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Hunger and Food Insecurity in the Mindanao Food Basket: Confronting the Challenge of Policy Reform for Agricultural Activity

Hunger and Food Insecurity in the Mindanao Food Basket: Confronting the Challenge of Policy Reform for Agricultural Activity

Jan 14, 2012

Hunger and Food Insecurity in the Mindanao Food Basket: Confronting the Challenge of Policy Reform for Agricultural Activity

Salvador H. Feranil
Rogelio Abdulrahman G. Teves


Hunger is widespread and continues to persist in this country.  In 2008, the Social Weather Stations survey showed an alarming 23.7 percent of households reporting hunger, or not having anything to eat at least once in the three months prior to the survey.  This translated to more or less 20 million hungry Filipinos who could not afford to buy decent food for their meals during that period.   Among different island-regions in the country, Mindanao was reported to have the highest incidence at 33.7 percent, or roughly seven million of more than 21.5 million Mindanaoans suffered from hunger.  Despite government’s claims that food and agricultural production has improved through the years, the country continues to be confronted with problems in feeding its people.

Mindanao was declared the country’s food basket by government in the late 1990s, yet it is ironic that the hungry comes largely from it despite its abundant natural resources.   The conflicts in Mindanao have often become an immediate excuse for the incidence not only of hunger and food insecurity, but also of poverty. Although the food crisis plaguing the whole world has been compounded by the negative consequences of climate change, such as drought and flooding, and the decline in food and agricultural production, which have all been contributing to the incidence of hunger, in the Philippines the issue also brings to fore numerous policy questions in food and agriculture over the last two decades. It is imperative to ask whether government policies in food and agriculture have improved the capability of the people to produce food and have access to safe and adequate food supply.  Have the policies, and the programs as well, truly empowered millions of food producers who rely for food and income on agricultural productivity?  The answer to these questions affects not only the access to food of these producers but of every Filipino household.

These are the questions that the stakeholders in the DRTS Technical Working Group on Mindanao have been discussing and studying.  In fact the various dialogues and consultations of various stakeholders from non-government organizations, producers’ groups, academe and private sector have already resulted in unities in defining concrete measures that can help improve agricultural production and productivity in Mindanao and ensure access to safe and healthy food among its people. Furthermore, stakeholders have arrived at a resolution that policies and efforts to improve food and agricultural production in Mindanao must take a clear bias for the smallholders as they constitute the backbone of the agricultural sector.

Mindanao:  hunger, food insecurity, conflicts
The TWG has identified several constraints in agricultural development that have been contributing to low farm productivity and lack of people’s participation in government-initiated policy dialogues, the last one being necessary in producing an authentic peoples’ development agenda for agriculture and food Self-sufficiency in Mindanao.  These constraints are: a) highly uneven agricultural development in rural communities resulting from insufficient support to smallholders who form bulk of the rural population; b) unstable livelihoods and food insecurity in majority of farming communities due to failure of export-oriented, capital-intensive agricultural programs, agro-technologies and products promoted by the government; c) deterioration of environmental quality and decreasing productivity of land due to improper agro-techniques and environmentally unsound technologies introduced since early 1970s e.g. Green Revolution Program; d) weak organization and lack of representation of smallholders for influencing policies affecting agricultural production, marketing and distribution, and; e) low participation in policy dialogues due to small farmers’ limitations and lack of understanding of agriculture and food self-sufficiency issues at the local and national level.

Over the last twenty years, agriculture has played a major role in Mindanao’s economy and has provided food, employment and sources of livelihood to millions of its inhabitants.  Official data from the Department of Agriculture reveal that more than four million people in Mindanao have been employed in agriculture and agriculture-related industries since 2004.  Current employment figures in the whole island-region constitutes close to 35 percent or more than one-third of the total employment in the agriculture sector in the country.  And while it can be argued that agriculture’s overall contribution to the national economy has been declining, it remains a significant provider of employment for millions of inhabitants of Mindanao.

Mindanao’s contribution to agricultural exports can be considered significantly high:  close to 60 percent of coconut production, 80 percent of banana, 90 percent of pineapples, 100 percent of rubber and 75 percent of cassava and coffee of the total national figures (BAS 2006).   And while Mindanao also produces more than half or 56 percent of national corn produce, the region contributes only close to one-fourth or 23 percent of rice produce of the country.  These figures demonstrate that while Mindanao is considered food basket, its agricultural production is heavily directed towards the export market and less for domestic consumption.  This export orientation in agriculture is one of the main reasons why hunger and food insecurity persist in Mindanao, and perhaps in many parts of the country.

Unfortunately the agriculture sector’s gain in exports has been easily negated by the volume of imports needed by the country to feed its people. While figures in agriculture indicate that the country is producing a considerable volume of agricultural products, problems of food insecurity persists among its urban and rural poor.  Over a three-year period (2005-2007) alone, the total annual increases in the cost of agricultural imports were higher than the earnings in agricultural exports. [1] Without a major shift in policy direction, the country appears to lose more in government’s efforts to direct agriculture more and more towards an export orientation, making the country increasingly a net importer of agricultural products.

Highly uneven agricultural development

The agriculture sector in Mindanao comprised largely of smallholders with an average individual farm size of more or less 2.4 hectares.  While the average farm size of two hectares can be theoretically viewed as adequate for a household to survive on agricultural production, the limited and often inappropriate support and assistance extended to smallholders constrains them from using their lands optimally and from subsequently increasing productivity levels.

With food self-sufficiency a critical issue in the country, the government’s strong bias for agribusiness is clearly misplaced, if not flawed.  The expansion of lands devoted to export crops has slowly changed the agricultural landscape in Mindanao and to date, low-volume, high-value crops such as Cavendish banana, pineapple and other export crops of the country are mostly produced in this region. Despite the fact that the country has become a net food importer, the government still has limited assistance in the areas of rural infrastructure, agricultural extension, technology development, agricultural inputs and price subsidies for small food producers. Worse, whatever government support to smallholders there is has been tainted with controversies. Moreover, agricultural infrastructure projects that largely include farm-to-market roads, solar dryers and rehabilitation of existing irrigation facilities are likewise characterized by irregularities like corruption and overpricing.

Lack of support in irrigation and other production aspects

Agricultural producers from the various provinces of Mindanao have had difficulties meeting their population’s demand for rice.  A number of Mindanao’s provinces form part of the top 50 provinces where deficit in rice production had been observed in cropping year 2007-2008.  The deficit between production and consumption in these provinces clearly illustrate the need to expand areas for rice production and subsequently increase productivity levels among producers to be able to meet rice sufficiency levels.  With rice production unable to meet optimum agricultural productivity level, government often has resorted to importation to fill the gap between rice production and consumption, making the country the largest rice importer in the world as of 2008.  Since the 1990s, the Philippine government has been relying on imports to meet the increasing consumption of rice among Filipinos and the trend in year 2000 onwards tends to indicate that rice self-sufficiency in the country appears to be in peril.[2]

Low productivity in agriculture reflects government neglect for staple food producers in the country.  While official figures from the government demonstrate that the country has been experiencing increases in rice production since 2001, overall productivity based on yield per hectare indicates only a minimal 0. 3 tons increase in productivity levels since that year.  While agricultural productivity of rice producers in Mindanao (from 1998 -2008) was close to national averages, general yield per hectare average appeared lower than the average productivity in the whole country.  Increase in production across time tend to be more a result of increases and/or expansion in cultivated areas, rather than an improvement in overall capacity of food producers to increase agricultural output through the adoption of effective technology, or government’s provision of necessary infrastructures and other support services.  Thus, while production appears to increase, overall productivity remains generally low.

The limited irrigation infrastructures in smallholder farms exacerbate the already low productivity of rice producers.  In rain-fed areas, productivity levels in the period 1998-2008 indicated that yield per hectare did not even reach three tons per hectare per year.  Despite the positive impact that irrigation has on agricultural productivity, and subsequently on rural incomes, government appears to neglect these necessary infrastructures in its bid to develop agriculture in favor of the smallholders.

Despite past efforts and claims by the Philippine government that it is modernizing agriculture in the country, smallholders continue to face constraints that prevent them from increasing their productivity and raising production to optimum levels to contribute more to national demands.  Many smallholders, however determined their efforts and ingenuity to survive are, have limited means to invest in and develop their small landholdings. In a study by Arze Glipo (2008) of the Asia Pacific Network for Food Sovereignty, irrigated rice lands constituted only close to 46 percent of more than 3.12 million hectares of estimated potential irrigable lands in the country.  In Mindanao, the situation of irrigation systems development has turned from bad to worse over a period of less than ten years.  Without taking into account the potential irrigable areas in the CARAGA region, total irrigated lands was only 31.5 percent or 302,079 hectares of 959,020 hectares of total irrigable areas across different regions in Mindanao during the period of the study.  From 1999 to 2007, irrigation systems that were developed increased only by approximately 14 percent the number of existing systems, with Davao and ARMM regions even experiencing a decline in terms of irrigated lands.  Figures for year 2007 revealed that irrigated lands in the South Central Mindanao or SOCCSKARGEN region were only over 24 percent of total irrigable lands in the whole island. Among the culprits for the decline were government neglect and maintenance of irrigation systems that reduced by more than 50 percent rather than developed and increased irrigation infrastructure. in the abovementioned regions. This reduction affected more than 50,000 hectares of rice-producing lands in the whole island-region.

Another hurdle to agricultural productivity had been the decline in soil fertility due to excessive use of agrochemical inputs in the past, which pushed small food producers   to continue, and at an increasing rate,the application of fertilizers in farms.  Government has constantly promoted the use of chemical-based fertilizers. Since 2007, however, prices of fertilizers such as urea, ammonium sulphate and ammonium phosphates have started to increase dramatically and have become increasingly unaffordable for most smallholders.  Arze-Glipo (2008) had revealed that the unprecedented rise in the price of fertilizer (particularly urea) from P850/bag in previous years to P1,800-P2,000 per bag in 2008, also forced farmers to  reduce fertilizer application. The steep cost of agricultural production therefore, has presented a disincentive to smallholders to raise productivity levels, or in more extreme cases has pushed them to abandon farming in lieu of other income-generating off-farm activities.

Smallholders that still largely rely on chemical fertilizers are confronted with intensifying problems connected to maintenance of soil fertility and productivity.  Meanwhile, dependency on chemical farm inputs has also made large agricultural producers to increase the volume and kind of agrochemical farm inputs in to sustain high-level production, regardless of the deleterious effects on the environment.

The role of conflict
The study conducted by the Alternate Forum for Research in Mindanao in 2001 revealed that in general there is food insecurity even among the households in Mindanao’s rice-producing provinces. While these provinces have the capacity to produce food (rice in particular) beyond the requirement or need of its own population in their respective areas, they have remained poor and vulnerable to periodic food crises.  Thus, food insecurity is not merely a question of food production, but also a question of flawed food distribution that hampers the poor’s access to food.

The impact of the on-going conflict in Mindanao on this hunger and poverty situation cannot be discarded.  While hunger and food insecurity in these areas might not have been single-handedly caused by the conflict, the on-going war in Mindanao has in more ways than aggravated the situation in poverty-stricken provinces.  In the year 2000 alone, four provinces from the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao namely Maguindanao, Sulu, Lanao del Sur and Tawi-tawi belonged to the top 10 poorest provinces in the country.  By end 2006, the same provinces, except for Sulu that showed some improvement but still ranked 14th in the list, remained in the top 10 most impoverished areas in the country.  Overall, poverty incidence in these provinces has tended to be high, with the province of Tawi-tawi reaching an extremely high 80 percent incidence.  With the far-reaching impact of war on the livelihoods and economic activities of the people, poverty has remained  high in conflict-affected areas of Mindanao. 

Conclusions and Policy Recommendations
Poverty and hunger are often linked to interlocking structural inequalities and failure of policy interventions to address them.  Economic policies and development programs, including those directed toward agriculture and rural development are in more ways than one underpinned by and reinforce such inequalities.  To address fundamental and multiple dimensions of rural inequality, the Philippine government must adopt redistributive policies, such as enabling access to credit and to productive assets of marginalized rural populations, implementing agrarian reform, adopting a progressive and efficient tax regime, and increasing rural public works and infrastructure investment.

For more than two decades now, land policies have failed to transfer the nexus of power from the hands of few yet powerful landlords to the mass of smallholders that comprise a huge portion of the rural population.  Moreover, agricultural development programs that were designed to increase production, improve agricultural productivity and export agricultural products that could effectively compete in the world market did not lead to ensuring food self-sufficiency for the rural population as well as for the whole country.  Those engaged in agriculture, particularly the smallholders that are into domestic staple food production, have remained neglected and now continue to experience low productivity, falling incomes (if not bankruptcy) and limited livelihood options.

With domestic food production unable to meet the rising food consumption of a fast-growing population, policies in food and agriculture need immediate and radical reforms to prevent the country from becoming increasingly dependent on the international market to meet its chronic food deficit. The current export orientation of the agriculture sector needs to be reversed toward food and agriculture policies that put premium on domestic food production and provide incentives for smallholders to encourage increased production and raise productivity levels.  From a larger and perhaps more strategic perspective, current economic policies on trade liberalization in agriculture should be seriously revised in order to protect Philippine agriculture sector from all kinds of agricultural products dumped in the local markets by the developed countries.  The Philippine government’s policies and commitment to various multilateral and bilateral trade agreements that allow other countries to interfere, if not dictate, on the economy and agriculture must be carefully studied to ensure that the country will not be depleted of resources necessary for its survival and development.  Unless policies are reviewed, reshaped and revised to serve the interests of smallholders that form the backbone of agriculture, our country will never graduate from being a net food importer to a food self-sufficient, if not food-sovereign, nation.

The following goals and specific recommendations for policy directions for Mindanao are aimed at addressing rural inequalities and empowering smallholders, as well as improving agricultural production and productivity.

Goal 1:  Promote and protect smallholders’ right to land
Many of those who are food insecure are smallholder farming households.  In Mindanao, they come mostly from Moro and indigenous communities, and partly from small settlers’ households, whose access to and control over land and its resources have been constrained by existing State policies.  Despite CARP and IPRA implementation, their rights and control over these lands remain challenged by landowners, big business and environmentally-damaging projects like mining.  All these point to the need for policy reforms that could guarantee, protect and strengthen their rights over land and its resources.  These reforms must include: a) Fast-tracking and completion of the implementation of agrarian reform in more than 500,000 hectares to consummate transfer and redistribution of all agricultural landholdings from current landowners to their rightful beneficiaries.  Further, design a post-distribution program that could allow ARBs to access necessary government support and assistance to help raise their agricultural productivity; b)  Imposition of no-compromise ban on land use conversion in all agricultural lands and allowing poor smallholders to cultivate abandoned or idle lands for food production, and; c)  Protecting the rights of indigenous peoples and communities against incursions by mining companies and securing community or communal ownership of their lands. Government should subsequently provide necessary budget and other forms of support for their ancestral domain sustainable development and protection plans.

Goal 2:  Increase production and overall agricultural productivity of smallholders through a systematic support in seeds, fertilizers, technology, credit and infrastructures necessary to raise agricultural outputs, ensure food self-sufficiency and promote sustainable agriculture
Generally this would mean generating and increasing necessary public investments that will support the much needed subsidies and assistance for smallholders’ agricultural production.  The smallholders’ agricultural development program must be set in place to ensure that gains in land redistribution are sustained.  This can help smallholders determine food and agricultural production according to their needs and welfare, and ensure that the following will be implemented and properly monitored: a) Restoration or repair of NIA’s old non-functional irrigation systems that can specifically include areas in Davao and ARMM regions where irrigated areas have been largely reduced since 1999; b) Construction of new irrigation systems to cover at the very least an additional 65,000 hectares or 10 percent of the remaining more than 650,000 of  potentially irrigable areas in Mindanao. This translates to a public investment of 19.5 billion; c) Reviewing the viability and impact of  transferring irrigation management among local irrigators’ associations; d)  Increasing public investments in other productivity boosting programs such as the provision of input subsidies for natural and organic fertilizer and seeds not only in rice but also in other food crops like corn, root crops and vegetables and the provision of necessary incentives that could enhance, institutionalize and upscale smallholders’ initiatives on nature farming, organic agriculture and food production, low external input sustainable agriculture and integrated and diversified farming systems, and; e) Making available credit to small holders and ensuring crop insurance especially among those engaged in staple food production.

Goal 3:  Broaden smallholders’ participation in policy and decision-making processes both at the local and national levels and push government to give due priority to agriculture, while exercising more transparency and accountability, as well as social and cultural sensitivity, in its agricultural development programs.
Social capital formation that allows smallholders to take active part in rural democratization and development processes is necessary in any effort directed towards empowering smallholders.  These efforts can include the following reform measures in resource allocation and distribution for smallholder agricultural development in Mindanao: a) Ensure that local government units  take concrete efforts in allocating funds in their local budget toward the improvement of smallholder for agriculture and domestic food production; b) Institutionalize smallholders’ participation in local development planning, budgeting and spending through the creation of Smallholders’ Board that takes regular representation/seat in local development councils; c)  Secure increased development aid and improve aid targeting for agriculture but more specifically in production enhancement programs by partnering with civil society organizations and private sector, and; d) Increase budgetary allocation for agriculture and redirect agriculture funds from agribusiness incentives to programs supporting smallholder farmers.

(Published in Focus on the Philippines July 2011: http://focusweb.org/philippines/fop-articles/articles/536-hunger-and-food-insecurity-in-the-mindanao-food-basket-confronting-the-challenge-of-policy-reform-for-agricultural-productivity-)

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