AGAINST ALL ODDS | Why do Ilokano farmers stick with tobacco?

By SHERWIN DE VERA
www.nordis.net

Tobacco farmers continue to endure the high cost of production and the low price of their products. For years, they have been complaining of the measly increase in the floor price and cases of downgrading their products.

They also contend with the increasing pressure of the international community for the Philippines to comply with its commitment under the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. As a signatory, the Philippine government should impose measures to reduce the production, trade, and use of tobacco and tobacco products. Government policies in compliance with the treaty, such as increased tobacco taxation, shrunk the volume of local cigarette demand.

According to Bernard Vicente, president of the National Federation of Tobacco Farmers Association and Cooperatives (NAFTAC), production volume decreased from 109 billion sticks in 2012 to 73 billion sticks in 2018.

FIELDS OF GREEN. Tobacco cultivated in Narvacan town, which produces the highest volume of Burley and Native tobacco in the province of Ilocos Sur. Photo from NTA Candon Branch

Despite these predicaments, more than 32,500 farmers in the country continue to plant tobacco based on the latest data of the National Tobacco Administration (NTA), the majority of which are in the Ilocos region. The combined production of the four Ilocos provinces in the last cropping season is more than 34,632 metric tons, almost 70 percent of the country’s total tobacco production.

In light of the disappointing result of the September 25 tripartite negotiations, Nordis asked tobacco farmers what holds them back to abandon tobacco production and shift to other viable alternatives. Here are the reasons why the farmers continue to stick with the crop:

Geographical suitability. Studies conducted by tobacco pioneers showed that soil, climate, and weather conditions in the region are suitable for tobacco. With a predominantly dry climate and warm weather, the place has limited water sources after the rainy season. The regular occurrence of dry spells and droughts compounds this situation.

Stop Exploitation secretary-general Zaldy Alfiler said many of their members chose tobacco for its resilient character. He said that a large portion of farms in the region lacks irrigation, noting that even areas with irrigation facilities experience water shortage. According to him, design and construction issues, slow repairs and rehabilitation, and dwindling discharge of rivers and creeks are some of the reasons for the water delivery shortage.

A research conducted by the Philippine Institute for Development Studies identified numerous factors why irrigation systems in the country continue to fall short of its expected performance. Some of the causes identified are similar to what Alfiler cited.

Based on the National Irrigation Administration-Region 1records as of December 31, 2018, irrigation development in the Ilocos provinces and La Union is only 57 percent of the 137,631 hectares potential irrigable area.

Corn and tomato are among the crop that farmers in Ilocos Sur cultivate in place of tobacco. Free corn seeds and fertilizer subsidies provided by the provincial government, and establishment of a local animal feed mill influenced farmers to shift to corn. Meanwhile, the aggressive expansion of the National Food Corporation for its contract growing attracted others to plant tomato. However, tobacco needs less watering in terms of frequency and volume compared to these crops.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Crop Information System, tobacco requires 400-600 cubic millimeters (mm), while corn needs 500-800 mm of water. If water is scarce, farmers only have to water tobacco after transplanting, during the period of rapid growth, and during the early yield formation period, and still have an optimum harvest.

RESILIENT. Tobacco plants can survive in dry environments, requiring few watering, making it suitable to the Ilocos climate, especially in areas where water is scarce. Photo from NTA Candon Branch

Access to capital, assistance, and market. Farmers attribute these to three factors: (1) the presence of NTA, a government agency devoted for the development and regulation of the crop and industry, (2) big tobacco corporations with established stations in the region providing production loans and sure market, and (3) billions of local government share from the tobacco excise tax intended for farmers.

While there are other crops under contract growing system with agribusiness corporations, tobacco remains on top of the options.

NTA is aggressively pushing farmers to enter contract-growing agreements either with tobacco and cigarette companies or in its production support program. Farmers who are under the contract farming system receive production loans and assistance. The office also gives incentives and livelihood and technical support.

Last year, NTA launched the multi-sectoral contract growing approach involving local governments, tobacco buyers, and farmers. In the past, the agreement is between the farmer and the buying firms or NTA.

Under this arrangement, NTA and traders will provide the technical, production, and marketing support and proper documentation of the product. Local governments will take care of farm machinery and implements, and farm inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides from their tobacco excise tax share.

Local governments received funds intended to improve the life and productivity of farmers from the collected tobacco excise tax. Under Republic Act Nos. 7171 and 8240, tobacco-producing provinces are entitled to a 15 percent share from the revenue. The former governs the tax imposed on products derived from Virginia tobacco while the latter is for those produced out of the burley and native varieties.

The budget department announced last June that local government shares from the 2016 excise tax collection amount to P15.8 billion, 50 percent of which will go to Ilocos Sur.

“Our local government provides fertilizers, farm equipment and repair assistance for tobacco farmers,” said Edgar Sonido, the Federated Farmers Association president of Cabugao. The town is one of the municipalities in the region with the most significant tobacco production.

According to him, the local government encourages local farmers who find it expensive to sustain flue-cured tobacco to shift to the air-cured variety.

In the town of Banna in Ilocos Norte, the local government allocated funds for the “Balik Tobacco” program. The town entered a memorandum of agreement with Universal Leaf Philippines, Incorporated to buy the tobacco. Officials also allotted P8 million for farm machinery, farm inputs, and irrigation equipment.

Farmers also receive incentives ranging from P2.00-5.00 per kilo of tobacco produced in some municipalities. Farmers can also use their crops as collateral for their loans. These credits provide for the daily need of farmers and their households while waiting for the harvest season.

SUPPORT PROJECTS. Officials from NTA Ilocos Norte officials inspect the efficiency of the multi-purpose cultivator during a tillering activity in a Burley Improved farm in Brgy. Nambaran, Bacarra, Ilocos Norte. Photo by Gem Ventura from NTA Facebook Page.

Value per volume of average farm size. The majority of tobacco farmers cultivate small-size farms. NTA data from 2016 to 2018 showed that the average farm size cultivated for tobacco is 0.7 hectares. In Ilocos Sur, Vicente said the size is only 0.5 hectares.

According to him, cultivating tobacco in small farms provides them more cash to spare for their needs. He said, compared with other crops, tobacco is better in terms of value produced per volume of the product.

“For other cash crops, we have to produce a bigger volume to earn the same value we get from tobacco. However, unlike tobacco, the market for these crops is limited,” Vicente said.

A study undertaken by the Philippine Institute for Development Studies noted that contract growing is more profitable for small landholders in the tobacco industry.

The gap in earning widens if one takes into account the production supports received by farmers and available opportunities for entering a growership agreement with NTA or private buyers. Compared to farmers who cultivate other crops, those who grow tobacco receive more perks from the local governments that defray their production expenses.

Familiarity with the crop. Passed from generation to generation, the cultivation of the plant took deep roots not only in the regional economy but also in the perception of farmers. Tobacco farmers learn to cultivate the crop at an early age. By the time they reach adulthood, they are already experts in propagating the plant.

“I started planting the crop with my family when I was still a kid. It is hard for me to plant another crop that would require different sets of cultivation processes and requirements,” shared Regino Cacuyong of Pinili, Ilocos Norte.

According to him, the opportunity to learn the cultivation and management of other crops in their locality is scarce. This lack of learning, he said, limits the confidence of many seasoned farmers to till plants other than tobacco and rice.

“It is like taking chances to something you are not familiar with; we feel the risk of a bad harvest and losing money is higher,” he said.

FAMILY AFFAIR. Tobacco farming is considered a family affair, with half of the household contributing to activities related to producing tobacco, according to the study conducted by AER and the American Cancer Society. Photo by Sherwin De Vera

However, for Alfiler pointed out that misplaced priorities and wrong policies reinforced the perception among farmers that “familiarity with tobacco limits our options for cash crops.”

The Stop Exploitation leader pointed out that failure of the government to meet its five-year deadline to encourage tobacco planters to shift to alternative crops under Republic Act No. 9211 or the Tobacco Regulation Act of 2003 demonstrates only a part of that neglect.

He said local officials give little importance to the law to have a share from the billions of tobacco funds. However, even the laws (RAs 7171 and 8240) that enable local governments to receive billion from the collected excise direct local officials to support the farming of alternative crops and livelihood.

Yet, he noted that despite the existence of these policies to encourage and support the shift to other viable cash and food crops, tobacco thrives with the backing of the very government tasked to gradually reduce its cultivation.

A research conducted by the Action for Economic Reforms and the American Cancer Society also identified the lack of support from the government as one of the primary reasons why tobacco farmers keep planting the crop.

“Instead of convincing farmers to find alternative crops, officials are encouraging them to plant tobacco by providing subsidies. Not that we consider this bad, but while doing this, they neglect to assist those who already shifted to other crops,” Alfiler said.

He cited the case of farmers in Sta. Lucia town in Ilocos Sur who chose to plant peanut instead of tobacco. According to him, these farmers received little or no assistance at all from the local government’s excise tax share.

Other than peanut, tomato, and corn, a 2009 study also presented alternative vegetable crops for tobacco that provide significant income. “In terms of income, vegetable cultivation provided the highest income to farmers compared to tobacco,” the survey concluded. However, unlike tobacco, vegetable crops do not receive ample assistance from local governments.

Meanwhile, the NAFTAC president lamented that tobacco funds are spent mainly on infrastructures instead of providing the necessary skills, knowledge, and equipment for farmers to venture into other livelihoods.

“While local governments still receive their tobacco funds, they should invest now in preparing farmers coup with the eventual disappearance of tobacco,” said Vicente.

BALIK TABAKO PROGRAM. NTA personnel checks the crops of farmers in San Ildefonso, Ilocos Sur, under the program. The agency initiated the project to encouraged farmers to tobacco with the LGU providing full production assistance. Photo by Jemaima V. Jimenez from the NTA Facebook Page

So, why are farmers clinging to tobacco? The fundamental belief remains; farmers primarily plant crops based on profitability. The belief that tobacco is profitable is where it gets confusing. If farmers say they earn less and experience bankruptcy from the tobacco, why do they continue to plant?

The answer lies in existing state policies, particularly on the issue of social justice for farmers.

There is a stark conflict between the law and the stake of the government concerning the tobacco industry. While the state made progress in regulating and taxing the tobacco industry, its support for tobacco farmers were left behind. In this particular case, the billions of funds intended for tobacco farmers failed to prepare them for the inevitable decline of the industry. Officials giving premiums to higher revenue and infrastructures rather than uplifting the lives of the farmers is the reason for this failure.

However, the failure to abide by the FCTC, the domestic laws to regulate tobacco and provide support to tobacco farmers are just tip of the iceberg.

The fundamental reason for the country’s agricultural woes is the absence of genuine agrarian reform that gives farmers control over the land their till. The existing land monopoly by landlords and those with capital limits the option of farmers to increase productivity and diversify their crops. Past land reform programs failed mainly because the bureaucracy is ruled by landed politicians and big businesses with an interest in land and real estate.

Optimization of the limited land they have or allowed to cultivate is a survival response. Limited areas mean opting for crops they can plant in that piece of land with a higher return. Also, the majority of farmers lack the capital and dependent on loans to produce products every cropping season. Without land and cash for their production, farmers are forced to enter in exploitative agreements and cultivate crops like tobacco, which provides for production loans.

These neglect and misplaced priorities of the government, and the existing conflict of interest in the Philippine bureaucracy shackled farmers not only to the cultivation of tobacco but also with the cycle of debt and exploitation attached to it. #nordis.net/Featured photo by Marife P. Peralta/NTA Abra

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