Conservation news

For Philippine farmers reeling from disasters, lockdown is another pain point

Image by Leilani Chavez

  • Farmers in the Bicol region in the Philippines are experiencing the brunt of the lockdown, imposed since March 16 to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The situation is especially hard for rice farmers, most of them still reeling from the impacts of successive typhoons, drought, and cheap imported rice.
  • The Philippine government has allotted a 1.17 trillion peso ($23.2 billion) stimulus package, including support for some 18 million families most affected by the lockdown. In Bicol, more than one million families are expected to receive support.
  • The Philippine lockdown is expected to lift by May 15, although the government says the country may have to continue dealing with COVID-19 for the new two years.

ALBAY, Philippines — Ramon Oliva, a rice farmer from the Philippine province of Camarines Sur, has been tasked to look after the main dam at Mount Isarog in the town of Pili. The dam provides water to irrigate 34 hectares (84 acres) of rice farms in the village of Concepcion Grande in Naga City, some 385 kilometers (240 miles) south of the capital, Manila.

Oliva visits the facility twice a week but has been shut out of the dam since March 16, following a lockdown, or enhanced community quarantine (ECQ), imposed by the national government to stem the COVID-19 pandemic, which has affected 10,343 people and caused 685 deaths in the Philippines as of May 7.

The stringent measures aren’t surprising; in the Bicol region, which covers six provinces, a total of 55 COVID-19 positive cases have been recorded as of May 6.

“Not being able to maintain the irrigation facility will have a devastating impact on our rice farms,” Oliva tells Mongabay. “We’re harvesting by the end of May. If I don’t look after the irrigation, the farms will dry up.” He was only able to access the dam in the first week of April through a renewable certificate; the latest will expire on May 31.

These restrictions come on top of bigger problems local farmers face: the fields in town have been hit by extreme weather events. The past two years have been difficult for low-income farmers like Oliva, as they reel from successive typhoons and El Niño-driven droughts.

The Bicol region is disaster-prone. Typhoons, volcanic eruptions, floods and drought ravage vulnerable locations in rural areas where nearly 80% of the population live. The main livelihoods here are farming and fishing.

The iconic Mayon volcano in Albay province in the Bicol region. Image by Nor Llorca via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Massive flooding damaged farmland and agricultural infrastructures in December 2019 when Typhoon Kammuri whacked the province. The year before, in December 2018, Tropical Depression Usman wrought the same level of damage.

In between those major typhoons, the region experienced El Niño events for the whole year, which dried up farmlands and triggered infestations.

Oliva was among those affected since his rice fields were flowering when Kammuri, known in the Philippines as Typhoon Tisoy, hit the region. He lost 40% of his rice crops; his house, like those of fellow farmers in his village, was partially damaged by the onslaught. “But we received no aid,” he said.

“We tried to improve our production in the said years but we couldn’t recover our losses,” Kilusang Magbubukid sa Bicol (KMB), a farmers’ group, said in a statement.

The pandemic and the lockdown imposed in response to it have added to the burden for farmers and traders, whose movements are now restricted. They see the problem lasting until May 15, when the Philippines transitions into a “new normal,” or even beyond. President Rodrigo Duterte has placed the entire Philippines under a state of calamity until the end of the year.

Under the ECQ, however, farming activity shouldn’t be impeded. Guidelines allow for the unhampered flow of essential goods and supplies as well as the movement of essential workers like farmers, who ensure the nation’s food supply.

The Bicol region is heavily hinged on agriculture. According to a 2012 census, the region has the largest agricultural land in the country with 765,820 hectares (1,892,382.43 acres), which is managed by 486,000 farm operators. Bicol’s total land area is 1.8 million hectares (4.4 million acres).

Farmers in Bicol often deal with extreme weather events. Image by Mavic Conde

On top of the impacts of the typhoon, the new rice liberalization or tariffication law has driven down the price of locally farmed grains due to imports of cheap rice, amplifying the struggles of farmers in the region. “It served like a death sentence for 75% of the farmers here,” KMB said.

The group has had an ongoing dialogue with the Department of Agriculture in Bicol on how farmers affected by Typhoon Kammuri can access aid. But with the pandemic and the lockdown, these discussions have been put on hold.

Lockdown bottlenecks

Rice, roots and tubers, coconut, abaca, banana, nipa and mango are among the main crops of the Bicol region. In 2018, the region produced 8.06 tons of coconut, 7.08 tons of rice, 5.54 tons of pineapple, 3.6 tons of corn, 0.84 tons of banana, and 0.33 tons of mango.

The region also exports the lucrative pili elemi, a gum from the Manila elemi tree (Canarium ovatum), a key ingredient in beauty products and perfumes made by luxury brands like Chanel. Catanduanes province is a major exporter of abaca, or Manila hemp, accounting for 30.95% of the country’s total abaca production in 2018. One of its uses is for making masks.

Secretary of Agriculture William Dar said the harvest this season will suffice for the country’s food supply until June and beyond, with the steady arrival of imported rice. Early planting is being eyed to sustain production during the third quarter of the year.

Yet the lockdown has farmers and traders in the region struggling to continue their business due to varying interpretations of transportation rules at checkpoints and their unintended effects.

Groups conduct relief drives for farmers during the lockdown. Image courtesy of KMB

While the price of rice has increased, it’s not enough to cover additional transportation costs, Oliva says. The price is up 24% to 15.50 pesos ($0.31) per kilogram since the imposition of the ECQ, but should at least be 20 pesos ($0.40) per kilo for them to earn, Oliva says.

For Noel Abio, also a rice farmer from Camarines Sur, travel restrictions and market visits that have to be scheduled have resulted in additional costs.

“The palay [rice] buyer would do business only on Mondays and Thursdays, the scheduled market days,” Abio said. “So, farmers temporarily brought their harvest home and waited for the market day to sell palay and it doubled the cost for transportation.”

For traders, it’s not been easy either. An abaca trader in the town of San Miguel in Catanduanes had to sell bandala (abaca fibers) once a week instead of every three days because of the ECQ. Mary Grace Rodriguez of Barangay Sulong said every Wednesday was the schedule for delivery of her fibers by truck to Manila Hemp Trading Corporation in the town of Virac.

Unlike before, buyers are now paying her in installments. For 100,000 pesos’ (nearly $2,000) worth of bandala, she only gets 20,000 pesos upfront, and the rest over the next four weeks.

“Farmers have more output these days because their family members moved to their abaca fields to help,” Rogriguez said. “I’m glad they were understanding, and there were relief goods from the government so we haven’t reached the barter point, where they could get goods from my store in exchange for abaca fibers.”

The Philippines is one of the major exporters of abaca (Manila hemp) products. Image by Mavic Conde

Still, transportation and movement of goods are the biggest bottlenecks. She now rents a tricycle (a motorbike with sidecar) for 450 pesos ($8.90) once a week and aims to be among the 12 persons allowed to leave her village for the day, another lockdown guideline. “I’m still thankful that there’s at least one enterprise that continues to buy our abaca fibers,” she said.

For German Echaluce, who is a copra and abaca farmer from Catanduanes, that’s not the case. He had plenty of unsold stock — 30 kilograms (66 pounds) of copra and stacks of abaca from his 30-hectare (74-acre) coconut plantation and 85-hectare (210-acre) abaca farm — because his buyer had not opened their store in Legazpi City, which remains under ECQ until May 15, like Catanduanes.

When lockdown lifts

Farmers are among the beneficiaries of the government’s 1.17 trillion peso ($23.2 billion) stimulus package. In Bicol, around one million families have already received the support.

Other interventions were also rolled out: rice farmers could apply for financial assistance or zero-interest loans under the Department of Agriculture’s Survival and Recovery Assistance Program.

In the town of Casiguran, in Sorsogon province, farmers get support from the local government, which buys their rice at 15 pesos ($0.30) per kilo and sells it to locals for a lower price.

Yet these interventions are still not enough to fully support Bicol’s farmers. They remain vulnerable to natural disasters and the limitations of the pandemic, which the government sees affecting the country over the next two years.

Bicol has the largest agricultural land in the country and provides livelihood for millions. Image by Mavic Conde

The cash grant and the relief supplies from local government units help, Echaluce said, but these are also not enough as the price of basic goods has increased with the onslaught of the pandemic.

His savings for his workers’ wages are nearly exhausted, he said. He added he still prefers to sell his abaca and copra in Legazpi City, some 129 km (80 mi) away, because the buying price is higher. “When lockdown lifts this May, I hope I’ll be able to sell my stocks,” he said.

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Banner image of a man picking up unmilled rice grains. Image by Leilani Chavez/Mongabay.

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