Some relief is coming to small-scale rice farmers in the form of direct financial assistance through 2024 under Republic Act No. 11598, or the Philippine Farmers Cash Assistance Act, which was enacted by President Duterte on December 10, 2021, and made public earlier this month. Smallholder rice farmers who cultivate two hectares or less are among the poorest and most neglected sectors of the economy.

They have borne the brunt of the impact of the liberalization of rice imports since 2019 and the more recent onslaught of Super Typhoon Odette, whose damage to the agricultural sector already exceeded 13.4 billion pesos last week. An estimated 1.67 million of these farmers are listed in the official registration system for the basic sectors.

By signing the law, the government recognized that it had to address the plight of small farmers. “The state recognizes the urgency to intervene for our farmers in light of the current state of declining palay prices and the crippling effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. To this end, the state will provide monetary assistance to the hardest hit segments of smallholder farmers in the country in the form of actual cash grants to farmers,” reads RA 11598.

The law directs the Department of Agriculture (DA) to raise funds from taxes collected on rice imports. A Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund (RCEF) was established through RA 11203, or the Rice Pricing Act, which removed government limits – called quantitative restrictions – on the importation of rice . The RCEF will receive 10 billion pesos per year from the tariff levied on rice imports to help implement programs that will improve productivity and boost the competitiveness of Philippine rice farmers through skills training, access to inputs and agricultural machinery and low-interest loans.

Rice import taxes exceeding 10 billion pesos will be direct cash assistance to small farmers until 2024 under the new law, which tasks the Bureau of Customs (BOC) to remit these funds directly to the DA excess. The good news is that the surplus of customs duty collection on rice imports will hopefully approach the high level of 2020. The BOC collected 14.3 billion pesos in import duties on rice from the first week of October last year. He said the tariff collections came from 2.18 million metric tons of rice imported by the country from January 1 to October 8, 2021. This means that small farmers are guaranteed to share 4.3 billion pesos of tariffs. excess customs on rice. The excess collection in 2019 was only 12.3 billion pesos, which jumped to 15.47 billion pesos in 2020 due to the large volume of rice imports.

At the end of each year, the new law requires the BOC and DA to submit separate reports to Congress on the remittance of funds and the actual cash disbursement for the year. This raises another red flag. Who will check whether the money actually went to the farmers concerned? Suspicions of wrongdoing have often accompanied programs and projects involving a government agency or local government unit in distributing direct cash assistance to the poor. The “ayuda” program at the height of the pandemic in 2020 is an example of this, with tens of thousands of poor families complaining that they did not receive such a subsidy. There must be a transparent way to monitor the flow of money from the BOC to the DA and, more importantly, to the beneficiary farmers.

In the longer term, it is evident that more than financial assistance, the government needs to focus on revitalizing the agricultural sector instead of relying on imports of agricultural products to increase the country’s food supply. Government policy to deal with increases in the prices of agricultural products has often been to import more.

For the recent damage caused by Odette, the government can better help the victimized farmers by providing them with the necessary support so that they can plant crops again, as suggested by Jayson Cainglet, Executive Director of Samahang Industriya ng Agrikultura. He told the Inquirer last week that since the rice crops damaged by the storm had yet to be harvested, the farmers’ immediate need was seeds and fertilizer so they could replant immediately. “Apart from cash assistance, farmers prefer to resume rice planting and harvesting,” he added.

No doubt the new law, as pointed out by Senator Cynthia A. Villar, Chair of the Senate Agriculture and Food Committee, would be of great help to Filipino farmers given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent typhoon on their lives. . “Any amount we give to our farmers will be a great help in increasing their income and improving their poor living conditions,” she added. More than these temporary relief programs, government – ​​and the private sector – really need to figure out how the productivity of small farmers can be boosted and how their produce will be purchased at the fairest price possible. A price that will sustain them, not the low operating price of the middleman that only pushes small farmers deeper into poverty.

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