Monday, January 30, 2017

Bicol farmers, irrigators’ groups divided on government’s free irrigation service

LIGAO CITY, Jan. 27 (PNA) -- The implementation of the government’s free irrigation service for farmers, which took off this month, has generated mixed reactions from farmers and members of various irrigators associations operating the various irrigation facilities in Bicol, said a top official of the National Irrigation Administration (NIA) in Bicol.

Eduardo Yu, spokesperson of NIA-Bicol, said thousands of irrigators association members expressed fears that the new found privilege given to the farmers would greatly affect the operation and maintenance of the facilities, which are currently being managed by different irrigators associations across the region.

He said NIA is caught in a bind since the abolition of the irrigation service fees was a campaign promise of President Rodrigo Duterte during the May elections.

On the other hand, most farmers and landowners welcomed the privilege of the “free irrigation fees” that used to be required by NIA.

They said it would be a “blessing” as the money intended for payment of the irrigation charges would be used to improve their farm lots.

“Malaking tulong ito sa aming pagsasaka dahil magagamit namin yong pera sa ibang bagay,” (this is a big help to us as we can use the money for other farm expenses) said Nelia Mantes, 62, a riceland owner from Barangay Mahaba in Ligao City.

She said in an interview that the savings generated from removal of the irrigation fee charges would also help cushion the impact of the very high cost of farm inputs being bought by farmers during planting seasons.

Mantes explained that every planting and cropping season, farmers are also burdened by the high operational and maintenance costs of their ricelands.

“This is also aggravated by the low market price offered by rice traders,” she said.

Mantes said rice traders are dictating the prices of palay by pegging the rice they buy from the farmers at P14 a kilo.

But she said farmers are discouraged from selling their produce to the National Food Authority (NFA), which offers a higher buying price at P18 per kilo, because of the strict requirements being asked by the agency.

Ariel Buenavente, a farmer and member of an irrigators association operating in this city, said the removal of the irrigation fee, which is called Irrigation Service Fees or ISF, would “possibly disband the association.”

He said the life of the association largely depends on the incentives the group gets in maintaining and operating the irrigation facilities.

Buenavente said the association has been seeing to it that the NIA’s irrigation facilities are well operated and maintained by keeping the irrigation canals in good shape and that the water facilities are flowing for their intended beneficiaries.

Peter Lavinia, NIA administrator, in an interview, admitted that the agency would be spending PHp2 billion a year as subsidy fund so various irrigation facilities across the country could be maintained.

He the government’s subsidy for the facilities would replace the nearly PHp4 billion it generates from the ISF it collects from millions of farmers.

Lavinia said with the implementation of the free irrigation charges, NIA’s budget would be adversely affected as NIA is a GOCC or a government-owned and controlled corporation.

He said NIA would lose around P13 billion in back accounts and collectibles for all irrigation fees and loan amortizations that arose from the operation of the communal irrigation systems.

“If mawawala itong ISF and ma-condone ang mga back accounts malaking kalugian ito sa NIA,” (It would be a great loss for NIA if ISF would be abolished and the back accounts condoned), he said.

Lavinia said NIA is currently operating on a PHP38-billion budget, from which PHp 12 billion goes to debt servicing.

NIA data indicates that there are 1.4 million hectares of irrigated lands that service 1.5 million farmers across the country.

Lavinia said he hopes that during Duterte’s term, that will end in 2022, NIA could attain the goal of “additional 380,000 hectares of irrigated farmlands.”

In Bicol, 240,000 hectares are irrigable lands, of which 58 percent or 140,000 hectares are irrigated that service 500 irrigators' associations in the region. (PNA) LAP/GVR/MSA/CBD