‘Attacks, weak policies to kill banana industry’

Unreliable government policies that disregard established practices and contracts, extreme weather phenomena and the continuing attacks and extortion activities of communist insurgents in Mindanao are among the factors that could further weaken the banana industry, which was once one of the strongest drivers of the country’s economy.

Stakeholders in the export fruit industry have expressed growing concern over the atrocities committed by New People’s Army (NPA) rebels against banana and other fruit plantations in Mindanao, despite a much-ballyhooed temporary ceasefire reportedly forged between government and communist peace negotiators in the Netherlands.

They have also lamented the attempts by officials of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) to scuttle legitimate and valid agribusiness venture deals between banana plantation developers and agrarian reform beneficiaries (ARBs), in blatant disregard of President Duterte’s policy of honoring all contractual obligations of the government.

“We used to be the world’s second largest banana producer and exporter next to Ecuador. But today the Philippines has been edged out by Costa Rica. Ironically, this could be the best time for us to recover because of the increasing demand from large markets like China, but unpredictable state policies are pulling the industry down,” said Antero Sison, Jr., president of Marsman Estate Plantation Inc. (MEPI).

Worrisome statistics

The country’s export earnings from banana plunged to $440 million in 2015, down by about 60 percent from $1.1 billion in 2014.

“We can learn to cope with extreme weather phenomena like the El Niño and the La Niña by applying and developing climate-resilient technologies,” Sison said. “But no technological application can be developed against the inconsistency of DAR policies,” Sison said.

Hernando Rivero, a member of the Davao Marsman Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries Development Cooperative (DAMARBDEVCO) said “DAR officials, whether deliberate or not, have been contributing to the decline of the banana industry, which has helped tens of thousands of agrarian reform beneficiaries significantly improve their living standards and that of their families.”

The DAMARBDEVCO has forged an agribusiness venture agreement with MEPI, which donated the land cultivated by members of the cooperative.

Agribusiness venture agreements (AVAs) betw een cooperatives formed by ARBs and banana plantation developers are among the most successful partnerships in the agriculture sector. The AVAs have enabled banana growers to earn more than farmers planting rice or other crops.

DAR secretary blamed

Sison said the DAR appears to be unconcerned over the plight of banana ARBs when its head, Secretary Rafael Mariano, ordered a blanket review of all AVAs or leaseback agreements despite these deals already upheld as legal, fair and aboveboard by government authorities and the courts.

The DAR has been after the cancellation of the AVA between MEPI and DAMARBDEVCO.

“It saddens us to think that the DAR doesn’t care whether our ARBs and other workers in our plantation lose their jobs. Their officials are indifferent to their plight and couldn’t care less if our farmers and their families go hungry,” Sison said.

Extortion

Hernani P. Geronimo, spokesperson of Lapanday Foods Corporation (LFC) said that “the DAR’s move to break legitimate AVAs that have enabled many ARBs to earn better than decent wages and that have provided well for their families, doesn’t just violate the non impairment clause contained in Section 10, Article III of the Constitution, it also apparently has emboldened the communist insurgents to continue with their extortion activities and attacks against banana plantations.”

He said “the attack launched by this lawless armed group last April 29 against two of LFC’s packaging plants and a farm, all in Davao City, did not only leave almost 1,000 workers jobless, but it also displaced allied businesses that relied on the operations of our packaging plants. It also deprived Davao City and the national government of taxes that contribute to the well being of the nation.”

“This lawless armed group appears to be mocking President Duterte because many of the atrocities were committed in his home city of Davao. The attack on our plants will affect the export capability of the Davao region, as pointed out by Maria Lourdes D. Lim, the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) REGION XI director, since Lapanday is one of the biggest producers of Cavendish bananas in Davao,” Geronimo said.

“To make matters worse, when a group claiming to be ARBs earlier camped out outside our farm with the intention to forcibly entering them, there were indications that the local DSWD was indirectly abetting them as there were reports that they were provided food that were allegedly bought with government money,” Geronimo added.

Political whims

Alex Valoria, president and CEO of the Tagum Agricultural Development Co., Inc. (TADECO) said on top of contending with NPA atrocities and unpredictable policies, the banana industry also has to deal with political concerns.

Valoria was referring to the quarrel betwe en Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez and Rep. Antonio Floirendo Jr., which has dragged TADECO, owned by the Floirendo clan, into the mess. Alvarez’s feud with Floreindo has prompted him to brand the joint venture deal between TADECO and Bureau of Corrections as illegal and demanded that the Department of Justice investigate the agreement.

TADECO and the BuCor have a decades-long joint venture agreement to develop the Davao Prison and Penal Farm into a banana plantation primarily to help rehabilitate inmates and prepare them for reintegration into society.

“Our joint venture agreement with BuCor is a successful model for rehabilitating inmates who get to earn decent incomes that help them provide for their families while serving their sentences. This is a legally binding agreement that has proven to be aboveboard by the Congress, the Executive Branch and the courts.

This arrangement would not have lasted this long if it has not been proven to be beneficial for all the parties concerned — the government, TADECO and the inmates being rehabilitated inside the Davao penal farm,” Valoria said.

“Now, all of a sudden, the JVA is being branded as void and illegal based on some legal hocus-pocus meant to satisfy political whims,” he said.

“We cannot accomplish our goal of maintaining the global competitiveness of our banana industry if the government itself is the one sabotaging us. Investors can just pack, leave and relocate elsewhere. The ultimate losers here are the workers and their families,” Valoria added.