The fight of Filipino peasants such as the farmworkers of Hacienda Luisita and Lapanday Foods Corporation for land, food, and justice, stands to be further undermined once the Philippine government fully accedes to the China-backed mega Free Trade Agreement (FTA) Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
While the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was seemingly put off by United States president Donald Trump, RCEP is now a major highlight in the currently Philippines-chaired Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) meetings towards its 50th year summit in November this year. Millions of Filipino farmers will be among those at the losing end of the RCEP agreement which intends to remove all remaining protection over the Philippine economy towards unhampered trade and investment. Here are the reasons why:
1. RCEP threatens the country’s food security. A Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS)-funded study shows that rice production would sink by 4.3% as import volume rises by a huge 33.15% under RCEP. Another PIDS study projects that Philippine rice import volume could increase by 100% from the current 2.2 million metric tons (MT) to 4.4 million MT from 2017 to 2022. This is especially when the Philippine quantitative restriction* (QR) on rice under the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Agreement on Agriculture is lifted this July.
Studies show that the income of already impoverished rice farmers will drop by 29% upon the lifting of the rice QR. This is because subsidized cheap rice imports will flood the domestic market, compete with local rice expensively produced by Filipino farmers who lack State support, and depress more the farmgate price of palay. The Philippines is among the five RCEP countries in the list of the world’s biggest rice importers.
Weakening rice production will lend to shrinking agricultural production. While palay used to account for almost one-fourth of the gross value added (GVA) in agriculture at current prices, its GVA has been falling by 10.4% annually from 2014 to 2016, contributing to overall agriculture decline of almost 1% yearly.
This trend will worsen with greater liberalization and a deluge of rice imports under RCEP and WTO. This will impact on the livelihood of close to 20 million Filipinos, or about a fifth of the national population, made up of 2.5 million small farmers, several hundred thousand farm laborers and other workers involved in the supply of farm inputs and machinery, milling/processing, warehousing, transport, other services, and related economic activities. It will impact on the entire nation’s food security, much more that of the direct food producers.
FTAs like RCEP will also open up countries’ natural resources further to foreign investments. Pushing amendments to the Philippine Constitution to make it attune to investment liberalization can lead to full foreign ownership of arable lands, converting more land supposedly devoted to food and other national needs to profit-seeking ventures of few big and foreign corporations, such as ecozones and tourism complexes. This will worsen the country’s food insecurity and make land distribution to farmers even more remote.
2. RCEP will pose a threat on poor Filipino farmers who rely on saving and exchanging seeds for their planting needs. In Asia, it is said that farm-saved seeds account for as much as 90% of all seeds used in the region. But the long tradition of farmers of saving and freely exchanging seeds among themselves has been under relentless attack by big agribusinesscorporations promoting Intellectual Property Rights (IPR)-protected agrochemical-intensive seeds including the so-called high-yielding varieties (HYVs), genetically modified (GM) seeds, as well as hybrid seeds.
There are alarming proposals that may privatize farmers’ seeds through RCEP: first, Japan and Korea’s proposal that all RCEP countries join the UPOV 1991**; (2) Japan’s proposal to ‘criminalize’ seed saving; and (3) India’s proposal to codify traditional knowledge and make it available to patent offices. FTAs like RCEP allow corporations to rake in bigger corporate profit by displacing farmers’ seeds and replacing them with patented, commercial seeds that farmers have to buy. This will also mean more expenses and greater bankruptcy and poverty for farmers.
3. RCEP will further restrict the Philippine government from using policy and regulatory tools to promote national economic development.
“Fair and equitable treatment” of foreign investors is one of the rights that negotiators want RCEP to guarantee. This pertains to a “standstill” on laws and regulations, according to critics of RCEP. It means that RCEP governments are not allowed to revise or amend their existing laws if it would harm the interest of RCEP investors.
This principle is problematic especially for underdeveloped countries like the Philippines. Many poor countries do not yet have the needed laws or a sufficient regulatory capacity to deal with emerging economic, environmental and other issues, to which they are more vulnerable, that may impact their development and people. For instance, RCEP will prevent the country from advancing a genuine agrarian reform program that would distribute land for free to tillers and institute sufficient support services to farmers and farmworkers as central to a genuinely people-centered development program.
It will also further prevent government from reversing neoliberal policies and programs that have been causing massive economic and social harm. Thus, RCEP can also hinder the Philippines from revoking trade and investment policies that have caused the deterioration of the agriculture sector and that currently opens the country’s land and agricultural resources for big and foreign corporations to plunder.
Additionally, one of the contentious issues that have emerged in the RCEP negotiations is that of the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS). With it, foreign corporations from RCEP countries could legally oblige RCEP governments to implement the deal’s provisions on investment protection and file charges before an international tribunal in case the latter fails to fulfill such obligation. Reports say that foreign investors can be considered to have won 67% of such cases against RCEP governments, but with the latter having to shell out for legal fees 70% of the time. For countries like the Philippines, whose poor majority are farmers and fisherfolk, the ISDS is not only another financial burden but an affront to the sovereign will of a nation to decide what is best for its people.
4. RCEP will not necessarily increase Philippine food and agriculture exports and will further undermine the country’s agriculture sector. Philippine trade officials claim that the Philippines would push for more exports of local goods in the RCEP to include agri-food commodities such as canned tuna, fresh pineapple, mango, garments of synthetic fibers, raw cane sugar, crude coconut oil, cut tobacco, bananas, coconut, copra, and cooking oil. But the country could not expect to increase exports or substantially gain from more trade liberalization. RCEP markets have already been opened up for Philippine productss in the past, but the country has not taken advantage of this so-called market openness. This is because the country’s weak manufacturing base and underdeveloped infrastructure continue to hamper any potential to improve production. In other words, the country needs to focus more its efforts on developing domestic production for domestic consumption, instead of the competitive yet uncertain markets.
Trade and investment liberalization has only seen the deterioration of the Philippine agriculture sector, increasing agricultural deficits and the deluge of foreign products to the detriment of the Filipino farmers.
FTAs have not served the country’s development contrary to promise. Instead of agreeing to FTAs, the government should seriously consider breaking free from unequal agreements the Philippines is already in and refuse to be bound to more of the same.
*Quantitative restriction (QR) limits rice importation into the Philippines to protect Filipino rice farmers and consumers
**UPOV 1991 or the 1991 Act of the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants is a set of common standards on how countries should implement plant variety protection. But it is biased towards seed companies whose patented varieties are protected, which farmers could not save nor exchange unless they pay or government allows it.