The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and natural disasters have left Filipino farmers reeling. Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) data show that agricultural output dropped by 1.7% in 2021.
Transport and logistical breakdowns, travel restrictions, a decrease in demand, and low volume of exports due to the pandemic have bled our farmers dry. Fuel price hikes arising from the Russia-Ukraine conflict will lead to higher transport and production costs, only worsening the agricultural sector’s conditions.
It is thus crucial to ask: Will our next President defend farmers’ interests and decisively implement interventions to address the many issues they face? More importantly, does our next chief executive have a track record of prioritizing the development of our agricultural sector?
In this piece, I will detail the Marcos family’s history with the agricultural sector, particularly the tobacco industry and tobacco farmers in Ilocos Norte.
The latest surveys have Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. as the current presidential frontrunner. Bongbong promises to restore the so-called “agricultural golden age” during the regime of his father, Ferdinand Marcos, Sr.
However, one does not have to dig deep to find the ways in which Bongbong Marcos and his family have failed to champion the interests of farmers in their own bailiwick, the Ilocos Region or the “solid North.”
The economy of Ilocos Norte, which has had a Marcos or close Marcos relative as its governor since 1971 (with the exception of Rodolfo Fariñas, who was governor from 1988-1998), is anchored on its agricultural sector and it is a major tobacco-producing province.
During the Senate interpellations of sin tax laws passed in the past decade, both Bongbong Marcos and his sister Imee Marcos staunchly opposed tobacco taxes, claiming to defend tobacco farmers and the tobacco industry in doing so.
This is how Marcos Jr. explained his opposition to the sin tax law on his website: “During his tenure as Senator, BBM was known to constantly defend the interests of tobacco farmers against the unreasonable and disproportionate increase in excise taxes on tobacco products. According to him, the imposition of unreasonable excise taxes would destroy the livelihood of tobacco farmers and the tobacco industry as a whole.”
However, since the implementation of Republic Act 10351 or the Sin Tax Law of 2012, local tobacco production increased even with substantial increases in excise taxes on cigarettes from 2013 to 2017. From 2013-2017, the average volume of tobacco production was 55,769 metric tons; this is 15,000 metric tons higher than the average volume of tobacco production from 2008-2012, which was only 40,479 metric tons.
Furthermore, Ilocos Norte’s tobacco farmers should actually benefit from the sin tax law, as the local government receives allocations from tobacco excise tax revenues, as mandated in Republic Act (RA) 10351. The law stipulates that 15% of the revenues from tobacco excise taxes must be split among major tobacco-producing provinces and allocated towards support for tobacco farmers. This includes financial support for displaced tobacco farmers, infrastructure projects like farm-to-market roads, and alternative livelihood programs.
The onus is on the local government units to use tobacco tax funds for the welfare of tobacco farmers. Sadly, while the Marcoses opposed the sin tax law in the guise of protecting the farmers, when the law was implemented, Imee Marcos was implicated in a controversy regarding the use of excise tax funds that were meant to go towards the farmers’ livelihood.
Ilocos Norte is the site of the 2018 tobacco excise tax funds controversy. To quote a Philippine Star story written by Audrey Morallo dated July 6, 2018:
“Ilocos Norte Gov. Imee Marcos and other officials of the province should be slapped with graft charges over their alleged involvement in the misuse of their share of tobacco excise taxes, a House committee recommended in its report.
“The House Committee on Good Government and Public Accountability said that Marcos and officials of the provincial government of Ilocos Norte should be held liable for the ‘highly irregular and illegal’ purchase of 110 units of Foton minicabs.
“‘With all premises considered, the committee has determined that the purchase of the subject vehicles by the PGIN was highly irregular and illegal,’ the committee said.”
According to the committee report, the purchases were allegedly made without public bidding, violating the Government Procurement Act, and were purchased from a direct contractor, Mark Chua. They were allegedly overpriced by P195,000 per unit, resulting in a total of P21.4 million in overpayment. (http://bit.ly/HR00882)
During the congressional probe on the matter, Ms. Marcos argued that these vehicles were used by tobacco farmers to transport products and thereby increase productivity. However, at the hearing, Representative Rodolfo Fariñas pointed out that one of the beneficiaries of the vehicles was the barangay captain of Barangay Tres in Laoag City, where tobacco farms are absent.
Farmers from other provinces in the Ilocos region also continue to suffer from issues that the local government could address through the proper utilization of tobacco tax revenues. A focus group discussion (FGD) held by Action for Economic Reforms (AER) and Social Watch Philippines in Ilocos Sur in 2018 showed that tobacco farmers desire support in the form of cash subsidies and loans to address their lack of initial capital for farming. Tobacco farmers are also vulnerable to health hazards due to exposure to uncured tobacco, are constantly in debt to tobacco manufacturers, and have difficulty switching to other crops because of the lack of a market for vegetables.
These concerns were echoed in a December 2021 focus group discussion by AER in Bacnotan, La Union, a province in the Ilocos region. Tobacco farmers in the area voiced a need for more support from the government. Notably, the group lamented the absence of a farm-to-market road. This forces farmers to carry tobacco by the side of the road, which adds to their fatigue and takes a toll on their health. Tobacco is a very difficult crop to farm, they said, comparing it to a child that needs to be nurtured, from planting to harvesting.
Farmers have no choice but to plant tobacco in La Union, they said. The lack of access to water in the province makes it difficult for them to fully switch to planting rice. And ever since the COVID-19 lockdowns, farmers have been restricted from directly selling to tobacco companies. They are kept in the dark regarding prices and unable to negotiate the prices of their product, which the farmers believe are too low. “Resibo na lang dinadala sa amin. Hindi namin alam kung paano ’yung grading ng tobacco namin (They just bring us a receipt. We do not know how they are grading our tobacco),” the farmers said.
When asked about their preferred presidential candidate, Bongbong Marcos won unanimously among the Ilocano farmers. “’Yung sinasabi nila na si Marcos daw ay tutulungan niya ’yung mga magsasaka. ’Yun ang gusto namin (What they say is that Marcos will help the farmers. That is what we want),” the farmers said.
When asked about what the Marcos family had done to help them, they were mostly silent, with some of them bringing up Ferdinand Sr.’s achievements.
We hope that if he is elected President, Marcos Jr. would live up to his promises of championing the rights of Filipino farmers. But the Marcos family has worked actively to block a crucial measure that has provided billions of pesos in subsidies for the welfare of tobacco farmers, has proven to lower smoking prevalence among Filipinos (from 31% in 2008 to 20.7% in 2018), and has generated enough revenue to triple the budget of the Department of Health.
We fear that a Marcos presidency would only enable regressive measures affecting health, revenues, and the economy, thus hurting the marginalized, including our farmers.
Pia Rodrigo is the strategic communication officer of Action for Economic Reforms (AER). AER is one of the civil society members of the Sin Tax Coalition, a network of advocates who supported the passage of the Sin Tax Reform Act in 2012.