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COVID-19 | COVID-19 and the ‘collapse’ of the Philippines’ agricultural sector: a double disaster

The enduring COVID-19 pandemic has led to a sharp spike in hunger among Filipinos resulting from an extended lockdown in this Southeast Asian country. This is driven in part by its problematic trade policy based largely on food imports and fluctuating global food prices. For those who also have to deal with the financial repercussions of the lockdown, increasing hunger due to poorer food availability along with increased poverty thus form a double disaster. Without the government’s immediate promotion and prioritisation of local food production and sustainable agricultural development, this could lead to even more widespread and severe hunger during and long after the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused disruptions across the world, threatening public health and safety[1], but also economic stability and food security. The lockdown, which has included mobility restrictions and physical distancing rules, has sped up job losses and has led to the shrinking of the world economy, leading to increased poverty and inequality worldwide. According to ILOstat[2], this has been linked with inflation that has altered consumer spending patterns globally. It has been noted that global food prices increased by an average of 5.5% between August 2019 and August 2020. Similar increases can be observed in all other regions.

Consequently, more people are going hungry now than ever before: this sharply reduced ability to acquire sufficient and nutritious food owing to food price fluctuations has resulted in considerable hunger and poverty globally, including in the Philippines, where an estimated 5.2 million Filipino families experienced involuntary hunger in 2020 according to the SWS National Mobile Survey.[3] The rise in food prices, which have increased by 70%, in effect ‘crushed’ especially the poorest.[4] I argue here that the country’s poor agricultural production and problematic agricultural policy, along with fluctuating global food prices, form a double disaster. To a primarily agriculture-based country like the Philippines, this double disaster of increased poverty and the greater vulnerability of the country’s food system that has resulted in even more widespread hunger in times of pandemic could be unfathomable. Unfortunately, the fact is undeniable.

Poverty, hunger, and food insecurity 

Restrictions were imposed in the Philippines shortly after the World Health Organization (WHO)’s announcement of the pandemic in March 2020, taking the form of enhanced community quarantines (ECQs)[5] or Modified ECQs (MECQs). Consequently, unemployment increased to 17.6% in April 2020[6], which led to the easing of the quarantine measures in June to prevent further financial distress. From August last year, however, as the number of COVID-19 infections rapidly increased once more, some parts of the country went back to localised MECQs imposed by local authorities.[7] The increased job losses and economic downturn increased poverty and hunger. The hunger rate increased by 4.2% from 16.7% between May and July 2020, and by 12.1% from 8.8% in December 2019.

But the country was already food insecure and facing an agriculture crisis prior to the pandemic. Besides leading to sharp increases in food prices, the pandemic has highlighted the vulnerability of the Philippines’s agricultural sector and the need for policy reforms.

An agricultural crisis? 

As a result of these events, concerns have been raised about the resilience of agricultural production systems and the effectiveness of agricultural policies in staving off hunger. Especially in a country that is primarily agricultural, like the Philippines, reaching this extent of hunger and food insecurity must prompt questions about the country’s priorities and agriculture and trade policies, one of which is its importation policy. The country has been dependent on the importation of many food commodities (75% of rice, corn, coffee, pork, chicken (dressed), beef, onion, garlic, and peanuts are imported) for more than three decades already. While for Fermin Adriano, a scholar and policy advisor, this import dependency is mainly due to a lopsided agricultural productivity rate (1.7-1.8% in the period 2008 to 2018) and the population growth rate (1.3% for the same period)[8], the reasons for lagging agricultural production requires deeper investigation.

A recent webinar by the Freedom from Debt Coalition (FDC)[9] reiterates the people’s movement’s ongoing critique of the government’s lack of prioritisation of agricultural development and trade liberalisation that has resulted in the ‘collapse’ of the country’s agriculture and food system. As asserted by Ka Leony Montemayor[10] and Bong Inciong[11], two of the speakers at the webinar, the current agricultural system that is based on exploitation and exportation of agricultural products (by multinationals) and does not consider food as a community resource is a recipe for food insecurity and self-insufficiency. The poor agricultural performance and a switch to the import of foods such as rice, despite the fact that it is grown in the country, can first and foremost be considered a result of trade policies favouring importation above local distribution, says Arze Glipo[12].

Moreover, Edwin Lopez[13] reiterated that conventional farming methods (synthetic fertilisers, chemical pesticides, fossil fuel emissions from farm equipment and pump boats, the cutting of trees in plantations and the burning of crop residues) are strongly associated with climate change, which is seen to give rise to extreme weather conditions (the Philippines faces an average of 20 typhoons per year). This also influences the amount of food produces as the vulnerability of the country’s food and agricultural system increases.

In summary, since the start of trade liberalisation in the early 1990s, food importation policies and a lack of focus on developing the local agricultural sector seem to be the main culprits of lagging agricultural production and food insecurity in the country. In this light, promoting sustainable agriculture becomes more important. Sustainable agriculture characterised by food sovereignty, self-sufficiency and local food production based on a structural agricultural transformation are crucial to address this problem, as it becomes more severe during the pandemic. The failure to do so will lead to more severe hunger during and long after the pandemic has ended.


Footnotes

[1] In the Philippines, 945,745 infections and 16,048 deaths were registered as at 19 April 2021. Source: https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/philippines/

[2] https://ilostat.ilo.org/covid-19-is-driving-up-food-prices-all-over-the-world/

[3] https://www.cnn.ph/news/2020/7/21/SWS-survey-5.2-million-families-hunger.html

[4] https://www.rappler.com/business/charts-rising-prices-crush-urban-poor-manila-covid-19-pandemic

[5] “The Philippines’s ECQs is one of the most stringent measures in the region, which restricted people’s movements except for essential purposes (related to medical and health conditions, for instance) and enforced the closure of nearly all non-essential shops and stores. The modified ECQs (MECQs), had a partial and limited relaxation of business operation.” (https://www.cnn.ph/news/2020/7/21/SWS-survey-5.2-million-families-hunger.html)

[6] https://www.rappler.com/business/unemployment-rate-philippines-july-2020

[7] https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/philippines/brief/covid-19-impacts-on-low-income-families-in-the-philippines

[8]https://www.manilatimes.net/2020/07/30/business/agribusiness/why-is-the-philippines-a-food-importer/747772/

[9] The Freedom from Debt Coalition (FDC) is a local NGO formally launched in 1988, guided by a framework of human development, equity, economic rights, economic justice, democratising the economy, sustainable economy, economic growth (that is humane, equitable, sustainable), economic sovereignty and national self-reliance, and fair and beneficial global economic relations. See https://www.facebook.com/fdcphilippines

[10] Ka Leony Montemayor is the President of the Free Farmers’ Federation, a federation of agricultural tenants, owner-cultivators, agricultural labourers, fishermen, and settlers. See http://www.freefarm.org/.

[11] Bong Inciong is the President of the United Broiler Raisers’ Association, a local non-profit association of small and medium scale poultry producers. See http://ubra.com.ph/

[12] Arze Glipo is the Executive Director of the Integrated Rural Development Foundation, a Filipino NGO that promotes development programs focused on the social and economic empowerment of people from marginalised and vulnerable groups. See https://www.irdf.org.ph

[13] Edwin Lopez is one of the leaders of the FDC based in Negros province.

Opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the ISS or members of the Bliss team.

About the authors:

Cynthia Embido Bejeno is a PhD candidate in Development Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands, where she earned Masters in Development Studies major in Women, Gender and Development in 2010. She also earned Masters in Community Development at the University of the Philippines, Diliman, Manila in 1998.  Prior to and during her post-graduate studies, she was involved in the social movement in the Philippines and abroad. Her interests include feminism, social movements, justice, human rights, agrarian question, rural development, climate change and sustainable development.

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Revisiting ethnographic sites as an ongoing knowledge production practice

Is it important for ethnographers to revisit the sites where they conduct their research once their projects have been completed? Returning to the site where I conducted my fieldwork six months later indicated that the answer is both yes and no. It makes me believe that ethnography practice is an ongoing knowledge production project, as people’s perspectives and practices are always evolving.

In January 2020, just before COVID-19 was classified a global pandemic, I made a journey to the site where I did my research six months prior. I had fruitful discussions with those I had engaged with for my research: about their definition of art as a form of activism (a main finding of my research), research as a knowledge production process where researchers and participants can work together, as well as about the dialogue between academic discourse and practices in the field.

When I conducted fieldwork for my Master’s degree at ISS in Pemenang village in Indonesia in July 2019, my ethnographic objective was to explore how a small art community called Pasir Putih navigated life after an earthquake devastated Lombok, the island on which the village is situated, in 2018. I immersed myself in the community for a month, stayed in their houses in order to observe their daily life activities, and conducted semi-structured interviews with them. I consider my study a mini-ethnography because while one month was quite short and what I did cannot be considered an exhaustive ethnography, I did more than interviewing the Pasir Putih artists. I did participant observation to investigate “the strange in the familiar” in the artist’s everyday lives—and to help me understand what’s beyond the things the research participants explicitly mentioned in the interviews.

As an organization, Pasir Putih strongly values knowledge production and knowledge-sharing activities, and so the initial agreement was that because they let me to stay with them for a month, I had to come back and share the research results with them. They often asked me, “What does the outsider think of us? About our conceptions of the arts?” Furthermore, for them it was important to have a conversation about the research that involved them as participants. As Sibawaihi, one of Pasir Putih artists, told the other people in community before I presented the research results, he believed that research would help them to reflect on their position as artists in the village community.

Pasir Putih is a small art community formed in January 2010 by five undergraduate students in Pemenang village and now comprising 13 active members, of which only two are women. Most of the research community members have a Bachelor’s degree in different fields, such as communication and education studies, and none of them have attained an art degree through formal education. They have attained their skills in art by doing. When I was in the field, the artists also contributed to the community as teachers for extracurricular art subjects in junior high schools in North Lombok. On their website, Pasir Putih define themselves as an “…organisasi nirlaba egaliter berbasis di Kecamatan Pemenang, Lombok Utara, Nusa Tenggara Barat oleh pegiat kultural, aktivis media dan seniman sejak tahun 2010” (“an egalitarian non-profit organization initiated and run by cultural and media activists and artists in Pemenang District, North Lombok since 2010”).[1]

After discussing my research with the community, they told me they felt my research encouraged them to define what it is that they do as artists. Sibawaihi mentioned that being involved in the research and hearing about the findings has made them realize that what they do as artists is important for people around them. I saw their work as ‘art as activism’, while the community used art as a way to express their value in the society around them. This idea of ‘art as activism’ was based on the theories I had engaged with during my Master’s research, and it differed from the idea the research participants had of themselves. Yet they found it an interesting observation. For them, art is what they do—not just for the village community, but also from and by the village community. They rejected the term ‘activist’ to avoid being considered superior to other people in the village.

They were also interested in how research could be seen as a part of the “documentation of knowledge” that might be useful now or in the future. They saw my research as “an archive for what we do that can be consulted in the future”. Interestingly, they were curious about what my lecturers at my university thought of art. “Did your teachers agree with our definition of art?” one asked. In other words, Pasir Putih artists were engaged in knowledge production not only during the research process, but also after that.

Oka, one of the artists who was a research participant as he initiated a film screening project to re-engage village communities after the 2018 earthquake, said that he was interested in the term ‘ethnography’. He related the methodology to what they do as community artists, such as staying in different villages to screen films. From Oka’s perspective, living in communities for several months is key to an ethnographic research methodology, because it helps the researcher to understand the research subject by regarding their daily practices as well as through daily conversations. Yet he felt that my stay should have been longer for me to be able to get a better grasp of their activities.

From my perspective, it was fascinating to have follow-up discussions with the research participants and to learn that they also benefited from (if I can use this term) the exchange of knowledge during the research project. As some of them expressed in the discussion, the findings of the research help them to reflect more on their perspectives and practices as artists/activists in the community. In addition, they saw my research as “archiving initiatives” related to what they had been doing, although the language barriers (I wrote the thesis in English) meant most of them could not access what I wrote. I saw the discussion that emerged about their art perspectives and practices among the Pemenang village community when I revisited the site as an interesting dialogue between academic research and practices in the field. Furthermore, ‘revisiting the site’ can be seen as an attempt to create more equal relations between researchers and the research participants in the field.

If I think back to the fieldwork, however, I realize that it was difficult to make the artists fully engaged in the research and vice versa. Given the time constraints, it was difficult for me to be fully involved in their projects. The data mostly came from semi-structured interviews rather than informal conversations with the artists. This means that my initial plan to create more equal relations with the participants was not fully successful. Despite that, the observations of the artists’ daily activities enriched the findings from the interviews.


[1] http://pasirputih.org/tentang-organisasi/, accessed on 27 September 2019


Image: Lize Swartz

About the author:

Daya Sudrajat is a researcher and policy advocate in inclusive education issues based in Jakarta, Indonesia. She has a strong interest in knowledge production in marginalized communities and this led her to write a thesis about art as alternative development practice in North Lombok, Indonesia. She holds a MA degree from ISS Erasmus University of Rotterdam.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.