By LOUI GALICIA
ABS-CBN Europe News Bureau
A group of seafarers in The Netherlands is urging the Philippine government to look at how they solved a rice shortage in a small town in Mindanao so that it can be duplicated to remedy the rice crisis in the Philippines, ABS-CBN Europe News Bureau reported.
The PASALI Foundation (Philippine Association of Sea-based Workers for Savings, Loans and Initiatives), which was founded in 1994 by seamen who wanted to secure their future, said the group has been successful in investments in rice farming and fishing in Sultan Kudarat province.
PASALI shared with ABS-CBN Europe News Bureau its success story in Palimbang town to serve as a model and inspiration to the government and their fellow seafarers.
The group said that while it has fairly been successful, it also suffered setbacks since its founding.
The worst was in 2001 when it had to close a booming remittance business because the 9/11 attacks resulted in a rigid policy and PASALI couldn’t meet stricter requirements that the Dutch government had imposed.
At the same time, PASALI's telephone card business had to close because the company that supplied the cards went bankrupt and ceased its operations in the Philippines.
Despite the setbacks, members believed that where there is bad luck, there is good luck, so they decided to shift their investments to the Philippines.
Back on their feet
The amount that was left from their funds was placed into a micro-credit facility. It has become the key to the prosperity that Palimbang now enjoys and which has also secured the future of their members.
"The investment was small. We helped a Muslim-Christian vendors’ group in Cotabato City put up a micro-credit facility. That was in 2001 when micro-credit wasn’t even being talked about," program manager Nonoy Ty said.
In the succeeding year, PASALI ventured into fishing and rice planting.
"At that time, there was already a rice shortage in Palimbang. But now there is an oversupply there. We definitely had something to do with that. We introduced sustainable agriculture and a system of rice intensification. Because of that, the place’s rice supply is always ample," Ty said.
Problem seen 10 years ago
Ty said that as early as 10 years ago they already noticed a problem in the politics of rice in the Philippines.
"We were talking about that 10 years ago and asked how come Vietnam was already investing in special machinery designed for rice production. We asked if we couldn’t do the same thing and that is what I reported to PASALI members, and I said in Palimbang as in other places, they were about 30 years behind," Ty said.
In fact, when he first went to Palimbang in 2001, Ty said he had already seen a rice shortage in the area, especially since it was just recovering from a war between the Muslims and Christians.
And Ty explained that the irony was that there was so much land to till yet there was no rice being planted in Palimbang.
Helping farmers help themselves
So PASALI decided to invest in the region through micro-credit financing, helping farmers get credit to buy the resources to start tilling the lands and planting rice.
"When I went back to the Netherlands, I suggested to my friends that we invest half of our capital in rice, although not on an ordinary credit basis but on a micro credit one because the people there lacked money and machinery. In the rural areas they don’t even have pliers or a small screw driver so how much more for machinery? I saw lots of machinery just lying idle and going to rust Palimbang was far from the town proper and these could not be repaired," Ty recounted.
He said that at present, PASALI has around 1,000 hectares of rice fields and they are harvesting enough each season, making the citizens of Palimbang a contented and happy rice-eating group.
Investment in machinery
Ty criticized the Philippine government for failing in the rice race because the Philippines is behind other Asian countries such as Vietnam, China and India, in terms of employing machines to plant rice as against manual planting by Filipino farmers.
PASALI suggested that the government start investing in machinery that would help speed up the process of planting rice and its eventual harvest because as he has seen in other countries, it is the most efficient way to ensure a steady supply.
After all, machines are faster and stronger than men, it said.
From PASALI’s first-hand experience with farmers, the group also found out that so many third-generation farmers stopped becoming farmers because of the danger to their health caused by pesticides and herbicides.
"It’s been proven from the farmers we talked to. Their fingers are ruined or their lungs are affected so even if they do yield big harvests and have a large output, it’s not a long-term thing because their health is ruined. So the succeeding generations do not want the same lives and do not want to become farmers," PASALI project engineer Felix Pulmano said.
Pulmano explained that the consequence of this is that farmers sell their lands because they do not want to be exposed to these health hazards, contributing to the decline in rice plantations and therefore to the dwindling supply of rice.
PASALI also owes half of its success to the donations, which are in kind, coming from The Netherlands.
The group has received a lot of donated machineries and equipment and has already sent them to the Philippines.
PASALI reiterated its advice to the government to start thinking seriously about investing in technology because it will not only help the farmers but because there is also a spiritual side to it.
PASALI, meanwhile, has unwittingly also contributed to the government’s peace initiatives in Mindanao.
"We did not know that what we were doing became part of the peace initiative. If the stomachs of the Muslim people were full and they didn’t go hungry and they had work, they had no time for war. And more so because the Christians were in the same situation," Pulmano said.
But most of all, the group is proud to have contributed to decreasing the "brain drain" in the Philippines by actually encouraging more and more seafarers to return or retire and invest in the country.
PASALI believes that there are more and more skilled and talented Pinoys out there who are working as seafarers and they want to encourage them and other migrants too, to follow their footsteps.
"We will be able to encourage other migrants, especially seamen who are highly skilled to do what we did in Mindanao. That is our challenge. I hope we are successful in this and later are able to serve not only farmers but also fishermen," Ty said.
"I have been a seaman for a long time so I know there are many Filipino seamen who are highly skilled, probably they number in the tens of thousands. We can turn whatever skills they learned to good purpose like improving our rice-farming technology. In India, Vietnam, China, they have machinery which they made themselves and all these have an impact on their rice production," Ty said.