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Piddig, Ilocos Norte: A model for resilient agri-institutions

Tara Alessandra Abrina, Jeremiah Joseph Revereza, Jane Lynn Capacio, Napoleon E. Concepcion, and Annette Balaoing-Pelkmans, Ph.D.

11 June 2020

As we gradually resume economic activity after the community quarantine, how can local governments ensure a geographically-balanced approach to recovery and rural development? The UP CIDS Program on Escaping the Middle-Income Trap: Chains for Change (EMIT C4C) returns to Piddig, Ilocos Norte for an answer.


Rural development as a response to COVID-19

When the COVID-19 pandemic exploded onto the global scene, the lockdowns that ensued started a ripple effect. This ripple effect would eventually go on to cause considerable mobility shocks to global supply chains, upending the market mechanisms that once allowed both supply and demand to meet. In the agricultural sector, it forced the hands of farmers to destroy their own crops like lettuce, cut flowers, beans, and tomatoes. At the same time, over-saturated public services and losing a third of the national economy to the Metro Manila lockdown put the spotlight on congestion in urban centers as major risks in times of pandemics.

To address this, the revival of a rural development “whole-of-nation” program was floated around during COVID-19 executive meetings. The goal was to distribute the country’s economic assets away from Metro Manila. This is not a new program—in fact, a similar program was embedded into the National Convergence Initiative for Sustainable Rural Development (NCI-SRD) in 2010.

The NCI-SRD is a multi-sectoral and integrated planning approach approved in a joint memorandum in 1999, and was originally meant to serve as a collaboration and streamlining platform among overlapping national government agencies (NGAs) in rural development. These NGAs are the Department of Agriculture (DA), the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR), the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), and later on, the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG).

It was during the Aquino administration that a relocation program from urban centers to the provinces—a balik probinsya or “return to the provinces”—would be able to ride the wave of successful development towards rural areas. It was widely hypothesized that making rural areas more attractive and providing incentives for emigrants would decongest urban centers like Metro Manila.

However, it is also generally accepted that that previous program failed. Its target was simply to relocate informal settlers.6 Studies on relocation programs strongly suggest that their failure is due to a lack of employment opportunities (i.e., labor mobility issues)7 and incentive mismatching.

Moreover, the social fabric of the receiving provinces would prove to be tested by incentives for the “outsiders,” instead of the locals who worked to make their towns attractive for them.

Labor mobility is the usual framework for evaluating such relocation programs, where one compares labor and living conditions between two areas. “Voting with one’s feet” is another economic concept where people are able to vote for or choose the conditions under which they would like to live.8
That is to say, rural development—with a “whole-of-nation” approach—is a necessary condition for the success of a relocation/decongestion program. One bright spot and a potential model for such initiatives is a town in Ilocos Norte known as Piddig.

Piddig and their social capital endowments

We have written about Piddig’s agricultural and technical initiatives in our previous post. It was by tapping the resources of various national government agencies through the NCI-SRD, the municipal government of Piddig, Ilocos Norte, through the leadership of Mayor Eduardo “Eddie” Guillen that transformed the municipality into a model for good governance and sustainable and inclusive development.

In this post, we talk about another necessary condition for the development of rural areas: social capital and social investments. By anchoring their efforts on a shared goal of environmental protection, the Piddig local government unit (LGU) was able to address socio-economic issues at the grassroots level through the efficient delivery of basic necessities and key services, creating meaningful economic opportunities for its residents, and promoting a culture of shared responsibility to achieve a common goal. It turns out that this culture of shared responsibility in agriculture has roots in pre-colonial times.

To co-manage and monitor the programs under NCI-SRD, the municipal local government unit (MLGU) of Piddig works with the Piddig Basi Multipurpose Cooperative (PBMC), a multipurpose cooperative composed of about 1,300 regular members and 4,000 associate members of zanjeras (irrigators’ associations).9 As a civil engineer by trade, Mayor Guillen underscored the importance of investing in infrastructure and its value in terms of increasing agricultural productivity.

The MLGU focused on building farm-to-market roads, small water impounding projects (SWIP), and an efficient irrigation network linked to the SWIPs in order to support its agricultural projects. The MLGU is also one of the only few municipalities that have identified Strategic Agriculture and Fisheries Development Zones (SAFDZ) in accordance with Republic Act No. 8435 or the Agriculture and Fisheries Modernization Act of 1997.10
For Mayor Guilen to have chosen community-based monitoring, shared agricultural infrastructure, and (common pool) land use planning as the heart of his governance strategy, strikes Ilocos Norte communities at the very root of their history, starting from the zanjeras. The operational words here are “community-based,” “shared,” and “common pool.”

Our hypothesis is that this endowment of strong social institutions rooted from the need to manage common resources is what provided the solid foundation on which the NCI-SRD programs and their public services could be most effectively delivered and monitored.

Piddig and their social capital investments

In organizing the PBMC, the MLGU recognized the rich heritage of zanjeras and respected their centuries-old “rules of the game.” Despite their initial resistance to consolidation (a concept of agriculture tied to the colonial hacienda system), organizing the smallholders into a cooperative and advancing technology was crucial for the continued success of agriculture in Piddig. The MLGU knew that when farmers are dispersed, the cost of production and marketing skyrockets. But they also understood that forcing them to change their practices would not work.

In order to overcome this, Mayor Guillen invested in another social institution, one arguably more ingrained in present-day Filipinos: the culture of utang na loob or debt of gratitude. Through the efficient delivery of basic needs and social services over and beyond agriculture, Mayor Guillen gained the trust of farmers and eventually convinced them to shift to the consolidated farming system.

Banking on utang ng loob in turn made the Consolidated Farm Production System a holistic effort that looks at the totality of the needs of smallholder farmers. The initiative improves the human development aspect of farmers and is not just a one-shot, silo-type, farm-only initiative—thus, solidifying the thesis for the whole-of-nation approach to rural development.

After the pandemic

The success of a rural development program—–or any public service delivery for that matter—is heavily dependent on the social fabric of an area. The delivery of public services and goods, by their very nature, requires some degree of coordination and trust among its users, especially if the public good or service is rival, or vulnerable to depletion. Introducing new users, such as emigrants from urban areas, entails (a) an assessment of receiving provinces that they need the labor supply and (b) that the balik probinsya is done in a manner that is accepted by the receiving province’s social institutions.

More importantly, the incentives for the move must not only be limited to the balik probinsyanos, but must also include the very people who worked hard to make rural development in their area possible.

As the country moves into the final phases of one of the world’s longest lockdowns, we must ask ourselves: how do we ensure a more geographically balanced and distributed economic recovery?