The Philippine Star

What’s in a name? A new rescue package for the country’s ailing agriculture sector is now called the Inclusive Partnerships for Agricultural Competitiveness (IPAC) project that aims to enhance market access and competitiveness of smallholder farmers in target agrarian reform communities (ARC) clusters.

Funded through a $99.3 million World Bank soft loan, and to be counter-funded by the Philippine government and its beneficiaries, this P10.15 billion project is expected to benefit 300,000 farmers and farm workers belonging to 650 farmer organizations.

Some 50 identified ARCs spread across 44 provinces should, at the end of the project period, benefit from stronger farmer organizations that are engaged in commercial agriculture, providing extension services, developing enterprises, securing individual land titles for their members, and improving rural infrastructure.

Directly led by the Department of Agrarian Reform, the IPAC project takes definitive steps by pinpointing specific farmer organizations in target ARCs. Vetting for eligible farmer associations all over the country started as early as 2015.
Those farmer groups included in the IPAC project are entitled to receive grants, loans and soft projects that should improve their access to markets and enhance the competitiveness of their small farmer members.

Agricultural produce approved by the National Economic and Development Authority which shall receive IPAC funding support are copra, organic and low-chem rice, cacao, cassava, coffee, oil palm, muscovado sugar, abaca and rubber.

Ripple effect

While the number of target project beneficiaries is but a small percentage of the total farming community in the country, the IPAC project is meant to be a fiscalizer of sorts that will create a ripple effect providing a template or model for other new areas in the future.

The empowered ARCs are expected to directly identify and implement activities that will improve the lives of their farmer members. This could include construction of production facilities (such as green houses and nurseries), processing and marketing facilities, product development, production of high-value agricultural products and promotion of food safety.

Hopefully, IPAC will be able to deliver some measure of success that would provide a glimmer of hope for our beleaguered Filipino farmers. The country has wasted so much time, money and effort in the past in various initiatives whose ultimate avowed aim had been to improve farmers’ competitiveness.

Of course, IPAC will not be the end-all solution, especially since the Philippine agricultural sector has been wallowing in neglect for centuries. Filipino farmers, while dwindling in number, also continue to belong to one of the poorest sectors of Philippine society.

Transforming agriculture bureaucracy

The Philippine government will have to come up with a firmer resolution to boost the agriculture sector and grow it into becoming modernized and globally competitive.

DAR has gone beyond its more traditional role of appropriating land when it took over the leadership of the IPAC project. But it needs to transform, together with the Department of Agriculture and other agri-related agencies, into a more dynamic organization.

The agriculture bureaucracy needs to become more globally minded, business-cognizant, and technologically savvy. There are now new structures that define the business of food as world trade barriers continue to be dismantled.
Conditions for exportation have become tougher, not just in terms of how farmers grow and process their produce, but also in the sensitive area of import quota negotiations and the finer features of international trade politics.

Identifying competitive products

Our bureaucrats must also think like CEOs who are able to see which Philippine agricultural products would be in the best position to compete in the global market not just during the immediate term, but even for the medium and longer term.

For a long time now, government support for exports of agricultural products by our small producers have lacked the in-depth justification that comes from hard facts of global market demand in different countries and major parts of the trading world.

Finally, our bureaucrats must appreciate and understand the value of measuring gains across the whole spectrum of business operations, as well as having a good appreciation of societal and environmental impacts. 

Public-private cooperation

At this infancy stage, the government’s cooperation with the private sector cannot be ignored, and should reflect a willingness to learn from the precious experiences of successful agricultural companies so it can redefine new and updated regulatory measures.

Not only is the private sector an important ally in helping position and grow small farmer groups into stronger agricultural companies that can compete in the global arena, it has the manpower and financial resources that can provide the best professional advice.

This would be particularly helpful in defining the safety nets that our fledgling farmer organizations and local government units would need as they break into foreign markets where their competitors would likely be more experienced.

Redefining land reform policy

This would be the best time too to redefine our land reform policy, as well as the perennial problem of credit for our farmers and farmer groups. It is well known how the decades-old land reform law has not helped bring about farmers’ emancipation and improved standards of living.

On the other hand, credit availability continues to be elusive to small farmers, where even government banks have hurdles that are almost insurmountable to mount. This is exacerbated by Filipino farmers’ high vulnerability to disastrous weather conditions.

The IPAC project represents a glimmer of hope for the Philippine agricultural sector, especially our small farmers, but more work needs to be done on other aspects of governance. Again, let’s not fail.

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