With over 11,000 cases of COVID-19 in the Philippines, the pandemic is more than a health and security issue. As the lockdown in the Philippines reaches over 60 days, food and relief measures are becoming scarce in many areas whilst some food-producing provinces like Benguet and Tarlac, the oversupply of vegetables resulted in the loss of income and food wastage. More than ever, food security has become a major problem in the Philippines, a known agriculture-based country in the Southeast Asian Region.

In Luzon, over 50 million vulnerable families are affected by the lockdown. Daily wage earners, many of whom are on contractual basis, are out of work when their companies shut down. Only basic services remained open, like groceries and some banks. Still, the workers are on a rotation basis.

Small scale food producers like farmers and fisherfolk are heavily affected by the pandemic. They are facing risks every day as they leave their homes either to fish, to farm, or to find markets for their products.

However, all is not lost in the pandemic. The disruption brought about by COVID-19 can bring transformation to society for a better post-COVID-19 future. As such, identifying issues and bringing out possible solutions offered by the food producers are crucial in re-shaping society. 

“During the pandemic, the farmers, fisherfolk, workers and informal settlers are forgotten.  Their intention must be given attention. We have to create a roadmap, an action plan based on social justice and rights to reshape our society,” Lea Guerrero, Greenpeace Country Director emphasized in her welcome address at the “Kwentuhan Tayo: #PagkainFrontliners Share Real Stories from the Field in a COVID-19 Reality,” the first of the three-part webinar series titled “The Better Normal: Re-imagining Our Food and Agriculture System in a Post-COVID19 Future.”

Hosted by Greenpeace Philippines, Rice Watch Action Network, Nagkakaisang Boses Laban sa RTL, and Bayanihan sa Agrikultura Laban sa COVID19, the webinar was held via Zoom and Facebook live with nearly a hundred participants from different sectors including farmers, fisherfolk, students, media, civil society organizations, academics, and representatives from the National Food Authority (NFA) and local government units.

Lockdown and its effects on small-scale food producers

In the Philippines, a month-long total lockdown was imposed on March 16, which has been extended and modified twice as of writing. The Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) on Emerging Infectious Diseases has set several measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. It includes restrictions on travel, and movements within and outside of the communities. The quarantine measure is strictly implemented. Travel Passes are given to certain individuals provided their movements are necessary.

Cathryn Leonaga, a fisherfolk woman from PANGISDA Bataan, aired her grievance on behalf of other small fisherfolk. “Since COVID-19, our livelihood has suffered. Unable to go out fishing, we then operate on ‘no work, no pay’.”

She said fisherfolk in Bataan who tried to go out to sea to fish were arrested by “bantay dagat” in their locality, despite being declared by government as frontliners and therefore allowed to pursue food production activities.

“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 laments.

Another fisherfolk, Alvin Pura, related how his parents who are both senior citizens are denied aid from DSWD’s Social Amelioration Program and DOLE. His father is also fisherfolk.

Due to the enhanced community quarantine, fisherfolk cannot sell fish in other communities. They sometimes barter fish for other goods. 

In Bantayan Island in Cebu, illegal fishing and commercial fishing have long been damaging the livelihood of the small fisherfolk. Illegal fishing is more rampant during COVID-19. 

“We cannot bring our catch to the market due to limited transportation,” Ven Carbon of Cebu Tanon Strait Fisherfolk Federation said.

Fish sellers and fisherfolk incur massive losses from fish spoilage due to the closure of some ice plants, in addition to logistic problems and checkpoint queues that could take hours.

Among the farmers, bringing their produce from the farms to the market posed a challenge due to the ECQ. Farmers in Benguet, Tarlac, and Antique could not bring their produce to major cities.

Monina Geaga, a vegetable farmer from Capas, Tarlac, lost most of her income. Her vegetable products, considered as high-value crops, were intended for the Quezon City market. The ECQ prompted her to sell the vegetables in her village at 1/3 of the original price instead. Some were given away or fed to animals.

Limited government aid despite funding

For its part, the Philippine Government provided aid to fisherfolk, farmers and farm laborers who lost their incomes due to COVID19. The Department of Finance allotted P2.8 billion for the Survival and Recovery (SURE) Aid Program of the Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Credit Policy Council (DA-ACPC), which provides loans of up to P25,000 each at zero interest for smallholder farmers and fisherfolk affected by calamities and disasters

DA, through the Financial Subsidy for Rice Farmers (FSRF), provides 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.

To qualify for the FSRF cash aid, the names of farmers should be on the master list of farmers enrolled in the Registry System for Basic Sectors in Agriculture (RSBSA). The list of qualified beneficiaries will be submitted to the Land Bank of the Philippines (LBP) and given cards loaded with cash. The LBP would distribute the cards. The beneficiaries received one-time P5,000 cash assistance. The DA also distributed seeds to farmers.

However, farmers and fisherfolk complain that they do not receive any financial assistance from the government because they are either ‘“unqualified”. Some who were able to get a cash card could not encash due to limited time allotment in some communities.

Ka Rene, an RSBSA-registered farmer from Lopez, Quezon, shared he and some of his fellow registered farmers are yet to receive aid from any of DA’s programs. 

Farmers’ group Pakisama in Pawili, Bula, Camarines Sur, were not able to receive relief aid from the Department of Agriculture because many of them are not qualified according to the guidelines.

“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 said. 

Following the conversation, participants called on the government to clarify the rules and guidelines to avoid confusion 

Partnership with LGUs

Despite the shortcomings of the national government, 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.

Jeck Cantos mentioned that forging memorandum of agreements (MOA) between LGUs are crucial in the delivery of services.

In Laguna, food production is not interrupted due to the diligence of the provincial governor, Cantos said. The province executed an Executive Order encouraging all LGUS to buy the farm produce of the local farmers for relief packs distribution for the affected constituents.

Since it is also the start of planting season in Laguna, palay seeds are distributed through the DA Philrice. Free urea fertilizers are also provided.

Quezon Province also signed a MOA with Las Pinas. Through this, the LGU assists the fisherfolk and farmers in transporting and selling their products in the urban centers.

In Davao City, the city government introduced the buyback “Tabang sa Mag-uuma (Buy Back Scheme): Purchase, Repack, and Distribute.”  According to Judy Ann Legaspi, the activity supported the farmers in its fight and initiative against the loss of livelihood due to COVID-19. 

DA also revived the KADIWA Wheels and Mobile Palengke programs.

Lessons and opportunities from COVID-19

Panic, insufficient assistance, militarization, and other human rights violations are not new in the Philippines. It is noted by the AICHR (ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights) that most ASEAN countries resort to repressive measures such as emergency laws, and quarantine is being implemented to curb the infection but with an unclear definition of policy, resulting in human rights violations. This is viewed as securitization or the use of armed forces such as the military and police officers, to reprimand the violators.

However, it is also an opportunity to re-shape society and learn lessons from the pandemic. 

In a pre-recorded testimonial, Fernando Hicap of PAMALAKAYA Cavite said that during the pandemic, the most vulnerable are the fisherfolks, the farmer, and the daily wage laborers.

“We realize the importance of healthy people and food security in a time of pandemics. The solution is not for an iron-clad rule, but by addressing the century-old demand of the farmers, which is genuine land reform. We need the protection of our seas from illegal activities and intrusion of foreign vessels exploiting our minerals,” Hicap said.

Jason Salvadora, a campaigner of #IAmHampasLupa Ecological Agriculture Movement from Iriga, mentioned that LGUs are helping farmers. Their group also encourages gardening at home. He also emphasized that agriculture is the backbone of the country’s development. Their group will also conduct training in their area.

Jet Orbida of PeacePond Negros Occidental mentioned that the local food producers have been saving the country from hunger. 

“Region 6 has sufficient food supply even for a long time. We have vegetables, animals, and rice. We only sourced eggs from other provinces. Aside from that, we are fine,” Orbida said.

He criticized the government for relying on imports when other countries are protecting their own food supplies.

“We are getting inaccurate data or wrong data. The statement of the government keeps on changing,” he said.

On the other hand, it is undeniable that LGUs, CSOs, and NGOs have started to form partnerships to deliver basic services to their affected communities.

Although the internet connection is unstable in some places, some groups also launched online stores, dubbed as ‘tindahan for everyone’, where food producers can either sell their products directly to the consumers or find markets.

Beyond COVID-19, what’s next

Farming is the hope of the nation. But how can we encourage farming when most of our farmers are aging? In 2017, the average age of farmers in Nueva Vizcaya and Pangasinan was 57 years old. Presently, they are the most vulnerable age group in COVID-19 infection.

Jem Garcia from Akbayan Youth organizes farmers in Nueva Ecija and Pangasinan. She emphasizes the need to encourage farming among the youth.

“If we don’t have farmers, who will produce food?” she asked.

The new normal may not be the one we are expecting to happen. Physical distancing may remain in the next few months, but social distancing does not mean we will detach from reality that our food producers are the most neglected sector of our society.

“Better normal is listening to small farmers, fisherfolk, and workers. They are not invisible. A better normal means providing them social protection. They must have control over production, and the government must stop land conversion. The better normal is having access to agricultural inputs which are organic and sustainable,” Ms. Daryll Leyesa of Pambansang Koalisyon ng mga Kababaihan sa Kanayunan, said.

Vietnam and Thailand, the largest exporters of rice in the ASEAN region, are already opening up their borders to boost their economies. Meanwhile, the Philippines still struggles to contain COVID-19. As the economy plunges, the majority of Filipinos are still waiting for their relief packs.

“We must have the control to design a kind of economy in solidarity with all sectors where no one is left behind. That is the better normal,” Ms. Leyesa ended.

Watch the replay of Kwentuhan Tayo: #PagkainFrontliners Share Real Stories from the Field in a COVID-19 Reality here