By Pet Melliza
The “accident” in Calinog town is no accident. It is a disaster-waiting-to-happen as Iloilo’s agriculture deepens its dependence on chemicals.
Fifteen farmers of that town, 60 kilometers north of Iloilo City, fell ill; one of them, a child, succumbed later. The culprit: chemical sprays that contaminated their shallow well.
Survivors said they fell ill after eating “garangan” (starfruit)_ and “iba” (kamias) but Calinog mayor Alex Centena declared on air morning of October 17 that health workers sent to Brngy. Bado and adjoining Brgy. Dalid, found out that the victims drew drinking water from a common source, a shallow tube well contaminated with chemicals.
Ten of the casualties came from Brgy. Bado, five kilometers from the poblacion while five, including the lone fatality, from Dalid.
“There were heavy spraying activities within one-kilometer radius from the well a week earlier,” said Centena. The tube well consisted of only nine concrete tube culverts, or about 18 feet deep. The chemicals must have seeped down the underground source due to heavy rains the past days. Centena said that farmers were preparing the soil for the next rice cropping by spraying “power” herbicides, which are the milder versions of Agent Orange that the US forces sprayed on Vietnam during the war there, to defoliate jungles and deprived guerillas of cover.
Herbicides are considered “less toxic” compared to pesticides in that the former target only weeds, not humans or animals. Their ancestor, Agent Orange, continues to exact its toll today on Vietnamese and US veterans sent to Vietnam though the war was over in 1975, in deformed children who never saw the war themselves.
The Province of Iloilo since the early ‘90s has been organizing “farmers’ field schools” (FFS) since the first tour-of-duty of Gov. Arthur D. Defensor, Sr (1991-1995; 1995 -1998; 1998 – 2001). The FFS or “discussion groups under the trees” grouped farmers for series of lectures by at least three technicians from the Iloilo Provincial Agriculture Office.
The farmer-participants would apply their lessons in their respective fields. During harvest, the FFSs held their “graduation” where each participant sharing his/her experience. They had common testimony on organic farming: it worked to increase yield, reduce cost and restored the bounties of rivers and creeks as fresh water fishes reappeared.
Gov. Niel D. Tupas, Sr. (2001 – 2004; 2004 – 2007; 2007 – 2010) continued the program, and this time around, the FFS grouping expanded from rice farming to vegetable growing.
Tupas further boosted “integrated pest management” (IPM), the course taught in FFSs by giving space to farmers of Alimodian at the capitol ground for “organic vegetable bazaar” every Friday.
Lately, the FFS or IPM has been relegated to the backseat as the Department of Agriculture (DA) stopped subsidizing the lecture and discussion series of farmers.
To the contrary, the past five years, the DA bypassed local government units by going directly to farmers to preach on technologies that are highly dependent on artificial inputs.
The DA for one has become a sales rep of giant agri-chemicals like Monsanto USA in aggressively pushing for the “scorch-earth” policy of corn farming. We thought, only the fifth congressional district of Iloilo was the sole convert to the faith of corn and Monsanto, among the world’s biggest supplier of herbicides and hybrid corn seeds. We also have them in the fourth, third, second and to some extent, the first districts.
We use “scorch-earth” policy because that’s happening: entire slopes and hills shorn of vegetation, defoliated by herbicides, their cover of trees, bamboos and bananas scorched, their surface exposed to erosion, so to give way to yellow corn.
The DA organizes “corn congresses” at the provincial, regional and national levels. Iloilo sponsored one national event. We have visited the venue of the national congress and it was very revealing: agri-chem giants were splurging money giving away brochures, samples of their chemical products, memorabilia and what-not. They even sponsored meals, snacks and field trips of participants – farmers and government technicians, the latter, incidentally, acting more like agents and sales reps of these giant donors.
No wonder, the program to promote earth-friendly farming practices are being aborted and with success because of the fatal combination of giant agri-chem companies which splurge millions, and agriculture officials willing to grab them, sales agents that they are.