A sign and flags of a seed company dot a cornfield along the national highway

By Pamela Joy (PJ) Mariano Capistrano

Despite the high financial costs and economic risks to small farmers in the Upper Pulangi area in northern Bukidnon, Mindanao, Philippines, a majority of farmers still farm high-yield variety corn. There must be other reasons – factors, if you will – that make farmers continue to farm this type of corn.

This is one of the questions I want to examine further as a researcher with the LUCID project – the relationships and structures that support high-yield variety corn farming.

Aside from the ease of farming high-yield variety corn (enabled by the use of glyphosate spray, the health and environmental impacts of which will not be discussed here for now),  another possible factor that promotes the continuing cultivation of corn is the set of relationships that tie together small farmers with local financiers, and the broader social structures that tie local financiers with seed companies and local government patrons.

To what extent do relationships of affiliation and relationships of social, economic, and political power constrain or enable farmers in the Upper Pulangi? To explore these questions further, I set out to interview not just local farmers, but the financiers who conduct their business in the area.

Conversion factors and individual advantage/disadvantage

From interviews with both financiers and farmers, I observed how the context of corn farming in the Upper Pulangi is shaped by the dynamics of social capital and the relationship between patronage, status, and power. These in turn affect – positively or negatively – people’s ability to achieve certain levels of functioning given their resources, which Amartya Sen calls conversion factors.

In many ways, the present large corn traders and financiers have arrived at their privileged status because of their social advantages: i.e. relationships of patronage; networks of relations and recognition; familiarity and comfort in navigating through and negotiating with economic, political, and social institutions; and educational attainment.

One of the financiers interviewed was previously a barangay captain for 10 years, and an active businessperson in the community, before engaging in the financing business. Another former financier currently holds office in the local government. One new financier, who had only gotten into the business in the last year, is a practicing agriculturist, having studied agriculture in a prestigious university in Mindanao and managed their family farm profitably over the last decade.

We may call these advantages social capital, following Pierre Bourdieu, who defines it as “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition – or in other words, to membership in a group – which provides each of its members with the backing of the collectivity-owned capital, a ‘credential’ which entitles them to credit, in the various senses of the word” (Bourdieu, 1986, p. 248).

Their established relationships of political patronage and economic, social and institutional relations allow them to navigate their context with greater ease. Having a successful business to one’s name opens the doors of banks and other financial institutions, making the bureaucracy easier to navigate. Being a local government official builds up a person’s network of relationships not only within their own communities, but with the local centers of power. Barangay officials, especially barangay captains, cultivate relationships with the municipal mayor and their staff and other local officials.

In a country like the Philippines where patronage politics prevails, being “in” with a local politician is a key to opening opportunity and access to resources, whether material or social.

Farmers visiting a demonstration farm

Relationships of extraction or of redistribution? Relationships of patronage or mutuality?

What I find interesting is how these financiers use their social capital in relation to the communities in which they live. Do they use it in an extractive manner, or in a manner that allows for the distribution/redistribution of advantages to others?

A comparison between two of the financiers interviewed shows the range of possible use of social capital and the types of relationships that prevail. Let us refer to them as Financier X and Financier Y, to maintain the respondents’ privacy.

Financier X described their financing as a business, likening their daily routine to going to the office every day. Their motivation is to keep the business profitable and growing, in order to continue “providing jobs for the community” as part of “public service.” This is a deceptively simple statement that bears unpacking.

Financier X sees financing as part of their family business, which includes their own farm, their corn trading, trucking, milling, and drying (they own a large solar drying facility) businesses. Their concern is the bottomline, so even though Financier X has an avowed sense of “public service” in the form of creating jobs, it is still within the context of running a profitable business. Keeping the business profitable is what guarantees that jobs continue to exist and continue to be created.

In contrast, Financier Y described their motivations for getting into financing on more personal and communitarian terms. They recognize that their family is in a more advantageous position compared to their extended family and their neighbors, due to a variety of factors that they identified: their degree in agriculture, their family’s other sources of income (a salary from regular employment, their family’s other business), and less fiscal obligations (a smaller family means less day-to-day expenses; regular employment makes it easy for them to access formal financing and other financial services).

Financier Y shared that their position of privilege makes them feel a sense of obligation to other families who are part of their community, and who have been a source of non-financial (emotional, social) support in the past. It is now their turn to provide support to the community, until they are able to support themselves. If they cannot support them directly, they find ways to direct them to more sustainable financing sources, such as referring them to rural banks for loans.

Based on these descriptions and interviews with farmers in their local communities, these two financiers seem to describe and participate in two different types of relationships with the local farmers.

While job creation itself is not a bad thing, Financier X’s business orientation is overlaid on relationships of dependency and patronage. As a former barangay official who served for 10 years, Financier X’s relationships with the other residents of the barangay are influenced by the patronage politics and quid pro quo that is typical in Philippine politics, characterized by patron-client relationships between the politico and their constituents.

While Financier X is certain that they did not engage in the financing aspect of their business during their time in public office, it is also worth noting that holding such public office helped create connections and relationships with people of economic and political status beyond their barangay. These circumstances suggest that Financier X’s business benefits from their social position as a patron, distributing largesse (whether in the form of jobs or loans) to those of lower socio-economic status. This also seems to be supported by the way the farmers interviewed referred to Financier X, using their political position or title.

While they acknowledge their difference in socio-economic status, Financier Y’s financing activities do not seem to be premised on a relationship of patronage, but rather on relationships of kinship or mutuality. They were consistent in describing their financing activities as a kind of sharing with neighbors and extended family, not as a business venture, and in describing the loans as “helping them out.” They also seem to recognize how the system is stacked against small farmers. They try to mitigate the disadvantage by offering a lower rate than other financiers and sharing their agricultural and market knowledge with borrowers.

Proximity to companies leads to enhanced advantages for financiers

In speaking with financiers, other structural advantages for financiers and other structural disadvantages for small farmers were also revealed. The majority of the financiers interviewed are also farmers, and all of them currently host or partner with seed companies for demonstration farms.

Financier Z described their relationship with the seed companies with more detail. The seed companies monitor the demonstration farms closely, sending both scientific research teams to take laboratory samples, and agricultural-technical teams to advise her regarding the application of chemical inputs (herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers) for optimal crop growth. Financier Z, in turn, is able to use the optimal application of chemicals developed with the help of the company on their other, non-demonstration corn farms, thus harvesting more than their neighboring local farmers who don’t have this information.

Instead of having the benefit of agricultural technologists’ scientific advice, small local farmers are instead told to “follow farmer’s practice” when using inputs, without any regard to local soil conditions, the degree of slope of their land, access to irrigation systems, or even their financial capacity.

I witnessed this unexpectedly during the interview with Financier A, who was suddenly called to talk at a farmers’ meeting. Farmers’ meetings are really a marketing event, organized by seed brands at demonstration farms after harvest, gathering all the farmers from the barangay to show off the yield of their seed brand and variety. When one farmer asked about the schedule of applying herbicide and fertilizers, the company representative answered “farmer’s practice.”

Later on, I learned that the company representative was a sales agent who called Financier A in a panic because his resource speaker did not show up and he was running out of things to say to the farmers. In his account, he was a long-time sales agent for the seed company’s parent conglomerate and was just given the corn seeds account to sell after that parent company acquired the seed company; he knew nothing about farming, he says. What he was knowledgeable about was how to make a sale and hitting sales targets.

Having demonstration farms also puts these financier-farmers in contact with chemical companies, who actively woo farmers with demonstration farms and/or farms along the side of the highway. Financier X shared that having a demonstration farm is something that farmers really strive for, because aside from the free seeds from the seed companies, they also receive free chemical inputs from chemical companies. Since chemical inputs comprise a large amount of the costs of farming, these free inputs have a significant effect on their profit margin at harvest – yet another advantage that financier-farmers have over their small farmer neighbors.

A hill almost entirely planted with corn looms over corn drying in the sun

Mere convenience or negative conversion factors for farmers?

Despite the clear disadvantage of their position in comparison with financiers, small farmers in the Upper Pulangi continue to take loans to farm high-yield variety corn. Even though the farmers interviewed recognized their own disadvantage, their reluctance to leave high-yield variety corn farming is due to its convenience and less effort required. High-yield variety corn farming uses glyphosate as a broad-spectrum herbicide and is thus less labor intensive than traditional corn farming.

Further probing also revealed how the socio-cultural practices that enabled the farming of traditional corn varieties – such as communal labor practices – have disappeared almost entierly, supplanted by the work-for-cash system.

About a third of the farmers interviewed expressed a desire to shift to organic farming because of the environmental damage resulting from the use of chemical inputs and mono-cropping. But they also shared that it was difficult to shift because there are no broad systems in place for support. Organic farm produce are bought at the same price by traders in Bukidnon, unlike in other neighboring provinces where organic produce is priced at a premium.

There are also no policy directives from local governments to support this shift, despite farmers’ desires. In fact, the opposite is the case. One of the municipalities in the Upper Pulangi calls itself the corn capital of Bukidnon, actively promoting the expansion of high-yield variety corn farming in the municipality. Is it a coincidence that the municipal mayor was formerly a financier for high-yield variety corn?

Working for cash is taken for granted. Financing through local financiers seems easily accessible because of relationships of patronage and affiliation, and there’s no need to find buyers because the corn buyers will come either through a fellow farmer or ] financier.

Shifting to another crop is harder as the farmer needs to find capital, labor, buyers, and transportation to bring their harvest to the buyer. They basically have to go at it alone.

Relationships of patronage and affiliation may also add motivation to continue farming high-yield variety corn. Patronizing a financier’s business may be seen as quid pro quo or as cultivating a patron who gives one better opportunities.

Contextualizing this further, it seems that these social and economic changes make it difficult for small farmers to shift from farming high-yield variety corn to traditional corn, despite the acknowledged risks and costs.

PJ Mariano Capistrano is an Instructor at the Department of Philosophy, School of Humanities, Ateneo de Manila University. She is a PhD candidate at the Université de Namur under an ESSC-LUCID research scholarship. PJ can be reached through her email: pamela.mariano@student.unamur.be.

Relationships of extraction and affiliation: Hypotheses on the relationships and structures that support high-yield variety corn farming

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