How farmers’ cries for help grow louder amid calamities

While natural disasters wreak havoc across the nation, farmers are left to fend for themselves, to salvage their homes and livelihood.

What is a mere interruption to people’s everyday lives is a catastrophic predicament for farmers. The aftermath of a typhoon is even more brutal when they are left to pick up the pieces and fathom how to move forward. It’s a distressing thought to ponder on when one’s home and main source of livelihood are continually obliterated.

The next typhoon is right around the corner, and farmers can no longer afford to tolerate people’s ignorance. As the backbone of national food security and public health, it is only a matter of time before their cries for help become everyone’s.

A bleak reality

While the Philippines has always been a disaster-prone country, these typhoons were easier to predict in the past. Deputy Secretary General Mao Hermitanio of Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas, a democratic mass organization pushing for social justice and change within farmers, cites climate change as one of the culprits that escalate their hardships.

Umaasa talaga yung magsasaka sa tubig ulan, [pero] napaka-erratic na ng weather. Yung panahon ng pag-ulan, nagiging pag-bagyo sa sobrang malalakas na ulan pagbaha,” she shares. Instead of irrigating and nourishing their crops, the rainy season devastates them by inducing soil erosion and water pollution. 

(Farmers really rely on rainwater, but the weather is very erratic nowadays. During the rainy season, storms turn into extremely heavy rains and floods.)

Some struggle to recuperate financially when their livelihood comes to a standstill. Zenaida Soriano of Amihan Women, an organization that advocates for peasant women and genuine agrarian reform, recounts how farmers salvage what they can—if it means not letting their efforts go to waste. “Halimbawa, kung dumapa ang palay sa tubig, pumapangit siya. Umiitim. Kaya binabarat. May konti silang maibebenta, pero lugi sila,she elaborates.

(For example, if rice gets wet, it darkens. A small amount can still be sold at a bargain, but it’s still a loss financially.)

This reality is the result of agricultural and socioeconomic issues that remain unaddressed. There is only so much that farmers can do to combat the increasing pressures of climate change when they are forced to fend for themselves. Without proper intervention, they will only continue to suffer.

Nasaan ang gobyerno?

At this juncture, the belief that farmers in crisis can easily pull themselves up by their bootstraps is unrealistic at best, especially when it eclipses their demands for more government aid. Without capital in their pockets, many are forced to take up loans from businessmen and buy their prescribed brands of farm produce—including the hybrid rice variety, which is especially susceptible to flooding. “[Sinasabi ng] negosyante sa baryo, ‘Sige, ako magpapautang sayo, [pero] ito gagamitin mong binhi,’” Hermitanio explains.

(The businessman in the village [says], ‘Okay, I will give you a loan, [but] you will use these seeds.’)

“The whole system is vulnerable,” Hermitanio adds in Filipino. Tethered to this grim situation are the mounting environmental problems that Philippine policy has yet to address completely: the country’s current framework for climate change prevention lacks teeth on its transparency safeguards and its openness to civil society involvement.

With these elements making typhoon season all the more disastrous when it comes, farmers cannot even turn to the Department of Agriculture (DA) for aid. Recalling the enactment of the Rice Tariffication Law, Soriano stresses that financial aid grants promised to farmers in 2019 are yet to be received, “Nasaan na? Patay na ang damo.”

(Where is it? The grass has already wilted.)

The distribution of free farm produce from DA, which seeks to compensate for the costs of lost crops after long storms, further proves to be markedly inadequate. “Parang ayaw na rin tuloy nilang lumapit para humingi ng [tulong]…lugi rin [sila],” Soriano narrates, noting how the donated grains are either of poor quality or insufficient to populate farmland. Coupled with the costly travel to DA’s offices, farmers are kept demoralized.

(As a result, they don’t want to request help anymore…they won’t break even.)

With a mere three percent allocated to agriculture in the government’s budget, farmers justifiably feel that their needs fall on deaf ears. Facing the looming risk of bankruptcy, many have no choice but to let farming die with their generation. Bearing the brunt of the government’s incompetence, Soriano cries, “Hindi naman kami hinaharap. Hindi naman kami pinapakinggan.”

(We are not given attention. We are not being listened to.)

An uphill battle

Without the support of the state, each typhoon comes not only with debt but also with fear and anguish. “Hindi to nababalita, pero yung suicide rates ng mga magsasaka, tumataas,” Hermitanio laments. Raising another important gap in the system, she adds that “hindi naman common sa kanila ang mental health support”—leaving farmers helplessly pushed to the edge.

(This is not on the news, but the suicide rates of farmers have been rising. Mental health support is not common among them.)

With the worsening situation of Filipino agriculture and the cries of people left unheard for decades, it is difficult to say if there is light at the end of the tunnel. However, both Hermitanio and Soriano plead for citizens to lend the farmers all the support they can by letting their stories be heard. “Suportahan kung ano ang mga panawagan ng mga magsasaka,” Hermitanio says. “Dapat ‘yung issue ng farmers, issue natin ‘yan lahat.”

(Support the pleas of the farmers. The issues farmers face should be issues to all of us.)

The country is no stranger to typhoons and other calamities. It is, then, all the more alarming to see that alongside all the problems that arise during the typhoon season, the concerns of the agricultural sector also remain unaddressed—sowing seeds of crisis that a growing number of vulnerable Filipinos have had to reap. 

In an ideal world, perhaps there is no storm Filipinos cannot weather. Perhaps there is an alternate timeline where our society has systems in place to protect the most vulnerable when the typhoon season arrives. But until the day that local farmers get adequate support, especially for disaster risk reduction and mitigation, the tale of Filipino resiliency stays nothing but a fantasy—a myth to shield the ignorance bubbles of the privileged elite.

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