POSTSCRIPT / April 18, 2017 / Tuesday


Opinion Columnist

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Next: Overseas Filipino Warriors!

THERE could evolve soon a military variety of the OFW – the Overseas Filipino Warrior! — if the monarchs of three Middle East countries accept the offer made by President Rodrigo Duterte.

During his state visits last week to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar, President Duterte offered to send soldiers to those Gulf states if violence erupts in that region that has become home to more than a million Filipino workers.

Will the Filipino troopers be mercenaries, a peacekeeping force, or mere trainers or consultants? Who will pay them? No details or clear reactions from his Arab hosts were announced.

The President told Saudi Arabia King Salman Abdulaziz al Saud: “You have treated my countrymen good, you have somehow improved the education of the young because of the remittances of the money by the Filipino worker. We owe you a lot, and that is why I said we remain to be your ally. And we are by your (side) whatever it is there that needs an ally to do.”

During a business meeting Friday in Manama (Bahrain), the President said: “If you need us, you just call and if you want even, if things break loose, I hope it will not. I pray to God that it will remain fundamentally on the side of the Middle East this time. But there’s a violent activity going on. But we are ready to help you.”

How? He suggested: “If you need troops here, just in the borders for show, just put it in writing that they are here for training, but they can stay here if you want. If you want us to stay for a moment, fine. If you want to deploy us here, we will agree because of our national interest and the lives of the Filipinos.”

Mr. Duterte must have gotten carried away by his bizarre idea that he said he was prepared to send a battalion, a regiment and even a division of soldiers just to protect Bahrain. (He is not in the habit of reading from a prepared statement.)

In a forum in Doha (Qatar) the next day, Mr. Duterte repeated his assurance that Filipino troops were ready to “protect and defend” that country.

He said: “You can be sure that if you need us, we will come here. Do not worry about discipline… Just like any other army in the world, they are very disciplined. And they can fight. Fight our national interest here and to protect and defend you.”

But national security adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. told reporters last Sunday in Doha that there would be no “military operational deployment” to the Middle East.

“It would be on the basis of training which we have yet to set up,” he said. “This will probably take another six months to one year. This will be very selective and it will be probably based on specialized courses or trainings.”

Still, considering that the constitutional mission of the armed forces as the “protector of the people and the State” is “to secure the sovereignty of the State and the integrity of the national territory,” the President might benefit from a wider consultation before committing troops to countries far richer and capable than the Philippines.

• Cheaper to import than plant rice, but…

PICKING up the topic of food security discussed here last time, our source said importing rice looks cheaper than producing it. But with socio-political elements inputted, it would be odd for our agricultural country to be importing its grains requirements.

Rice management has always been tricky, demanding a perpetual balancing of the interests of consumers looking for low price and farmers seeking higher returns for their investments.

Our rice insufficiency is roughly 1 to 1.3 million metric tons each year, according to government figures. That translates to 1.6 to 2.1 tons of palay annually. But most experts say the shortfall is not insurmountable.

The long-term goal should be to subsidize the front end — which means improved irrigation, better quality seeds, and excellent extension services. The Agriculture department and local officials must work together to boost yield and farmers’ incomes. Overpricing irrigation, fertilizers and seeds must stop. Post-harvest facilities (dryers and milling) must be modernized.

Everybody knows all those good intentions, but we usually fail in the follow-through. Look at these comparative results: Vietnam produces 6.3 tons of palay per hectare (126 sacks), Thailand 4.5 tons (90 sacks), and the Philippines 3.8 tons (76 sacks).

We can try a scheme similar to Malaysia’s policy of producing 2/3 of consumption needs and importing 1/3. They determine which lands are suitable for rice (based on soil type, presence of water sources, etc.) and coax farmers in non-suitable areas to shift to rubber, palm oil, and such high-value alternatives.

• Hectarage of rice vs high-value crops

AGRICULTURE Secretary Manny Piñol is doing right by, among other things, ordering a product-soil match color-coded system. That is the first step in determining the optimum hectarage for rice versus high-value crops.

Government data show that most farmers are agrarian reform beneficiaries with average land size of 2-3 hectares. They can find rice to be a profitable crop with irrigation, good seeds (hybrid or certified), right mix of organic and chemical fertilizers, and application of better technology.

But National Food Authority distribution, following rice production, needs refining and the purging of corrupt elements. The NFA must pull itself out of the debt hole into which it has fallen despite its subsidy averaging P4 billion for the last eight years.

In the Arroyo administration’s last year, the subsidy was even doubled to P8 billion. In reaction to a price crisis at the time, the government palay-buying price was raised from P11 to P17 per kilo. But private merchants beat the NFA to it, paying at 18 to 20 per kilo.

If President Duterte opts for a government-to-government importation scheme, he better form an untainted group to deal with the foreign sellers, in full transparency, assisted by NFA career officials not beholden to the Administrator.

The FOB prices are already posted in the internet, ranging from $360 to $380 per metric ton, depending on the quality. Adding $40 maximum for all other costs, the landed cost is $400 to $420. That breaks down to a landed cost of around $20 or P1,000 per 50-kg sack, or P20 per kilo.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of April 18, 2017)

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