MANILA — Senators Raffy Tulfo and Cynthia Villar figured in a heated exchange early morning Thursday during the Senate's deliberation on the Department of Agriculture's (DA) proposed 2023 budget, forcing Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri to pause the session to diffuse the spat.
Villar, chairperson of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, was tasked to defend the DA's proposed P163.7-billion budget for 2023.
During his turn to interpellate Villar, Tulfo immediately criticized the DA's "corruption-ridden" farm-to-market road (FMR) project allegedly abused by "influential politicians."
According to the DA's website, FMRs seek to "connect agricultural and fisheries areas to markets, allowing producers to transport their goods to traders and consumers with relative ease... to develop the countryside and achieve economic growth."
But Tulfo said this was not the case in some areas.
"Tadtad po ng korapsyon itong farm-to-market road at nagagmit ng maiimpluwensyang politiko... Sa maniwala kayo sa hindi maraming mga insidente sa mga probinsya kung saan hindi po sila yung rice o vegetable producing town and yet sila po ay tadtad ng tinatawag na farm-to-market project," Tulfo said.
"Meron pa ngang biro-biro na marami dyan sabungan-to-market road, subdivision-to-market road, or sinasabi pa nilang private resort-to-market road," he added.
(This farm-to-market road program is riddled with corruption and used by influential politicians. Believe it or not, there are many incidents where towns which are not rice or vegetable-producing have so many farm-to-market projects. There are jokes about cockpit-to-market road, subdivision-to-market road, and even private resort-to-market road.)
Tulfo then asked Villar about DA's method in classifying potential FMR areas.
"Paano malalaman ng DA na yung FMR na ni-request ng isang maimpluwensyang, mayamang politiko ay makikinabag ay mga farmers at hindi sa personal na interes ng politiko?"
(How does the DA determine that the FMR requested by an influential, rich politician would benefit farmers instead of serving the politician's interest.)
Villar explained that the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), which implements the project, has a drone technology that can asses potential FMRs. Villar's son Mark is a former DPWH secretary and now senator.
"So kung nagsabwatan po ang DA at DPWH, tapos na ang taumbayan," Tulfo remarked.
(So if the DA and DPWH collude, the public is done for.)
FARMLANDS TO SUBDIVISIONS
The debate turned even more personal when Tulfo raised the issue of food security due to "shrinking" farmlands, as he blamed big-time developers that convert agriculture areas into subdivisions and commercial spaces.
"Lumiliit nang lumiliit ang ating farmland, binibili po ng malalaking developer at ginagawang commercial at residential land. Ano pong ginagawa ng DA dito?" Tulfo asked.
(Our farmlands keep getting smaller, big developers buy them and convert them into commercial and residential land. What does the DA do about this?)
In response, Villar defended her family's business empire.
"Alam niyo that's our business, I want to tell you we don't buy agricultural land in the provinces... We limit ourselves in cities and capital towns," she said.
Villar and her family own Vista Land, considered the largest homebuilder in the Philippines, which operates Camella Homes, Lumina Homes and others. The family also has an expansive interest in property development and mall chains, among others.
"They allow conversion in cities and capital towns because if they (developers) buy your land, they buy it expensive and you can reinvest the money and they will make more money than planting on those lands... It's an investment decision... You have to understand agriculture as a business also," Villar explained.
"Where will the people live if you don't build subdivisions," Villar added.
Villar and her family have been accused of destroying forests and rice fields as they expand their empire of malls, subdivisions and condominiums across the country.
“’Yung sinasabi na huwag i-convert ang farmland para magtayo ng bahay at ng factory, mali ’yun," Villar said in a 2020 Senate hearing.
(It is wrong to say that farmlands can’t be used to build houses or factories.)
“We need to build small homes for Filipinos para hindi naman sila squatter, and we need to build factories para may trabaho... Bakit ipagbabawal ’yun, importante din ’yun sa ekonomiya.”
(We need to build small homes for Filipinos so that they will not become illegal settlers, and we need to build factories to generate jobs. Why should we ban it when it is also important to the economy?)
Since 1988, some 16,000 hectares of agricultural land in the country have been converted for other uses, according to data from the Department of Agricultural Reform.
DAR said it received applications for land conversion for a total area of 19,300 hectares. Around 13,000 were converted to residential lands, while nearly 1,900 hectares were used for socialized housing, and another 1,200 hectares were turned into commercial land. Denied applications to covert agriculture land covered around 3,100 hectares.
No application for land use conversion has been approved under the present administration, said DAR Secretary Conrado Estrella.
RICE TARIFFICATION LAW
During Thursday's deliberation, Tulfo also brought into the debate the controversial Rice Tariffication Law authored by Villar, saying the law drove desperate farmers to just sell their lands due to failure to compete with cheaper imported rice.
"Kasi nga po yung mga farmers dahil sila'y naghihikahos, they're being taken advantage of lalo na po may tinatawag na rice tarification so mura po yung mga bigas so they cannot compete. And papasok itong mga negosyate at mag-o-offer para bilhin ang kanilang mga lupain. Of course, walang choice ang farmers kundi ibenta ang kanilang lupa," Tulfo said.
(Because farmers are destitute, they are being taken advantage of, especially since there is so-called rice tariffication, so rice is cheap and they cannot compete. Businessmen then come in and offer to buy their land. Of course, farmers have no other choice but to sell their land.)
But Villar said she does not feel any guilt since the law benefits small-scale farmers.
"I don't feel any guilt to the small farmers. All the money that came from the Rice Tariffication Law were given to the small farmers owning 2 hectares and below," she said.
Villar further explained: "If we don't liberalize the importation of rice, World Bank will bring down our credit rating and we have plenty of loans abroad and we have to pay higher interest for those loans so it will be a lost for Philippine government."
The Rice Tariffication Law was approved in 2019 after rice prices spiked in previous years. While the surge in imported rice brought down prices for consumers, many farmers groups said the measure also reduced their incomes and they found it difficult to compete with cheap imports.
Zubiri cut off the interpellation when Tulfo raised the need for the passage of the National Land Use Act, which Villar disagreed with.
After the break, Tulfo ended his interpellation but promised to hold a privilege speech regarding the proposed law.
At around 2:40 a.m., the budget of DA and its attached agencies was "deemed submitted" to the Senate. — With a report from Lady Vicencio, ABS-CBN News