Policymakers are almost one in saying that to help rice farmers get better compensated for their labor, the middleman has to be eliminated and the farmers allowed to sell products (palay) directly to consumers. The latest to think aloud about this advocacy is Sen. Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go, whose words, like those of President Rodrigo Duterte himself, wield such power and magic that people in government consider them done even before they are punctuated with winks and other emojis (the middle finger in the case of Duterte).
As early as April of last year, Go, like many politicians and bureaucrats before him, raised the need to help farmers in a variety of ways. A bilingual post on his online blurb (kuyabonggo.ph) breaks the issues down and offers brilliant solutions. Here are excerpts:
“Panahon nang bigyang pansin ang mga karagdagang suporta ng gobyerno para sa mga magsasaka, mga mangingisda at ang kanilang mga pamilya. Tulungan po natin sila.”
He stressed that one of his legislative priorities is to push measures to support the agriculture sector to enable the farmers and fishermen as well so they could earn more and uplift their lives.
“Isusulong ko po na magbigyan natin ng additional incentives ang mga farmers natin, for example itong easy access sa low-interest credit facilities, makinarya, fertilizer, at iba pang farm inputs para mas maging productive sila.
In addition, Go said the family members of the farmers and fishermen should also be provided with free business and skills training that they could use to further increase their income.
“At saka magtatayo po tayo ng mga Tienda Malasakit stores in key cities para mas madaling mabenta ng mga farmers ang kanilang ani at hindi na daraan pa sa middlemen. Sa panig naman ng mga consumers, makakabili po sila ng fresh subalit murang mga pagkain.”
To support this program, Go is also pushing for the provision of storage facilities in food terminals to be established in key regions in the country, which shall include central refrigerated warehouse, chilling rooms, freezer storage, ice plant, blast freezers and refrigerated processing rooms, among others, to prevent spoilage of the harvest of farmers and the catch of the fishermen.
Go is also proposing to provide scholarship grants and other incentives to the children of farmers and fishermen to encourage them to stay in the agriculture sector.
“Pag-aaralan din po natin ang posibilidad na magkaroon ng national Farmers and Fishers Pension Fund para magkaroon ng pantulong sa mga matatandang magsasaka at mangingisda na hindi na kayang magtrabaho.”
In short, the totality of support packages being proposed by Senator Go aims to provide the inputs made available by middlemen.
In the context of the Philippine rice farming industry, middlemen of consequence often come in the form of millers or traders, or both. Farmers patronize them not only because they provide them relatively hassle-free means to convert their palay into cash, but also because of personal relationships that they have built among themselves, sometimes rooted in generations that exist only in their memories.
Whenever somebody in the family gets sick, or when the son takes a bride, or when the daughter needs to pay for school fees, the farmer seeks the middleman for help.
The farmer is to the middleman as the elephant is to its trunk. The farmer depends on the middleman for his economic, health and social needs — practically the whole enchilada and shebang of life and living among the poor farmers.
This is the role that any government intervention that aims to replace the middlemen will need to play. One needs to assume that government sees the intervention links of the entire supply and production chain where farmers are kept from getting fairly compensated. Experience shows, however, that private interests get in the way of reforming the system.
The Go blog adds: “Pera n’yo po ito, ibinabalik lang sa inyo. Wala po kaming ibang hangarin ni Pangulong Duterte kundi kabutihan ng Pilipino dahil mahal namin kayo.”
And there’s the rub, to copy Conrado de Quiros. The problem is that government has become the biggest middleman itself. But unlike the farmer’s middleman, the bucket that contains government funds is riddled with holes. It leaks from all sides.
To be sure, government has already invested billions of monies to provide the agriculture sector with credit facilities, farm equipment, post-harvest facilities, seeds and fertilizers, among many other farm production inputs. But we always need to raise more funding for these inputs whenever government toggles its budget.
We fail either because government projects always seem to lack the key elements that make them thrive and self-sustaining, like the personal relationships that tie farmers to middlemen, or the logistical, operation and maintenance management skills developed by middlemen over the years.
Worse, public funds can end up in private pockets. The Napoles scandal, which is only one of the many examples that hecklers can present here, showed how a fertilizer can be invisible, or why it costs as dearly as a diamond, or why Metro Manila congressmen can have access to them even if none of their constituents are engaged in farming.
The middleman, like the midfinger, is an eyesore when flashed in public. But it takes more than money and methods (in short, many things must come together) to create one. Many universities that offer an advanced course in business administration have earned their badges by successfully recreating and reinventing him. The games middlemen play is perfected in private; they expose the weak and provoke discussions in public.
So why not eliminate the biggest eyesore of them all — government — instead?
No, this is not RevGov — revolutionary government, but one that may require a people’s initiative to get done. For example, if people pay taxes and government uses them to support farmers and poor students, why not enact a law that allows taxpayers to support farmers and students directly where their expenses, vouched by receipts, can be used as tax credits?
This, to me, is progressive taxation. It also minimizes leaks. No need for the run-about way of expressing a President’s love for his people.