The Manila Times : A golden time during Marcos 1 period

By Jaime J. Yambao | The Manila Times

IN our belief, there are two reasons why Ferdinand Marcos Jr. decisively won the last elections on the promise of bringing back the good old days under the presidency of his late father. One, the country has been in a terrible situation because of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. No, not because of the way the outgoing Duterte administration governed until the coronavirus came to our shores, the Philippines' economic growth was one of the fastest in the world. The slide backwards was not only true of the country. The United Nations recently reported that for the first time in decades, the World Human Development Index fell, and global poverty levels increased considerably, especially among the poorest of the poor.

As for the other reason, those good old days did exist especially as you reminisce farther back in time. President Marcos 1 ruled so long there could be both good and bad things, successes and failures. Under the 1935 Constitution, the president had a term of four years and could be reelected for (just) one more term of four years. The Marcos era became a controversial one to historians from the moment President Marcos 1 desired to hold on to power beyond the constitutional limit. He declared martial law and had the Constitution changed, enabling him to rule as long as he wanted to.

There is, however, little controversy about the accomplishments of Marcos 1 during the time that he governed under the 1935 Constitution. In fact, he was the only Philippine president ever to be reelected. (The present Constitution gives the president only one term of six years.) Marcos 1 won an overwhelming mandate a second time for having produced more rice, roads and schools for the people than any president before him.

Later presidents might have equaled or even surpassed Maros 1's record in the building of infrastructures. The Build, Build, Build program of the outgoing administration seems to us more impressive, for instance, in the number and length of the highways and bridges realized. The incoming administration must finish whatever has been left unfinished by the outgoing in this respect. Indeed the program must be continued and expanded so that in the economic recovery ahead no people and region or province will be left behind. The Filipino people should be able to thrive wherever they are, without feeling compelled to migrate somewhere else whether within or outside the country.

Rice sufficiency

But the Marcos 1 era's accomplishment in rice sufficiency is unsurpassed by any administration before and after. The feat was literally golden because it was the first and only time locally produced rice was plentiful in the country, and gold of course is the color of rice after harvesting and before milling. We recall this golden time now because many fear a global food crisis looms, precipitated by Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine and the consequent Western sanctions on Russia. Russia has attacked or occupied the Ukrainian cities on the Black Sea in whose ports hundreds of millions of metric tons of wheat meant for shipment to countries in Asia and Africa are held up even now. On the other hand, the West's boycott of Russian oil and natural gas has raised the prices of these commodities, of fertilizers and other agricultural inputs based on their by-products, and of the cost of transporting food from point to point. People in Africa are already suffering the beginnings of a vast humanitarian disaster.

The last world food crisis in 2007-2008 did not spare us rice-eaters in Asia. Our rice-producing neighbors imposed a strict ban on the export of rice to ensure that their populations would have enough supply of rice and arrest the inflation of their staple food. Philippine authorities frantically knocked on the doors of these countries to get the ban on rice exports lifted and quickly learned that at such times friendship and interdependence among countries meant little; each country may care to the exclusion of other considerations the sustenance of its own people. The contention by some agricultural bureaucrats hereabouts that importing rice from neighboring countries more suited to planting rice was better than producing it locally might sound like good economics but the crisis proved that it is no guarantee of the Filipinos' food security.

By the time the crisis occurred, the Philippines was not only a net importer of rice but had become the world's largest importer! How could this have happened when Filipinos consider rice importation an embarrassment? By golly, the Philippines hosts the International Rice Research Institute and has a national rice research institute and many topnotch agricultural universities.

Besides, there was indeed a time when the Philippines produced not only enough rice for local consumers but promised to become an exporter of not just coconuts and bananas. This was after the then new Marcos 1 administration decided to embark on a program that would propagate precisely the products of the study and learning of the agricultural scientists for the betterment of the country's own agricultural economy and the welfare of its own rice farmers and consumers.

Rafael Salas

The program was entrusted to the late Rafael M. Salas as action officer who made use of the powers of his office as executive secretary and the full backing of the president and the vice president, Fernando Lopez, who was the agriculture secretary to rally all pertinent sectors of the Philippine government and society to empower and support the Filipino farmer in attaining rice sufficiency through the propagation of high-yielding varieties.

The program is clearly, fully and engagingly described in the new book The Life and Times of Rafael Salas by Jose Dalisay and Carmen Sarmiento on the basis of the journal where Mr. Salas recorded his daily activities as an action officer. The book was published by PopCom in a limited edition as a memorial tribute to the late executive director of the United Nations Fund for Population Activities. Hopefully, it will be made available commercially in bookstores. The book is about an interesting continuum that public administration practitioners and aficionados can learn and appreciate: Mr. Salas used in his UNFPA job the insights he accumulated from the Philippine rice program on the way people and governments, especially of developing countries, behave.

Key strategy

The key strategy of the program was to bring the farmer and government into a close and productive relationship characterized by mutual trust. Of central importance was respect for the farmers. "While many farmers verge on the illiterate and may be weak on the alphabet," said Mr. Salas, "they are still grown men who know rice growing and who are people of status in their communities. If they can be persuaded to use the new practices, then any fears of failure can be put behind." With local officials as operators, the program was largely based on dialogues of the action officer and his staff with farmers at the grassroots level. The discussions were always lively and decisions were quickly made. There were anecdotes about the action officer's zero tolerance for the incompetence, dishonesty and inefficiency of government personnel. A government officer who promised to deliver a facility to farmers on Monday must deliver it on Monday, not on Tuesday or any day other than that Monday or he got punished for his breach of promise.

Because the success of the program depended on the government retaining and buying 10 to 15 percent of the marketable rice to stabilize prices in such a way as to encourage the farmer to plant as much or more the next season, Mr. Salas rebuked the Rice and Corn Administration and related agencies after the farmers complained that the RCA was not buying enough or not at all and they were forced to sell the government's portion to foreign traders. After the RCA reasoned that Congress failed to release the funds intended for their buying the government's portion, Mr. Salas realized the solution to the stabilization of the rice prices was less government control and more power to the farmers. He urged the farmers to organize themselves into cooperatives. Mr. Salas enjoined program staff to be sensitive to social cultures and asked the Ateneo de Manila to conduct a study of cultural practices that affect the farmer's behavior. He underlined the important role of education and mass media in the shaping of farmer's attitudes. He asked the Department of Education to adopt a revision of the ditty "Magtanim ay 'di biro" (Planting is no fun) which conveys a contrary or positive message.

When Mr. Salas left the Philippines to work for the UNFPA, the country was producing more rice than it could consume. The success of the rice program in the Philippines drew worldwide attention and that was what led the UN to offer him his job at the helm of the UNFPA. It was to be expected that for the short term the Philippines would keep on producing more rice. The spectacular increase in production came from the priority provinces of the program. The provinces on the margins of the program could be expected to join the mainstream, and the priority provinces were capable of producing still more.

Slide back

Analyzing how the Philippines slid back to heavy importations was not within the scope of the book, and we have no space for it. Suffice it to say that it was just not enough for the farmer to plant rice and wait for the harvest (he must water it, he must beware of pests, and so on), the government to keep the momentum set by the program must continue to be attentive to the needs of the farmer. Suffice it to add that Mr. Salas said that martial law was no help. "While there was no policy of coercion in the farming communities to increase agricultural production, the curtailment of freedom of expression distorted the feedback from the agricultural areas, impairing the realistic appraisal of agricultural conditions. … The absence of legislative and electoral checks left the authorities unrestrained to allocate resources to unproductive sectors and to neglect in some years the sustained investment needed in agriculture."

Although, President Duterte once disowned the statement of his Secretary of Agriculture that the goal of Philippine agriculture was rice self-sufficiency as daydreaming or loose talk, the outgoing administration has actually pursued rice self-sufficiency as the goal of a rice program that bears the hallmarks of the rice program of the 1960s. If it has the Build, Build, Build program in infrastructure, it has a "Plant, Plant, Plant" program in agriculture founded on a close partnership between the farmer and government and government attentiveness to the needs of the farmer, to reducing his production costs and to maintaining prices of the staple that are attractive to the farmer and reasonable to the consumer.

The President's coyness about the goal of the program is understandable in view of the tremendous odds working against it. While in the 1960s the mouths to feed were in the 32 million, in the 2000s they exceeded 100 million. Agricultural lands have been reduced by urbanization, among other factors. There is, moreover, climate change: The country is visited more frequently by disastrous typhoons and here and there quite suddenly by drought and flooding. Rising ocean levels threaten to inject salinity into coastal farmlands. Despite the odds, the program has achieved increased yields year after year. It has not completely realized its 100-percent sufficiency target, but its recording sufficiency percentages between the higher 80s and 90s is nothing to sneeze at.

The incoming Marcos administration may also well continue with the outgoing's Plant, Plant, Plant program, ambition to reach 100 self-sufficiency, and limit importations to a minimum. There are factors that favor making this decision. The country has made considerable progress and can continue to do so in meeting the critical challenges that Mr. Salas said the rice program must face in the long run: agrarian unrest and a growing population. Agricultural scientists in the country continue to develop high-yielding varieties of rice able to adapt to changing environmental conditions. They have come up with a program mitigating and adapting to climate change. Agricultural technologists are developing what they call precision agriculture using satellite, drone and artificial intelligence technologies to enable farmers to undertake measures that will directly and effectively solve their problems. The members of the agricultural sectors can make use of the mobile phone to communicate useful information with each other easily and fast.