse of Rizal agricultural land and the biggest inland body of water in the Philippines, the Laguna de Bay.
It was in December which is a time for rice-planting in Laguna and Rizal provinces. I witnessed several farming activities from land-preparation to rice planting. From dawn to high noon, farmers were non-stop in their daily grind of tilling, fertilizing, harrowing, and planting on their parcel of land. From afar, it is picturesque to see farmers working in their farms.
Noticeably, farmers employed simple labor without the assistance of machines like tractors. It is unfortunate because despite the availability of modern technology and machinery that can help farmers to increase their productivity and reduce manual labor, it is significantly lacking in our agriculture.
A deeper look into the current state of our agriculture in the country will paint you a depressing story. Last quarter of 2021, the price of palay dipped to 10-15 pesos per kilogram. According to data, the cost of producing palay in the Philippines stands at P12.41/kg. This is way higher than the production cost for rice in Vietnam, which is around P6.22/kg, and in Thailand, which is around P8.86/kg. The Duterte government further liberalized the rice industry by allowing unlimited rice importation under the Rice Tariffication Law. Filipino farmers are at a disadvantage with cheap imported rice. The Philippines remains the second-largest importer of rice next to China. This policy buries our farmers into debt and poverty.
It was my first time to see the famous Rizal Wind Farm after climbing around 1000 feet above sea level in Pililla. The 54-megawatt generator is the biggest wind farm in Southern Luzon. It is owned by a local private company Alternergy Philippine Holdings Corporation (APHC).
Down to Laguna I saw the Kalayaan Pumped Storage Power Plant which is part of the hydro power plant complex in Laguna. The complex is owned by Japanese company CBK Power Company Limited (CBK-PCL). Further south on the boundary of Laguna and Batangas, I found the fourth biggest geothermal plant in the world — the Makiling-Banahaw (Mak-Ban) Geothermal Power Plant. It is owned by Aboitiz Power, claiming to be the biggest renewable energy provider in the Philippines.
The Philippines is gifted with overflowing indigenous and renewable energy resources to meet our current and potential needs. The country has the largest wind capacity in Southeast Asia. We are third in the world in geothermal production. One fourth of our power supply comes from hydro power plants all over the country. But despite this natural wealth and energy potential, we remain wanting a stable, inexpensive, and enough energy supply. While many of the power plants were constructed by the government with people’s money, it is now in the hands of foreign and private corporations because of the privatization policy of the government. These corporations are the ones benefitting from these facilities at the expense of our people who are continuing to be burdened by rising electricity rates and unstable power supply. Last year in the midst of COVID-19 pandemic, consumers were subjected to a series of electricity price hikes. One major reason is the unstable supply from power plants fueled by imported, dirty fossil fuel like coal.
Our people own these resources – energy and fertile lands. They should benefit from the development and utilization of Philippine resources. Common people like those farmers, bikers, vendors whom I met along the way in this tour.
Like the two old women vendors I met during my snack stop in Siniloan, Laguna, In their discussion over government assistance o ayuda during the COVID pandemic the older one, a 77-year old grandmother told us she was asked to go the the LGU to get her ayuda. Said she only got 200 pesos from the local government which was obviously not enough. At her old age, she is still forced to eke out a living from selling her homemade donuts and buchis. As my sympathy to her situation, I asked her, “Lola magkano po buchi?” She quipped, “tatlo bente.” The younger woman told me to give an extra to the grandmother as a New Year’s pabuenas. I replied, “Eto 50 pesos, kunin nyo na 30.” Then the grandmother jokingly told me, “Dyusko toy ang kuripot mo naman. Sampung piso lang.” There goes my change.
*The author is a biker, environmentalist and member of secretariat of AGHAM, Science and Technology for the People.