Multimedia Reporter

The Philippines has been in various forms of a lockdown since March 16, when the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) on Emerging Infectious Diseases set quarantine measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. These measures have included restrictions on travel and movements within and outside of communities. And while food is supposedly able to pass through checkpoints unimpeded, small-scale food producers say this is not always the case.

Cathryn Leonaga, a fisherfolk woman from PANGISDA Bataan, said that despite being declared by government agencies as frontliners allowed to pursue their production activities, fisherfolk in their locality who tried to go out to sea to fish were arrested by “bantay dagat” (local sea patrol).

“Instead of buying food, the money they earned is posted as bail for violating the quarantine. If they don’t have money, they are forced to borrow money from other people,” she said.

While food and relief measures are becoming scarce in many areas, some food-producing provinces like Benguet and Tarlac experience an oversupply of vegetables, resulting in both income loss and food wastage.

As our country continues to grapple with the health and economic issues brought about by the current pandemic, another issue looms on the horizon: food security.

In addition to the restrictions they’ve experienced out at sea, fish sellers and fisherfolk like Leonaga have also incurred massive losses from fish spoilage due to the closure of some ice plants. Ven Carbon of the Cebu Tanon Strait Fisherfolk Federation, shared that these losses have been further compounded by limited transportation and other logistical challenges like checkpoint queues lasting hours.

Meanwhile, farmers bringing their produce from farms to the market face similar challenges due to the quarantine. Farmers in Benguet, Tarlac, and Antique reported that they could not bring their produce to major cities.

Monina Geaga, a vegetable farmer from Capas, Tarlac, shared that her high-value crops intended for the Quezon City market couldn’t be shipped, prompting her to sell the vegetables in her village at 1/3 of the original price.

Government aid for farmers and fisherfolk

These insights were shared at the recently concluded webinar, “Kwentuhuan Tayo” which fielded stories from the food producers at the frontlines of COVID-19. This was the first in a three-part webinar series titled “The Better Normal: Re-imagining our food and agriculture system in a post-COVID-19 Future”.

In response to the plight of our nation’s food producers, the Philippine government is providing Covid-19 aid to fisherfolk, farmers, and farm laborers through the Php 2.8 billion Survival and Recovery (SURE) Aid Program of the Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Credit Policy Council (DA-ACPC).

SURE provides loans of up to Php 25,000. each at zero interest for farmers and fisherfolk affected by calamities and disasters.

The Department of Agriculture, through the Financial Subsidy for Rice Farmers (FSRF), is also providing aid to farmers in 24 provinces who are not covered by the Rice Farmers Financial Assistance (RFFA) program, for those tilling one hectare and less.

Farmers and fisherfolk have complained, however, that too many of them are “unqualified” to avail of these aid programs.

“Only those who till one hectare of land and below can avail of the aid,” Randy Cirio, a member of the National Council of Pakisama in Bula, Camarines Sur said. Cirio, like other agriculture advocates, point to poorly crafted and poorly communicated rules and guidelines as the problem.

Despite these challenges, local government units continue to partner with the stakeholders and the civil society organizations to mitigate the effects of the lockdown due to Covid-19.

The province of Laguna executed an Executive Order encouraging all LGUs to buy farm produce from local farmers for relief packs distribution to their affected constituents. Quezon province likewise signed a MOA with Las Piñas City, allowing the LGU to assist the fisherfolk and farmers in transporting and selling their products to urban centers. Davao City’s city government introduced the buyback “Tabang sa Mag-uuma (Buy Back Scheme): Purchase, Repack, and Distribute.” This activity supports the farmers against the loss of livelihood amid the current crisis.

In a post dated May 21, the Department of Agriculture Communications Group particularly emphasized the importance of local chief executives (LCEs) in their key role as “food security czars.” The LCEs are deemed crucial in cascading national policies and sectoral interventions of food production and the entire value chain. “While we rally and steer the agri-fishery industry to propel and reach its optimum potential, it is really the LGUs and respective local chief executives or LCEs that do the rowing, making sure that support mechanisms at the local level are in place and in sync with the priorities at the national level,” Agriculture Secretary William Dar said.

DILG Memorandum Circular No. 2020-080 directs the offices of the provincial agriculturist and the city or municipal agriculturist to conduct an information drive to make farmers aware of all the ongoing interventions of the DA, and to ensure that support mechanisms have been cascaded and are in place.

Edlyn Rosales of PANGISDA Bataan noted in the aforementioned webinar that Covid-19 highlighted the significant contribution of their sector to society. This is something Secretary Dar affirmed in an earlier statement: “The country’s farmers and [fishermen], who we consider as food security ‘frontliners,’ play a crucial part in our fight against Covid-19,” Sec. Dar said. “That’s why it is important that we continue to empower them to ensure continued production and delivery of food to our countrymen.”