The May 12, 2019 column called attention to the very timely opportunity to reinforce a systemic, long-term institutional solution to the inefficiencies associated with the smallness and fragmentation of our farms which is the key constraint holding back Philippine agriculture.
The need to consolidate small farms into larger management units to enjoy the advantages of scale had been successfully addressed in most Europe and by our neighbors in Northeast Asia (China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan) through farmers’ cooperatives. We have been trying to similarly organize our farmers into cooperatives, irrigators associations, agrarian reform beneficiaries associations, and seed producers associations. Unfortunately so far with limited success.
Nevertheless, we do have outstanding examples of well-managed and prosperous cooperatives like LIMCOMA and Soro-Soro in Batangas. It is therefore a matter of learning from these successful cooperatives what made them cohesive, profitable, and enduring.
Individuals voluntarily come together because they share certain common interests and purposes. The more interests and the more pervasive those interests are, the stronger and more resilient the groups become.
It is for this reason that coursing the free machines, seeds, subsidized credit, and better targeted training and extension services provided for by the rice tariffication act (RTA) through organized groups (rather than to individual farmers) make sense because they provide additional incentives for farmers to come together.
But there is absolutely no need to organize farmers anew because we already have such farmers aggrupations in the countryside. And among them the most natural, most inclusive, and very likely most enduring are the irrigators associations.
Why the irrigators associations?
There are at least three reasons why our efforts to raise farm productivity, competitiveness, and incomes of farmers are best coursed through the irrigators associations.
First, the adequate and timely delivery of water is the most important factor in rice culture (true, as well, for all of agriculture). Thus, the need for water is as strong a bond as any to bring farmers together. Moreover, water-based organizations are inclusive and potentially most enduring. All farmers need water, whether large or small and whatever crops they grow. And since irrigation water is not enough (and will likely never be enough), the water users need not be told that they have to forever continue cooperating and working together to stagger and synchronize their plantings and accommodating each other to share the available water equitably among themselves to avoid conflict.
The second rationale has to do with our long-term capacity to grow food for ourselves. With a physical arable land area of 10 million hectares and a population over 100 million, we have less than a thousand square meters of farm land for every Filipino. This per capita availability of farm land is shrinking further with continuing population increase and as valuable farm lands are diverted to other productive uses.
There are two ways of arresting this deteriorating national capacity to feed ourselves — by family planning and by irrigation.
Irrigation will not only increase yield per hectare but even more importantly double, even triple the harvested area. Hence, our continuing investments in irrigation systems which over the last six decades have amounted to close to P800 billion (must be worth trillions by now in current prices). Unfortunately, we are not able to realize the full benefit from these investments.
The gross efficiency of utilization of irrigation systems is expressed in an agronomic measure called CROPPING INTENSITY, i.e. the number of crops harvested from the same piece of land every year. With irrigation the objective is to harvest at least a second crop during the dry season, or a cropping intensity of 2.00. In fact, with shorter maturing varieties, zero tillage and an agronomic technique called relay cropping, cropping intensity can be pushed to 3.00 to 4.00.
To date the reported cropping intensity of the large national irrigation systems (NIS) supervised by the National Irrigation Administration (NIA) is 1.59. For the smaller communal irrigation systems (CIS) under the local governments the cropping intensity is very low at 1.29.
With these cropping intensities multiplied by their respective firmed-up service areas, we are able to harvest only about 2.00 million hectares of palay out of the potential harvestable area of 2.74 million hectares.
Thus, each year we “lose” a staggering 740,000 hectares worth of palay and other potential intercrops due to inefficiency in the management and utilization of our irrigation systems. Recovering these missing hectarages ought to have the highest priority.
There are a number of reasons for this loss of productivity, some of which are engineering and technical in nature which NIA is able to address. But as the experiences of irrigation systems the world over attest, the greater part of the solution had to come from the water beneficiaries themselves, in particular: 1) the cleaning and maintenance of the downstream canals to facilitate flow of water and to minimize losses, and 2) the equitable and timely distribution of water among the users in order to irrigate more area.
Realizing this shortcoming, NIA adopted as its corporate strategy the devolution of the management and maintenance of the downstream irrigation facilities to the water users themselves (Irrigational Management Transfer program).
and the nexus of food,
water, and energy security
The third argument transcends the interests of the food sector and spills over to our long-term water and energy requirements. The world is running out of fresh water, the Philippines included. But fresh water has multiple competing uses i.e. for irrigation, for domestic use, for industry, and for power generation. The spectre of water insecurity was recently made vivid by water shortages in parts of Metro Manila. Water intended for the rice farms in Bulacan had to be diverted to the city to make up for the shortfall. That problem can only get worse.
Since agriculture accounts for 70–80% of freshwater use, it goes without saying that the obligation is heaviest on the farming sector to make most efficient use of this increasingly scarce, expensive commodity.
The irrigators associations will play a pivotal role in the prudent husbanding of our water resources now and in the future. Thus, the compelling argument to nurture them while we have time.
One way of getting around the major constraint holding back Philippine agriculture is organizing our small farms into larger, more efficient production units either through contract growing or through farmers associations.
And among the farmers associations in the countryside the most natural, inclusive, and potentially most enduring are the irrigators associations which to date per NIA report number 9,230, covering 1.33 million hectares of prime farm lands and involving 1.12 million farmer-beneficiaries.
The provision of farm equipment, seeds, subsidized credit and targeted training and extension services under the new rice tariffication act present a great opportunity to further strengthen the irrigators associations by coursing these inputs and services through them.
And by doing so force the convergence of the separate support programs of the various national agencies responsible for the different components of the agriculture value chain — from water, seeds, machines, credit, extension, processing and marketing.
Dr. Emil Q. Javier is a Member of the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) and also Chair of the Coalition for Agriculture Modernization in the Philippines (CAMP).
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