Agriculture News Analysis

Nina’s mess and solar rice

The cost of the devastating typhoon that drove 430,000 Filipinos from their homes over Christmas has been counted. Now the bill is being paid as life begins to get back to normal. It’s a big bill but the Department of Agriculture (DA) is breathing new life into the affected region with a robust programme of financial aid and practical assistance which was thrown into top gear last Friday. Here’s a quick profile of the typhoon, the damage it wreaked on crops and land and the effort to rehabilitate the farm sector in the worst-hit region, Bicol.

The typhoon: Nock-Ten (Nina), a powerful weather system that ripped away houses and tore up crops in a 110mph fury that blazed through the Philippines’ Bicol region – a region whose economy is heavily dependent on agriculture. Major crops – coconut, pineapple, abaca and the iconic pili nut – that lay in Nina’s path suffered widespread destruction.

The agricultural cost: An estimated PHP400 million with 86,735 farmers affected across three Bicol provinces – Albay, Camarines Sur and Catanduanes. Destruction of crops and land covered a wide area – some 317,959 hectares. Worst affected in the Bicol region were: rice, 87,800 ha; corn, 6,000 ha, and abaca, particularly in Catanduanes, where 27,936 ha of a total 33,130 ha – a staggering 84% – was heavily damaged. Initial value-loss estimates for these crops are set at PHP295 million, PHP85 million and PHP191 million, respectively. Total costs incurred by Typhoon Nina are PHP5.183 billion – PHP4.130 in terms of agriculture; PHP1.053 billion, infrastructure and property damage.

The recovery effort: PHP1.4 billion has been earmarked for direct assistance in the DA’s Rehabilitation Plan; PHP500-million government assistance fast-tracked by President Rodrigo Duterte; PHP720 million in drugs for livestock; tens of thousands of bags of seed – including, assorted vegetable, palay, corn, mungbean, cacao and pili – as well as fruit-tree seedlings, all geared to get the region’s farming sector back on its feet. In addition, the Budget Department released money held over by the DA-Bicol office from previous natural-disaster funds.

Typhoons and their smaller cousins, tropical storms, are the bane of every Filipino farmer’s life. Each year, they’re guaranteed to do some damage to their livelihood – and consequently to the wider economy.

The agricultural sector, regarded as an underperformer in terms of its contribution to GDP, historically has had to contend with the severe cycle of weather patterns that batter the Philippines annually. Last year the sector, already under pressure from the previous year’s El Niño, contracted by 1.4% – largely thanks to two typhoons, Karen and Haima, which careened through the territory in the 4th quarter.

Agriculture Secretary, Manny Piñol, knows he can’t change Mother Nature’s mind or somehow deflect the storms that do so much damage to crops and farm infrastructure right across the Philippines each year – they’re the caprices of nature. He does know, however, how to assess damage quickly and direct assistance and resources to the worst-hit areas effectively.

And he’s demonstrated that in his handling of the Bicol calamity. Neither time nor resources have been wasted on dealing with Nina’s aftermath. Furthermore, as he’s promised, assistance to this region is ongoing. He wants the farm sector there up and running as soon as possible and his department has set up liaison channels to speed up Bicol’s recovery.

He’s a farmer himself and has had to deal with storm damage up close and personal. His record for improving farm efficiencies speaks for itself: as Governor of North Cotabato in Mindanao, he implemented a culture of commercial farming – market-oriented agriculture – which, along with the jobs it generated, took the province out of the list of the country’s 10 poorest and slashed the poverty incidence from 52% to 29%.

That’s the sort of transformation the agriculture sector needs as a whole. And while the weather will remain a constant threat, other problems – the man-made ones – will be brought to heel by this secretary of agriculture.

Piñol is not a man to suffer fools gladly, he’s determined to slash and burn the red tape, eradicate corruption in his department and introduce the most efficient farming methods he can. It’s a big job and he inherited a big mess – Mother Nature aside. We believe, given his determination – he’s visited nearly every province across the archipelago to asses for himself the state of Philippine agriculture – his sector’s contribution to the economy will steadily grow.

Yes, certainly, it’s coming from a low base; but it’s been floundering there for years. Inadequate investment keeping outmoded farming methods in place or crumbling, lack of forward planning, poor infrastructure, in some places non-existent logistics to get produce to market – and on and on. That and much more is what he inherited from previous administrations. Farming in the Philippines didn’t go wrong over the term of the last government – admittedly it didn’t improve – its being going wrong for the past three, and if truth be known, even before that.

Dealing with Nina’s mess and that of future destructive weather systems, unfortunately is part and parcel of life down on the Philippine farm. That’s not going to change. What will change under this administration – and we’re seeing plenty of evidence of it – is the priority given to agriculture and the drive to upgrade and embrace technological innovation.

At the end of last week, Piñol was back in North Cotabato where he launched the country’s first small-scale, solar-powered irrigation system (photo) which is capable of supplying 1,000 gallons of water a day – enough to feed 150 ha of rice crops. This could provide a big breakthrough in the country’s perennial challenge of producing enough rice to feed its people. The Philippines is the biggest importer of rice of anywhere on Earth – and the reason for that is its derisory rice outpout.

And lack of irrigation is the major problem. Of the country’s 3.9 million ha of rice land, only 1.2 million of them are irrigated. The other 2.7 million ha rely on rain. What this means in terms of productivity is that 69% of Philippine rice land can only be planted once a year.

We know, it’s hard to believe. We’re in the third millennium and potentially productive rice-growing land in the Philippines – well over half of it – is standing idle for half the year waiting for it to rain. Or as Piñol put: “The Philippines is blessed with so many rivers, tributaries, lakes and almost six months of rain, not to mention typhoons which bring rain and even floods, every year. Yet, 120 years after the Department of Agriculture was created in 1898, the country only has 1.2-million hectares of rice fields currently serviced by irrigation systems”.

He now aims to ask Congress to cough up PHP20 billion next year so that he can roll out solar-powered irrigation systems across the country.

Piñol also unveiled the “Circle of Life” – a cheap and simple aquaculture method for growing fish. This is aimed at providing an additional livelihood stream for the fisheries subsector and another food source for rural communities. This too is targeted for a nationwide rollout.

And all that is just a passing snapshot of how Piñol and his department are rising to the challenge of tackling one of the biggest Cabinet briefs of them all – the woeful state of Philippine agriculture. We believe that investors should get behind this sector; its growth potential is huge and with Piñol in the tractor seat ploughing a new furrow for the future – supported by a strong government will to lift the sector out of its depressed state – Philippine agriculture is looking increasingly attractive.

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