Mindanao is the country’s food basket, but why are a lot of its people poor?

Mindanao is the country’s food basket, but why are a lot of its people poor?

- in Opinion

Looking at important statistics about Mindanao, the most glaring is clear: it is the leading producer of many agricultural products and the best growing conditions for many commodities. Mindanao lies in the world’s ideal latitudes for growing banana, coffee, and cacao. Little wonder that banana and pineapple have been our best export. Cacao and coffee are gearing up to be a major crop since the domestic market alone requires much more than we currently produce, thereby securing good markets for local farmers. Table 1 below shows the other commodities which have Mindanao as the major producer.

Yet the juxtaposed reality is that 11 of the nation’s poorest provinces are situated on the island, with poverty levels hitting 40%-50% on average. This means that these families earn less than P9,140 per month, which the government’s Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) defines as the poverty threshold, the limit within which families are able to meet their food and non-food needs. Whether that amount is even sufficient in real term is open to examination. Agriculture’s importance in kicking poverty is clear when half of all poor families live in the rural areas. Mindanao grows the best food, yet it has more poor than the rest of the country.

Table1. Selected data on Agriculture from the Mindanao Development Authority

Growth Rate7.310.15(7.22)1.08(3.89)
MINDANAO % TO PHILS.23.2150.1681.1289.5658.84
AbacaCamoteCoffeeOil PalmRubber 
Growth Rate(8.48)14.59(9.00)(11.98)0.40 
MINDANAO % TO PHILS.28.2623.1175.7589.7299.97 

A few factors may be brought forward to shed light on this irony:

  1. Violence. The strife created by violence within the island hampers the growth of many agricultural areas. Driving through many areas in Maguindanao and North Cotabato, you see  fertile valleys barely cultivated, the potential of which beats any similar terrain and climate  in Luzon. Imagine thousands of hectares of rolling lands waiting to be cultivated by hands currently clasping rifles.
  2. Land issues. There are various types of land tenure issues on the island, overlapping rules on land tenure that prevent securing property rights both for businesses, indigenous peoples and others who require land as security. Growing food in the long term is difficult when land ownership is unsure.
  3. Credit lack. Senator Ninoy Aquino town in Sultan Kudarat is a glaring example. It produces almost half of Mindanao’s coffee and is an ingredient in Nescafe, yet most of its coffee farmers are poor. In spite of the increasing demand for the heavenly cup and the availability of lands to cultivate the crop, the local farmers are unable to expand due to poor infrastructure and lack of credit. Agricultural land has no value in the eyes of bankers. Thus, farmers turn to higher interest financing from third party lenders, turning up the cost of borrowing and eating into their margins which could easily be used for expansion and more income.
  4. Difficult and expensive logistics and transport. With half of the country’s population, Luzon is still the biggest consumer of agricultural products. Though it can be a strong market for Mindanao’s produce, costs of shipping to Manila are still more expensive compared with shipping to Singapore. Unfortunately, the enactment of the Philippine Competition Act in 2015, and the amendments to the Cabotage Law in RA 10668 have yet to bear fruit in the form of lower shipping costs. This hampers the expansion plans for many Mindanao farmers, since without market demand, excess production will only drive down the farmgate price of commodities, pushing them to court bankruptcy.  The other piece of the pie is the lack of rural infrastructure like roads and drying facilities, that lower productivity per hectare since this means wastage of perfectly good produce, or the costlier transport over bad roads.
  5. Reliance on export agriculture. Planting for export of fruits such as bananas and pineapples is good for Philippine agriculture as a whole, employs many rural workers, and is nice for dollar earnings. This, however, threatens food security of the local population that grows it. We have become net importers of the rice staple for the last 50 years, and need more corn to feed our livestock. If anything, we need to lower the cost and farmgate price of these important commodities. Land and resource allocation should expand to allow more cultivation of these food crops so that at the very least, those planting for export don’t have to be poor, and at best, everybody benefits from lower food prices. We cannot be net importers of food while a third to half of our people are poor, and we force them to plant fruits for the rich. This makes us poor producers for the dollar, exactly the kind of arrangement we do not want for our people.

While the agriculture sector’s problems may be complex, common sense solutions are hopefully forthcoming. It is thus vital that a strong agricultural constituency take root within the citizenry, both to monitor government programs in spurring production and driving private investment to encourage its growth. The goal is clear: grow Mindanao’s agriculture and ensure farmer’s abundance in order to slash poverty and sustain peace.

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