Jose Ma R Zubiri Jr, Governor, Province of Bukidnon: Interview

ose Ma R Zubiri Jr, Governor, Province of Bukidnon

Interview: Jose Ma R Zubiri Jr

How well positioned is Bukidnon for unlocking the full potential of agriculture as a driver for inclusive economic development?

JOSE MA R ZUBIRI JR: Bukidnon lies at the geographic heart of Mindanao, bordering seven provinces and providing one of the most competitive agricultural lands across the archipelago. The largest products for the province are rice and corn – both in the top four in terms of national production. This is followed by sugar cane, pineapple, banana and, more recently, palm oil and cassava. Aside from those core crops, vegetables, coffee and cacao have also found robust growth and dedicated land. Around 60% of rice producers in the province are irrigated, except in the highlands, due to the abundant resources of the Pulangi River, and the climate conditions across the province are very fertile. The problem with Bukidnon’s agricultural development, however, does not lie in the weather or richness of soil, but with the farm workers. Poverty incidence in the province in 2010 was 21% – two percentage points below the national average at the time – while in 2013, the numbers rose to 41.33%.

The inability of agricultural development to meaningfully impact farmers’ lives and incomes lies not in the manpower, but in the practice of multinationals, which with some exceptions, rely on contracted labour instead of hiring farmers directly. Contracted farmers are exploited by unethical contractors, who do not uphold contract stipulations, and pay workers only a fraction of the amount paid by multinationals – in most cases paying around P180 ($4) instead of the P301 ($6.68) per day legal minimum wage.

The rise in poverty has eroded the Mindanao peace plan, with groups like the National People’s Army resurging amidst the poverty. To address this, multinational agribusinesses need to hire directly and facilitate the formation of cooperatives amongst workers. This would empower workers and allow them to run themselves. The agrarian reform programme was largely unsuccessful because it awarded poor farmers with 3 ha properties, but without access to any financing. Eventually, the land would return to former landowners, even if law stipulates that no company or person can own more than 5 ha.

How will economic decentralisation and government reforms provide poverty alleviation and minimise the insurgency in Mindanao?

ZUBIRI: Whereas the Philippines has been boasting economic growth averaging 7%, this has not trickled down to the provinces and villages in Mindanao. Despite its richness in agriculture and minerals, politics and business have been historically controlled by only a few groups, with high percentages of poverty across the nation remaining unchanged over time. As a result, the nation’s leadership has focused on economic growth, but not on poverty alleviation, fuelling the growth of insurgency and the deterioration of peace and order in provincial areas.

The existing government system of the Philippines is not one conducive to poverty alleviation, as wealth from the provinces is generally remitted to Manila, which then only receive a portion back. In a federal system, 75% of provincial revenues would stay within the provinces for them to manage and create higher incentives. The provinces, in turn, would work harder for more money, regardless of whether they are under the Muslim or Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Peace and order will not succeed as long as there is poverty in the hinterland. Whereas investment could play a role in reversing unemployment, this cannot be accelerated if multinational companies continue to lease property at maximum prices.

Additionally, agricultural provinces throughout Mindanao would find it challenging to mechanise and compete with countries like Thailand, because hundreds of thousands of workers will be left unemployed, and poverty incidence would become worse.

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The Report: The Philippines 2016

Regions chapter from The Report: The Philippines 2016

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