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When I was still in high school more than 30 years ago, my  history class teacher, Miss Joy Herrera, made a strong point among 40 odd young minds. She declared that if the Philippines were to really progress, the government should focus on developing the country’s agriculture sector.

Surely, it was hit or miss for such a socialist concept to get ingrained in the minds of 14-year olds. But in the post-People Power era that promoted industrialization and modernization, Ms Herrera must have thought that teaching these young, impressionable boys to think differently from the establishment, let alone go against the wave of capitalist and oligarchical homogeneity that was sweeping society at that time, would eventually bear fruit in the future.

Today, we are still being force-fed the mindset that progress means building more roads and bridges, putting up gigantic malls and shopping centers, and developing any available open land into commercial and residential spaces. We are made to believe that in order to attain progress, the country’s infrastructure must catch up with the growing population of Mega Manila and other major urban centers.

And that building more infrastructure is the answer to all our problems as it will allow the country to finally become competitive in the global economy.

Unabated and ill-managed “development” in the guise of progress over the last 35 years has led us nowhere near the economic revolution that has been promised. At least not to those who still live in the provinces and continue to toil their land.

While there have been token achievements in the realm of agrarian reform and agriculture over the last three decades, there has yet to be a wholesale, all-out thrust to modernizing the sector. And we only need to look at one of the most basic components necessary for elevating the efficiency of our agriculture industry, the Farm-to-Market road, to see how medieval the countryside remains.

Republic Act 8435, or the Agriculture and Fisheries Act of 1997, mandates the Department of Agriculture to be on top of FMR projects. Despite this mandate, farmers in the countryside have yet to enjoy the full institutionalized support of the government.

In a recent Facebook post by former Department of Agriculture Secretary and Mindanao Development Authority Chair, now senatorial candidate, Manny Piñol, an estimated 10,000 kilometers of rural roads and bridges still need be built to “boost agricultural production and bring down the price of food to benefit consumers.” This, he says, is 4,000 kilometers less than what the Department of Agriculture had geo-mapped when he began his tenure at the DA in 2016.

As a farmer and agriculture advocate himself, he understood the necessity to connect the secluded bukid in the countryside with national roads so that farmers can gain access to sell their harvest. “Marami pang lugar sa Pilipinas na walang kalsada papunta sa mga bukid o tinatawag na Farm-To-Market Road at gumagamit pa ng kabayo o kalabaw ang mga magsasaka para mahakot ang kanilang mga produkto,” he says. He claims, had the country’s economic managers addressed the needs of the countryside as he proposed four years ago, all 14,000 kilometers would have been finished by now under Build Build Build. 

Stories of farmers carrying their produce on their backs, negotiating rough terrain on foot or on a habal-habal motorcycle, and taking hours each way to reach town just to sell their crops, are painful to hear.

The hardship these farmers continue to endure trudging through muddy, off-road trails that can put any 4×4 SUV to shame as the government diverts funding for such a basic service is tragic. The fact that it still happens today is criminal.

From Piñol’s perspective, there is a need to address the issue of food security. Farm-To-Market roads will make the lives of farmers, fisherfolk and even rural folk easier by creating convenient access points for transporting and selling produce. With easier and faster access to markets, he opines that prices of agricultural products such as rice, vegetables, poultry and fish will come down. But that is not all Farm-To-Market roads are good for. 

Rural folk whose towns now have cemented Farm-To-Market roads have managed to bring their travel times to the market down to 15 minutes. These rural roads also allow farmers and villagers to reach essential services located in the main town such as hospitals and schools in record time. 

Back when Mt. Pinatubo’s eruption caused massive lahar flows that damaged roads and bridges along MacArthur Highway in the early 1990s, Farm-to-Market roads became the alternative routes to reach the north. Before the Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway, people who wanted to go Pangasinan, Baguio, or even Ilocos  would even pass through the Farm-to-Market roads that criss-crossed rice fields in Magalang, Pampanga, La-Paz, Pura and Victoria, Tarlac. 

Even hidden gems such as mountain passes, hiking trails, waterfalls, rivers, lakes, beaches and other potential tourist spots can be accessed easier with a network of Farm-To-Market roads. A spike in tourism can create small cottage industries and  provide jobs to the countryside. This can even dissuade locals from travelling to Metro Manila to search for greener pastures. Much the same result if local agricultural ventures with accompanying infrastructure and services are set up in the provinces.

The projected P9 trillion-Build Build Build program is supposed to be this government’s flagship infrastructure undertaking. The next Golden Age of Infrastructure of the Philippines, it says. While the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA), the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), and the Department of Agriculture  have included some Farm-to-Market roads in the program, there is still a backlog that needs to be addressed. 

Developing the countryside by making it easier for the agriculture sector to flourish is nipping the problem in the bud. While there is a systematic way of addressing the needs of farmers, building  Farm-To-Market roads can be the first step towards attaining self-sufficiency and achieving social equity.

We have yet to fully address the needs of our farmers in the countryside. Is it any coincidence then that we have yet to fully progress as a nation? Perhaps my high school history class teacher was right after all.

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