Agriculture News Analysis

NIA finds itself in hot water

In one of he biggest ever shake-ups to agriculture policy, the National Irrigation Administration (NIA), an attached government agency responsible for the construction and management of irrigation facilities the length and breadth of the Philippines, has been told by Agriculture Secretary, “Manny” Piñol, that they can no longer charge Filipino farmers for water.

And his reply to the NIA officials’ response, that making irrigation water free would “adversely affect” the agency’s operations, was that they should either abide by the directive or find another job. “Anybody in government who does not share President Duterte’s vision for the Filipino farmer is free to leave,” he said in a Facebook post.

The NIA argues that as a government owned and controlled corporation it is required to be self-funding and that its sole source of revenue is the water charges to farmers. The NIA’s water charges have long been a bone of contention with Filipino farmers who are among the poorest workers in the country.

Duterte, who is keen to get rice production to the level of self-sufficiency and cut the country’s massive rice import bill, is fully behind the farmers.  “Where in the world could you find a situation where it is the rice farmers who are subsidising the salaries and operational funds of a government agency in charge of irrigation?” he said during a visit to a rice-growing area of Antique Province in May. “How can we expect our rice farmers to produce more with this system?” he asked. Philippine rice – pipe dream vs reality

Piñol’s directive is in line with pledges made by Duterte during his election campaign; that irrigation fees paid to the NIA would be scrapped and that future irrigation services would be free of charge.

Duterte has repeatedly focused on the plight of the country’s farmers: “Water must be provided free to Filipino farmers because that is the only way we could produce more food for the Filipinos,” he said.

The irrigation-charges issue had been discussed when Piñol held a transitional meeting with four agencies under the Office of the President on Food Security and Agricultural Modernization. At that meeting he made sure there was no ambiguity on the irrigation-water issue.

He told NIA Administrator, Wencie Padernal: “The issue of free irrigation for the Filipino farmers is a presidential commitment and it is non-negotiable. Find a way to make sure it is implemented by 2017”.

Piñol, a farmer himself, has started as he means to go on and is laying the ground for Duterte’s plan to completely overhaul the agriculture sector. He has told his staff directly that anyone in the Department of Agriculture (DOA) who is unable “not to lord it over the people but to serve them,” will not be working for the DOA very long.