POSTSCRIPT / February 13, 2003 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Land distribution is not agrarian reform

TORTURE TRAIL: Here’s good news for fellow suffering motorists who have to risk their lives and wreck their cars, and pay for it!, on that torture trail called the North Luzon Expressway.

The Manila North Tollways Corp., which has a contract to finance, modernize and operate the 84-kilometer highway from Balintawak, Quezon City, to Mabalacat, Pampanga, says that in 24 months we will have a First World expressway in this Third World country!

Ground-breaking yesterday in Mexico town signaled the start of non-stop 24-hour three-shift work on the first of the three phases of the mammoth project costing $371 million (around P18.5 billion).

President Arroyo has been promised by the concessionaire (MNTC), one of whose members is the Lopez Group, that many of the additional lanes will be open before her term ends in 2004.

The original stretch of the expressway (then called the North Diversion Road) was only up to Tabang in Bulacan. Then President Marcos extended the road to Angeles, placing the exit toll plaza well ahead of the end of the highway just so the toll gates would be exactly at kilometer post #77.

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MODERN FEATURES: The Balintawak toll plaza will be expanded by MNTC to 20 toll booths and moved back 900 meters to give it a bigger holding space. A flyover will be built in the area to sort traffic. Pedestrian traffic and the loading/unloading of passengers at the fenced-off approach will be banned.

The lanes from Balintawak to Valenzuela will be increased from three to four on each direction, from two to four lanes from Valenzuela to Burol, and from two to three lanes from Burol to Sta. Rita.

There will be high-tech traffic surveillance, as well as electronic and manual toll collection. More rest areas and emergency parking bays will be opened, and call boxes installed every one or two kilometers. Assistance is always within 20 minutes away.

Now, why didn’t they think of this earlier?

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MISLEADING MATH: A new Cabinet member claiming to know the contracting business blurted out in one Palace meeting that the North expressway project is overpriced. Having been burned by the overpricing scandal in the building of the Pasay-Paranaque coastal road named after her late father, President Arroyo was taken aback.

Nobody told the President that the excitable Cabinet man simply divided the total project cost of P18.5 billion by 84 kilometers, the distance between Balintawak and Mabalacat, and came up with an exaggerated per-kilometer cost.

The lane length is certainly not just 84 kilometers, because this is not a one-lane road but is as wide as eight lanes on both directions in some parts. The contract entails the rehabilitation of 339 kilometers and the building of 93 kilometers of new lanes for a total of 432 (not 84) lane kilometers.

And then, the project cost covers not only the road itself but also the high-tech surveillance and toll system, bridges, toll plazas and buildings, among other structures.

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FARMER SELLING OUT: Agrarian Reform Secretary Obet Pagdanganan likes to tell the story of a farmer in Bulacan who approached him some years back offering to sell his farm.

Pagdanganan asked the farmer why he wanted to sell the land when it was his sole means of livelihood. The farmer told him that that was his only chance of improving his family’s lot. He had a point.

It was 2001. The production cost of unmilled rice, or palay, was something like P7 per kilogram, while the prevailing selling price was P8. On a good year, a farmer harvests twice, producing an average of 100 cavans (50 kilograms per cavan) per hectare, per harvest.

The farmer who wanted to sell his land owned two hectares. Thus, on a good year, he would earn P20,000 from his two hectares, harvesting twice.

Based on official family income and expenditure surveys, the prevailing poverty threshold income in 2001 was P69,578 per year for a family of five. Even on a good year, the farmer is mired way below the poverty line. Needless to say, he’s mired even deeper on bad years.

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FORCED TO SELL CHEAP: Actually, farmers able to produce palay at P7 per kilo in 2001 were better off than most of their fellow tillers considering that, according to an agriculture department consultant, the cost of producing unmilled rice at that time was P7.45 per kilo. At that production cost, a farmer with two hectares would earn only P11,000 in two harvests.

True, the National Food Authority (NFA) buys palay at higher prices ­- in 2001 NFA’s buying price was P9.25 per kilogram as against the P8 of private traders. The NFA price would have given our farmer an annual income of P45,000 from his two hectares. The problem is the NFA has funds to buy, at most, only five percent of the national rice production.

Thus, farmers have no choice but to unload the bulk of their produce to grains dealers.

To continue with the anecdote, the farmer told Pagdanganan his plan was to pay his debts and start fresh, using whatever would be left from the sale proceeds as capital for a small business. A gamble, but, at least, he would have a shot at improving his life, as compared to spending his lifetime in back-breaking work with nothing but perpetual bondage to poverty to show for it.

As our farmer painfully experienced, land ownership is not a sure-fire antidote to poverty.

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EMANCIPATION: The anecdote is noteworthy in the light of Pagdanganan’s mission at DAR, which is to elevate the agrarian reform program to its next level.

The first level was land distribution -­ the “liberation of farmers from the bondage of the soil”. Fifteen years after the enactment of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law (signed by President Cory Aquino in July 1987), the distribution is 75 percent complete.

While there will be no letup in the awarding of lands to beneficiaries, the focus of DAR shall be on the next level ­- “liberation from the shackles of poverty.”

This level boils down to what agrarian reform is all about, as then President Diosdado Macapagal pronounced when he signed Rep. Act No. 3844, the Agricultural Land Reform Code, in 1963 -­ “Let this signing be recorded in our annals as an act of emancipation of the toiling farmer from his slavery to debt, poverty and misery, and for his dignification as a human being and as a citizen.”

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COOPERATIVE WAY: Pagdanganan’s passion for cooperativism makes him tailor-fit as point man in the next level of agrarian reform implementation.

Cooperativism enables farmers, as well as other poor sectors, to help themselves become part of a strong middle class engine for economic growth.

The new DAR secretary is recognized as “Father of modern cooperativism” being the prime mover of the cooperative movement in various capacities as Bulacan governor, director-general of the Aquino government’s Kabisig Movement, president of the League of Provinces and chair of the Union of Local Authorities of the Philippines.

Under him, Bulacan gained prominence as the country’s cooperatives showcase. In his three terms as governor, the number of cooperatives grew from 52 to 975, with total assets rising from P78-million to P2.7-billion.

Pagdanganan was initially tapped by GMA as presidential adviser on cooperatives, subsequently appointed chairman of the Cooperative Development Authority (CDA), with Cabinet rank.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of February 13, 2003)

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