Tobacco farmers call for immediate, substantive economic relief as lockdown continues

BAGUIO CITY — Tobacco farmers are calling for immediate and substantive economic relief both from the government and tobacco companies as their difficulties mount with the Luzon-wide Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ).

As the ECQ enters its third week, the Solidarity of Peasants Against Exploitation (Stop Exploitation) and National Federation of Tobacco Farmer Associations and Cooperatives (NAFTAC) said their members are losing income and getting buried in debt. According to them, some are already experiencing food shortages. They also criticized the National Tobacco Administration (NTA) for its “selective” and “insulting” emergency cash assistance.

“Many are still harvesting and drying their tobacco. The farmers are spending on food and labor. Meanwhile, they have limited source of income because of the lockdown,” said NAFTAC president Bernard Vicente in Ilokano.

He said tobacco prices also dropped after the lockdown, with some trader taking advantage of the travel restrictions and urgent need of farmers for cash. According to him, during this period of the tobacco season, tobacco farmers are in dire need of money to continue harvesting and curing tobacco leaves.

“Many farmers are now looking for means to get a hold of cash, those who cannot find someone to loan them would have to finish the work by their own and family members,” he explained.

The NAFTAC leader stressed the urgency of assisting the farmers, especially if the government extends the ECQ.

“They should give the emergency assistance the soonest possible time,” he added.

Selective cash assistance

Both leaders expressed recognition of NTA’s initiative to assist farmers. However, they criticized the Emergency Cash Assistance (ECA) for being “selective” and “insufficient” to address the current need of farmers and their families.

On April 1, NTA announced via its official Facebook page that it would award an initial P2000 to more than 6000 farmers under its Tobacco Contract Growing System (TCGS). The agency’s governing board approved the release of ECA through Referendum Resolution No. 002-2020 on March 24.

“We urge those in charge of NTA not to be selective in assisting our fellow tobacco farmers. The cash assistance, while small in amount, should benefit all tobacco producers and not only those under the contract growing program,” said Vicente.

He underscored that NTA is responsible for the welfare of all tobacco farmers, not only those under contract growing. The NAFTAC chair pointed out that a significant number of tobacco farmers still opted not to enter the contract growing scheme.

NTA Officer-in-Charge Robert R. Bonoan said the amount might increase depending on the approval of the board and the availability of funds. He said they already recommended the inclusion of non-TCGS in the cash assistance.

The agency said its offices in Ilocos Norte, Ilocos Sur (Vigan and Candon), Abra, La Union, and Pangasinan received the funds for the ECA on April 3, and now ready for distribution.

Insult to tobacco farmers

Meanwhile, the Solidarity of Peasants Against Exploitation (Stop Exploitation), said the P2000 ECA is an insult, considering the contribution of tobacco farmers to the national and local economy.

“We would like to remind the NTA that without the tobacco farmers, the agency would not exist. Taxes from tobacco products also comprised a big part of the national tax collection,” said Stop Exploitation Chairperson Antonino Pugyao.

According to the Bureau of Internal Revenue, the collected excise tax in 2019 from tobacco products reached P147.4 billion compared to the P136.5 billion revenue the previous year. The amount accounted for about 55% of the total excise tax collection last year.

Stop Exploitation is calling for P10,000 emergency economic relief for tobacco farmers. He said the amount could cover the average expenses of tobacco farmers for harvesting and curing tobacco leaves. The peasant leader also urged the agency to push for the waiving of land rent and loan interest amid the COVID-19 crisis.

“It is not a question of availability of funds, as Bonoan stated, but the sincerity of the NTA to provide immediate and sufficient relief for the farmers. The NTA has sufficient funds to provide for all tobacco farmers,” he underscored.

Pugyao cited that as of 2018, the Tobacco Fund manage by NTA reached P62.54 billion. He said the government expects to collect an additional P8.33 billion this year.

Lockdown complications

Meanwhile, Vicente complained of the different implementation of the travel restrictions, which created difficulties for farmers to sell their products.

“There are some places where the local officials are not allowing or limiting the entry of tobacco traders,” he said.

He appealed to local officials, especially those guarding barangay checkpoints, to ease down on tobacco traders.

“The Department of Agriculture (DA) exempted agriculture and fisheries from the travel restrictions. They should let traders pass with ease, especially those from the same town,” the NAFTAC leader said.

According to him, officials can always require traders to bring their medical certificate to ensure that they are not possible carriers of COVID-19.

Pugyao said that they also received reports from their members in Ilocos Norte and Ilocos Sur about trading difficulties brought by the lockdown.

In the tobacco capital of the country, Ilocos Sur, Governor Ryan Singson said they have not yet received complaints about tobacco farmers having difficulty in trading their products.

“Since day one, agricultural products freely moves in the province,” he said.

Of the 34 municipalities and cities in the province, only the town of Santa is not planting the crop. There are 11,220 farmers in Ilocos Sur alone, based on the record of the Provincial Agriculture Office.

Singson said they are aware of the harvest period and considered the matter even before the lockdown. According to him, the province, along with the two congressional representatives, immediately raised the concern to DA chief William Dar.

NTA also requested an exception from the no-movement policy and the continuance of trading operation, which the DA granted.

Use of tobacco excise tax

Earlier, Stop Exploitation Chairman Antonino Pugyao called on the utilization of the tobacco excise tax share of LGUs to provide cash and materials support for farmers. He also appealed to local governments to pass local ordinances to forego land rent and loan interest payments for the season.

Singson said he already sent a letter to the Department of Budget and Management asking for the release of the fund. The province receives the lion’s share from the RA 7171 funds.

According to Singson, they will use part of the fund for the economic recovery and support to farmers affected by the COVID-19 crisis.

“For now, our calamity fund, together with the funds from the municipalities and cities are still enough. But yes, there will be support from the excise tax funds once the DBM releases it,” the governor explained.

Under RA Nos. 7171 and 8240, LGUs producing tobacco receive 15% of the total excise tax collected for tobacco products. The former governs the sharing for taxes collected from Virginia tobacco while the latter is for the Native and Burley type.

In June 2019, the budget department released the share of local government amounting to P15.81 billion. Ilocos Sur will receive P7.7 billion from the P12.9 billion excise tax of locally manufactured Virginia-cigarettes. It will also get a share from the P2.9 billion collection for Burley and Native tobacco products.