These past weeks, women all over the country have been swooning over a mysterious young Filipino farmer, who was photographed carrying baskets filled to the brim with carrots. Netizens were quick to dub him “Carrot Man”. He was later identified as 21 year-old Jeyrick Sigmaton, who hails from Bauko, Monamon Sur, Mountain Province.
Read: Who is Carrot Man and why is he so damn hot?
The photos showcased the rugged good looks of Cordilleran men with sharp noses, clear complexions, and ruddy cheeks. More importantly, it put into focus the back-breaking work famers in the Cordillera have to endure to put food on their tables.
According to Romeo Dongeto, Executive Director of the Philippine Legislators’ Committee on Population and Development, 80% of poverty in the country occurs in rural farming and fishing communities.
The trading post in La Trinidad, Benguet
Farmers have to contend with draught, poor irrigation systems, lack of land ownership, and weather disturbances. But since December last year, another burden has fallen on the already heavy loads of farmers like Sigmaton.
According to Agusta Balanoy, Head of the Benguet Farmers’ Marketing Cooperative, Filipino farmers are now suffering from the effects of the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (AFTA), which was fully implemented in December 2015. Signatories to the AFTA are Brunei, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, and the Philippines.
Under the AFTA, no import and export duty taxes are to be imposed on items traded between participating countries upon its full implementation.
“In the AFTA, there should be an exchange of goods. But what happened is the other countries came out with lists that limit the products that they will allow entry into their countries. The Philippines opened everything,” Balanoy said in an interview with theAsianparent.
“The Philippines is an open port. Everything is coming in—legal and illegal,” she said. To make matters worse, Balanoy added, the country is also importing vegetables that are already locally produced. She cited the importation of stringed beans, pechay, broccoli, and cabbage, to name a few.
“Vietnam has almost the same climate as ours, so their cabbages look and taste exactly like ours,” Balanoy revealed.
A screenshot of a presentation by Balanoy shows Vietnam and Philippine cabbages
The influx of imported vegetables, she said, has forced local farmers to sell their goods below production cost, stressing that the flooding of fresh produce in local markets is not due to overproduction as the volume of local production has remained the same.
Cordillera ships 3 tons of assorted vegetables to the South per trip. Lately though, the volume has gone down to 1.5 tons per trip due to the fact that there are no more bulk orders coming from the area.
Balanoy revealed that carrots, for one, are selling for as low as PhP 8, and as high as PhP 13 per kilo. Production cost, however, is PhP 17 to Php 18 a kilo.
In January to early February, carrot farmers incurred even greater losses as they were strained to sell the produce at only PhP 3.70 per kilo.
Find out what other industries have suffered from this agreement, on the next page.
And it is not just the vegetable industry that is feeling the negative impacts of AFTA. The copra industry is also suffering. Copra, Balanoy said, used to sell at PhP 18 per kilo. It is now down to PhP 9 per kilo.
Corn and palay have likewise been affected.
Romeo Wagayan, a cabbage farmer, once gave away his cabbages for free when selling price for cabbage reached PhP 1 per kilo. Some farmers in Lam-ayan, Buguias also opted to leave their produce to rot in the fields.
A Cordilleran loading produce into a jeep
The AFTA was signed among the participating countries in 1992 during the term of then President Fidel Ramos. It provided for a fixed period of gradual downward preferential tariffs or “a tariff schedule under which one or more nations are given lower rates or other advantages over others.”
“Since the time of Ramos to full implementation in 2015, the Philippines should have been preparing. But no preparation was done until the last minute,” Balanoy said, citing the poor conditions of farm-to-market roads and absence of packaging and processing facilities, among others.
The lack of facilities for packaging and processing means that locally produced vegetable cannot pass the rigid standards to qualify for exportation. She added that while the Benguet Agri Pinoy Trading Centre (BAPTC) was unveiled in November last year, “nothing is working properly.”
In addition, there is currently no agri pinoy center in Metro Manila, which is the biggest market for Benguet vegetables, accounting for 700,000 to 800,000 of the country’s vegetable demand.
The Cordillera produces an average of 1.2 million kilos of assorted vegetables a day.
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