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What to do with aging farmers worries DAR

/ 12:02 AM July 01, 2014

BAGUIO CITY, Philippines—Aging farmers have become a major concern for the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR), as it helps cushion the food production industry from the entry of agricultural products from other countries in Southeast Asia by 2015.

In a recent visit here, Agrarian Reform Secretary Virgilio de los Reyes acknowledged that aging farmers were an issue in the Philippines as well in as many countries that show improved economies.

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Agrarian reform was a social justice instrument, he said, but the agency realized that it  also distributed land patents to farmers now in their ’70s to ’90s who have tilled other people’s lands for decades.

The farmers’ ability to till the land is important to an agency, which expects its distributed agrarian land to be productive. Certificates of land ownership award (CLOAs) also prevent beneficiaries from selling agrarian land for 10 years.

“In [Hacienda] Luisita, there are some farmers who are 90 to 100 years old … Now if [he is] 90 years old and [DAR] tells him to plant, do you think he’d like that? So we have some extreme situations like that,” De los Reyes said.

He said the country still relied on small, family-run farms for food, which are maintained by middle-aged to elderly producers.

The government, he said, was aware that young workers expressed less interest in farming the closer they are to urban areas. He said this was a pattern for “any country that progresses.”

De los Reyes cited such a trend developing in Bulacan and Tarlac provinces, which are close to Metro Manila.

“We can lament the fact that [fewer] people [work] in farms,” De los Reyes said.

The government has been enhancing its food-producing industries in anticipation of the social and economic integration that will take place in 2015 among members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

Integration would mean fully opening up trade with Asean economies.

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“The question I would pose is, ‘If we give [the land] to a 90-year-old and he does not plant, should we deprive that person?’ I don’t think I should,” De los Reyes said.

He said the DAR and the people who crafted the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program do not expect agrarian reform beneficiaries to “forever plant [for] a living.” That’s a decision best left to the farmer, De los Reyes said.

Even the act of selling their CLOAs should not be treated as a bad thing, he said, once the 10-year prohibition lapses. “Selling is not necessarily criminal nor evil,” De los Reyes said.

He said what would be unacceptable was a scenario when agrarian reform beneficiaries sell their lands because the government is unable to provide the environment that makes the beneficiary “want to keep on farming.”

De los Reyes said the Philippines was the only Asean member with quantitative restrictions that regulate the entry of imported rice. This means the country’s rice industry still benefits from a form of trade protection, which grants rice farmers time to improve productivity.

The government’s primary task, De los Reyes said, was to lower production cost for all farming activities to be competitive, and to be able to export by investing in strategic products like rice or banana. Vincent Cabreza, Inquirer Northern Luzon

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