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Free irrigation service draws mixed reactions from farmers

LIGAO CITY --- The implementation of the government free irrigation service to farmers which took off this month drew mixed reactions from farmers, and members of irrigators association operating the various irrigation facilities in Bicol, the National Irrigation Administration (NIA) said over the weekend.

The reactions were varied even most of the farmers and landowners welcomed the scrapping of irrigation fees being previously charged by NIA. They said such move was a blessing as the money intended for the irrigation charges may be used in upgrading and maintaining their farm lots.

On the other hand, many fear that the abolition of fees will greatly affect the operation and maintenance of the facilities which are currently being managed by different irrigators associations across the region, according to Ed Yu, NIA Bicol Spokesperson.

It should be recalled that free irrigation service was one of the campaign promises of then presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte, Yu said.

Nelia Mantes, 62, married, a riceland owner from Barangay Mahaba in Ligao City in an interview said, “dakulang bagay ini (abolition of irrigation fees) samuyang mga para-oma ta an kwarta magagamit nyamo sa ibang bagay,” (this is a big help to us as we can use the money for other farm expenses.)

She said the savings generated from no payment of irrigation fees would also help in cautioning the impact of high cost of farm inputs that hundreds of farmers have to bear during each planting and cropping season.

Mantes explained for each planting and cropping season, farmers are also confronted with high operational and maintenance costs which are further aggravated by the low market price offered by rice traders.

Rice traders are dictating the prices of palay, with buying prices traditionally pegged at P14 a kilo.Still, farmers are discouraged from selling their produce to the National Food Authority (NFA) despite the latter’s higher buying price of P18 per kilo because of the strict and number of requirements being asked for them to comply by the agency.

Ariel Buenavente, farmer and a member of an irrigators association operating in this city, said the abolition of the irrigation fee would result to disbanding of their irrigators’ association.

He said the life of the association depends largely on the incentives the group gets in maintaining and operating the irrigation facilities that charge fees.

The association sees to it that NIA irrigation facilities are well operated and maintained by keeping the irrigation canals in good shape and making sure that water flows to the intended beneficiary-farmlands. Peter Tiu Lavinia, NIA administrator in a recent interview, admitted that the agency would be spending P2B a year as subsidy fund for maintaining various irrigation facilities across the country.

The government subsidy, according to Lavinia, would replace the almost P4B it generates from the Irrigation Service fees (ISF) collected from millions of farmers throughout the country.

Lavinia, when asked how the implementation of the free irrigation would affect their budget, cited that NIA, as a government-owned and -controlled corporation (GOCC) would be losing around P13B in back accounts, collectibles for all irrigation fees, and loan amortization arising from the operation of the communal irrigation system.

He said, “if mawawala itong ISF and ma condone ang mga back accounts, malaking kalugian ito sa NIA.” Lavinia disclosed that NIA is currently operating with a P38B budget where P12B of the amount go to debt servicing.

NIA data show that there are 1.4M hectares of irrigated lands servicing 1.5M farmers across the county. Lavinia said that under Duterte’s term he hopes the agency could attain additional 380,000 hectares of irrigated farmlands by 2022.

Of the Bicol region’s 240,000 hectares of irrigable lands, 58% or 140,000 hectares are irrigated that service about 500 irrigators’ associations.

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