By Philip Jude Avorque Acidre
JUST AS THE DUST of the 2013 national and local elections began to settle, the National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB) released last July 26 2013 a report on the significant decline in the region’s economic performance. The said report showed that, Eastern Visayas suffered a 6.2% economic decline in 2012, largely attributed to the slow performance of industry and the agriculture sector. In a time when the national economy continues to grow by an aggressive 6.8% economic growth with other regions registering an economic growth ranging from one percent to 12.4% economic growth, the results tell differently of the economic situation in Eastern Visayas. Last year, in contrast to the national situation, the region’s gross regional domestic product (GRDP) nosedived by 8.3% from the 2.1 economic growth achieved in 2011 – the only region in the country to post negative growth in 2012.
What really happened to Eastern Visayas? NSCB’s Evangeline Paran explained that the drop in economic performance was mainly due to the 18.5% drop in the industry sector, which contributes 38.1% to the region’s GRDP, particularly attributed to the temporary shutdown in the operations of the Philippine Associated Smelting and Refining Corporation (PASAR), located in the region’s main industrial hub – the Leyte Industrial Development Estate (LIDE) in Isabel, Leyte. In addition, agriculture productivity dropped by 3% while fishing slipped further from -4.1% to -6.3%. As a result, the region’s per capita GRDP dropped by 7.3%, from ₱ 37,006 in 2011 to ₱ 34,305. In fact, the region’s GRDP is way lower than the national average of ₱ 65,904.
Taken all together, these economic figures can be summed up into one cause for concern – that despite the avalanche of government sponsored anti-poverty initiatives in recent years, Eastern Visayas is once more the country’s third poorest region in 2012, from being in the fifth place in 2009.
It would be difficult to come up with simple generalizations on what really caused the decline in the region’s economic performance last year. One thing is sure – there is more than one factor or sector that has caused the drop in economic productivity. But one can easily see through the NSCB finding the path that our local economic players must take – ensuring sustainable growth in the region’s industry and agriculture sector will bring a turnabout in the region’s economy.
The solution, although, not simple, is thoroughly elementary. First, we must increase agricultural productivity. More and more farmers should produce more and more crops and other agricultural products. There are so much potential gains that the region’s agriculture sector can afford. Eastern Visayas produces coconut, rice and abaca – one of the country’s top agricultural produce. Definitely, agricultural productivity redounds to the fact that we need to be more aggressive not only in providing farmers and fishermen with modern tools and equipment but also by upgrading their farming and fishing skills and knowledge. With a diversified coconut industry, for example, coconut farmers can earn more by trading not only copra but also other coconut-based products from coco fiber and geotextile to coco carbon made from coconut shells to the processing of coconut-based foot products such as coconut water. Increase in rice production can significantly contribute to help achieve, foremost, food sufficiency; rice being the staple of most, if not all Filipinos. Food sufficiency would mean, among other things, a balanced meal for every Filipino family – and an end to hunger, malnutrition and absolute poverty.
While the problems besetting the agriculture sector are numerous, we are not wanting of solutions. Eastern Visayas is host to two of the country’s best agriculture universities – Visayas State University in Baybay, Leyte and the University of Eastern Philippines in Catarman, Northern Samar. One would expect more innovative and creative approaches to farmer and fisher training since we would have easy access to modern agriculture techniques and technology. In the light of the passage of the 1997 Agriculture and Fisheries Modernization Act and the national government’s commitment to increased modernization in the agriculture sector should have provided the necessary farm inputs that would not only help farmers have more productive harvests but also enable them to bring their farm products to regional trade centers.
But there is one more missing ingredient needed to complete the menu for regional economic growth – an agri-based industry sector. More often than not, farmers are discouraged by the low and often unstable prices of their agricultural products. This pattern results in a skewed trading situation – prices of agricultural products are often dictated by buyers rather than sellers. The little income one gains from farming discourages further production. But if one looks at it closely, even the buyers, the traders themselves are tied to this imbalanced system. Not wanting to cover the costs of losses resulting from poor and unstable production, traders and processors tend to lower the buying price of raw agricultural products, much to the disadvantage of the poor farmer. Farmers, despite being at the forefront of food production experience poverty as a daily fact of life. Then again, the cycle never ends and with it, high poverty incidence and poor economic performance.
That is why the second solution is to upgrade the value of our local agricultural produce by more investments in the agri-industrial sector. An agriculture-based industry sector will not only boost the income of farmers and fishermen but will also strengthen the overall productivity of the agriculture sector. One would imagine that if Eastern Visayas had as much as many abaca processing plants as Bicol or or coconut oil mills as Southern Tagalog, we could have probably earned more than these regions who are well-known for these agriculture produce. Why? Because Eastern Visayas actually produces more abaca then Bicol and is the second coconut producing region in the country. But why are we way behind in actual economic gains in terms of our abaca and coconut products?
If there were more investments in agriculture-based industries, more of these processing plants and coconut oil mills, one can easily guess how many thousands of the people of Eastern Visayas can immediately be hired as workers and employees. With more people having a stable monthly income, there will be more opportunities for local entrepreneurs to start new businesses or expand their existing ones. With more and more money paid to more and more people, not only will the ordinary people’s capacity to buy food and their daily needs be ensured, but more importantly their capability to hope and achieve a better life for their families. More farmers and fishermen producing more food will not only make food cheaper and more affordable, it will also bring more income for their families. More children will be in school and thanks to a college or vocational degree, even more will have a better life in the future.
Somewhere along the path towards realizing this rosy picture of the region’s future, there are spots and spaces darkened by not a few challenges. In many instances, for example, local politics have refused to grow beyond partisan interests and thus missed several opportunities for inclusive economic growth. Rather than setting governance priorities based on long-term development targets, local politics seem to favor policies that strengthen patronage and allow corruption, with the agriculture sector being among those who are immediately disadvantaged. This results in more people getting trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty that spans generations and geography.
What role awaits government then in responding to this goal of inclusive growth? While it cannot and should not supplant the economic role of the private sector, the government should play an indispensable role of that being an enabler in the economic society. There are several opportunities by which the national government and even local governments can rightly play this role. For example, there is a need to identify and develop agri-industrial growth areas or economic zones where tax incentives would be in place to help attract investors who have the capital to start agri-based industries. Had the Eastern Visayas Regional Growth Complex (EVRGC) in Tacloban City been fully realized, many agriculture-based industries would have been drawn to locate in the regional capital – resulting in more income for the farmers, more jobs for the workers and more business enterprises and service-based establishments – more inclusive economic growth for the region.
The enabling role that government can and must play is much more than just that of a supporting cast. National government agencies are definitely in a unique position to help local governments create the right business environment that is favorable to agri-based small and medium enterprises – even to the extent of providing the extra push needed by way of loans and grants for farmers, fishermen and agri-businessmen. Local governments can always put the right mix of taxes and incentives that will make it easier for investors to start businesses yet in the long run ensure always that it would ultimately be of advantage to the local communities. Finally, only the government has the capacity to build the infrastructure – the roads, bridges, markets, irrigation canals and dams – all those needed to ensure not only to keep our farms productive but more importantly that our farm products are delivered as quickly and as safely as possible, from the farms to the processors to the markets and to our homes.
What have made Eastern Visayas the country’s third poorest? The answer is simple – we choose to miss every opportunity to embrace the wealth that is but in our own region’s backyard. Just look at our natural resources, at all of God’s wonderful creation around us – this cannot be the third poorest region in the Philippines. With the huge promise of our farms and seas and the largely untapped geographic advantage of being halfway to the nation’s capital and halfway to the southern island of Mindanao, there is surely much more that can be done, if our leaders and our people would only respond to the challenge. In a region composed of the rich islands of Leyte and Samar, there is no excuse to be poor. Sooner, not later, poverty must end. We can be rich, this nation’s richest, if so we choose to be.
Philip Jude Avorque Acidre from Barugo, Leyte is a youth leader at heart who strongly believes that young people of today can be effective and valuable agents in transforming Filipino society and active partners and important contributors to community development. An ex-future priest and an ex-future congressman, Jude looks still hopeful and inspired to do more for his generation, his Church and his country.
Check his blog at http://thinkingoutoud.wordpress.com/