Early in 2019, weather agencies confirmed the prevalence of El Niño that led to warmer conditions that took its toll on the agricultural sector in many parts of the country.

Over the course of five months, GMA News Online followed the lives of a group of farmers in Morong, Rizal as they struggled to survive the dry spells that came with the weather phenomenon. Along the way, there were other challenges, many of which had nothing to do with the environment. Here is the story of their lengthy ordeal.

GMA News

August 14, 2019


Bernie Manapat is the leader of a farmer's organization in Morong, Rizal. JESSICA BARTOLOME

IT IS A SCORCHING MARCH DAY IN MORONG, RIZAL, like each day has been since December. The fields have not tasted rain in months and the crops are dying in the heat.

To make things worse, the water pump had gone up in smoke — literally. It was burned down by an unnamed suspect overnight.

It may seem like a small concern, in the grand scheme of things. But for Bernie Manapat, the leader of the local association of farmers, things these days are rarely quite so small. The machine would have been a big help for their group, but instead they now need to purchase a new battery, change its oil, and have the starter repaired. It would cost them P10,000 more just to operate the machine.

This is money they simply do not have. As a collective, they have already spent P80,000 for water for their crops during this planting season. The river beside their farms in Caingin is drying up, and they are running out of water to keep their crops alive.

In February, state weather bureau PAGASA advised that a weak El Niño was already being felt in the Pacific, and that it is expected to go “full blown” by the end of February or March.

Rizal in particular was forecast to experience dry conditions in March, and eventually suffer from drought by the end of June.

El Niño is a phenomenon that occurs every four to six years, during which a portion of the Pacific Ocean heats up and triggers extreme and opposite temperatures in different parts of the world.

In the Philippines, the El Niño causes the surrounding waters to cool down, therefore reducing the production of rain and increasing the temperature in the country.

At the farm in Morong, the crops still seem fine, at least at first glance, as a large portion of the field remains green and lively. But digging deeper reveals the pressing problem: the soil was already hard and was even beginning to crack.

When the soil hardens, Bernie explains, it squeezes the life out of the plants. Once that happens, any attempt to water the crops would be a lost cause — they would eventually die.

Swerte na ‘yung maka-limang kaban ka diyan,” Bernie says of the field in front of us. (“We’d be lucky if we even get five sacks from that.”)

The desperate situation is still not quite enough to depress his sense of humor. “Ang hirap magkuwentahan kasi wala namang matitira,” he quips.

(“It’s hard to divide the spoils when there’s nothing left.” )

Looking out at the field in the middle of March, Bernie could already figure it out in his head: it was going to be a very long summer.

Farmers in Morong, Rizal moonlight as construction workers with the uncertainty of the harvest. JESSICA BARTOLOME

THE FACT OF THEIR LIVES IS that, sometimes, farmers would work hard for several months only to get nothing at the end of the season. Some harvests would yield little, leaving the farmers in debt. They would then have to scramble to pick up odd jobs to tide them over for the next few months.

On a hot day in early April, Bernie decides to skip the farm to work on a construction site along with four other farmers. Whenever the yield looks like it would be short, Bernie takes up construction projects, as well as painting and plumbing jobs. He even moonlights in the local cemetery, digging up graves for bones that need to be transferred.

Bernie takes a quick lunch, before going back to work on the second floor of the half-done house, under the withering summer heat.

On this construction project, Bernie was recruited by his old friend, Resty San Esteban, a fellow farmer.

During a break, the farmers get to talking about “Boy Suklay,” a 62-year-old man who died while working on a project. Resty remembers him being bothered by the heat and guzzling down water as they worked on building the two-storey house. Later, they found out that he already had an underlying illness that ultimately caused his death.

The conversation has Bernie reminiscing about his own experience three years ago, while he was herding cows.

It was 3 in the afternoon. He was sitting under the shade of a bamboo tree with his wife. He suddenly felt something in his cheek, like it was being drilled. He had water with him, so he had been hydrating. In less than 15 minutes, as he was trying to feel his face, it had already turned numb.

He urgently pointed his wife Tess toward their home, still not telling her what had happened. He remembers having to drag one of his legs. When they got home, he told Tess to take him to the hospital immediately.

It was a mild stroke.

As the planet grows considerably warmer, life for Bernie, Resty, and their friends will only get harder.

Sa ngayon pa lang parang nararanasan ko na,” Resty says. “Dito sa Pilipinas parang nararanasan ko na ang ‘di kakayanin ng isang magsasaka at konstruksyon ang sobrang init.”

(“I am experiencing it even now. A farmer or a construction worker won’t be able to endure the stifling heat.”)

Despite being farmers for most of their lives, both Bernie and Resty are finding it harder to work through the heat by 9 or 10 a.m. They have taken to starting work in the field before dawn, because neither of them could bear the temperature anymore once the sun is up.

A report by the International Labour Organization, Working on a Warmer Planet, projects that the world will experience significant productivity loss in 2030 due to heat stress.

The working hours will be slashed by 2.2 percent worldwide, based on the possible 1.5°C global temperature rise by the end of the 21st century.

Among those who will be hit hardest are farmers and construction workers because of the nature of their work. Older workers will also have greater health risks as aging results in changes to the regulation of body temperature.

It is an inevitable scenario in a warming planet wracked by a climate crisis.

At 60, Resty San Esteban still works as a farmer. Before the start of a cropping season, he often has to borrow money to buy farm inputs. JESSICA BARTOLOME

AT 60 YEARS OLD, Resty has had decades of experience working under the sun, and it shows. His skin is dark and wrinkled, and he hardly flinches in the stifling heat.

Resty tills just 1.2 hectares in Morong, but he has more construction experience than the rest of the farmers on the crew.

He’s already at retirement age but he almost never rests. If he’s not in the farm, he’s busy working in small-scale construction projects in town. He builds pig pens and residential units whenever the offers come.

Resty got his start as a farmer at the tender age of 12, but he actually left the industry in search of greener pastures at one point in his life.

He tried his luck as a construction worker in the Middle East from 1976 to 1979. After a while, he realized that what he earned abroad was not worth his homesickness. He returned and became a farmer again.

He didn’t regret those three years as he managed to buy a residential lot and a tricycle for his family from what he earned. Only one thought was nagging at him.

Ngayon nakaisip ako, maganda ang may palayan pala, dapat palayan ang binili ko,” Resty says.

(“Now I realize it would have been good to have your own ricefield. I should have bought a ricefield.”)

Leaving that stable job with steady income is literally a gamble. In returning to farm work, he has to try his luck over and over again, because every season, Resty needs to borrow money so he can start to plant, with no assurance that the investment will bear any return come harvest day.

Currently, he has an outstanding loan worth P25,000 from the local cooperative, which he had used to buy farm inputs such as fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. If he fails to pay it off, the co-op will refuse to lend him anymore. The cycle repeats every season: borrowing, farming, and paying off debts.

Other farmers simply drop out of the cycle. Indeed, the National Economic and Development Authority blames the rising cost of inputs amid low profit, limited access to credit, poor infrastructure, and vulnerability to environmental risks for the decline in the agricultural labor force.

Farming is a risky proposition especially with the onset of El Niño, but Resty is unfazed.

Kapag kami’y matatakot dahil hindi na kami nakabayad, at hindi ulit kami magtatanim, lalong wala, kaya kami’y makikipagsapalaran,” Resty says firmly.

(“If the fear of being unable to pay our debt scares us off and we are unable to plant, all the more we’ll have nothing. That’s why will continue to take the risk.”)

The effects of the El Niño is already apparent in rice fields in Morong, Rizal in March. JESSICA BARTOLOME

MOST FARMERS IN MORONG, including Bernie and Resty, engage in the “pakisama system” where they work as tenants of the landowners’ fields.

The agreements vary. Some landowners provide farm inputs and get half of the total yield. Other landowners do not shell out any capital at all and just ask for a smaller share of fresh palay at the end of the cropping season.

The farmers also need hired hands to help out during the harvest, in exchange for the share of the yield. This share, called hunos, varies depending on the total harvest of the field.

Land ownership is a major factor in determining the take-home harvest of small-time farmers. If they worked on their own lands, they would no longer need to share the yield with the landowners. It would make quite a difference, especially during a time when El Niño’s effects threaten the harvest.

Stakeholders in the agriculture industry in the Philippines have long acknowledged the pressing need for land distribution to farmers. It is an issue that dates back to the Spanish occupation.

In 1988, the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) was passed under President Corazon Aquino. The program was extended for five years in 2009 through the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program Extension with Reforms (CARPER), during President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's term.

CARPER expired in 2014 but the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) said the program will still continue as the law provided for the distribution of land to farmers beyond its expiration. The Duterte administration has vowed to fast-track the distribution of lands in the remaining three years of his term.

The DAR says more than 4.8 million hectares of land has been distributed to 2.7 million farmers in the country since the agrarian reform program began. Still, according to the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas, a peasants' organization, seven out of 10 farmers in the Philippines work on lands they do not own.

Farmers’ groups claim that the reforms laws continued to nurse pro-landlord provisions that enable the privileged to reacquire and reconsolidate their landholdings.

In other cases, however, the farmers who own the land simply stop being farmers altogether. The lands that Bernie and Resty work on today are owned by families who used to be farmers native to Morong.

The younger generations of those families have since pursued other professions, leaving farming for good and leasing out the lands for passive income.

It’s a fate that Bernie himself dreams of achieving for his family.

He has been a farmer since he was 14 years old, when he started to accompany his father to the fields. Bernie is now 46, with a wife and two children.

His firstborn Ella is 20 years old and aspires to be a schoolteacher. Despite the struggles that come with his livelihood, Bernie has somehow managed to put her through school.

Their lives remain far from easy, but Ella still remembers how they used to be even worse off.

The family used to live without electricity in their old home in Barangay Pinugay in Baras, Rizal. Bernie used to own land there, and Ella even used to help out in the field.

It’s a hardship that her brother, 17-year-old Jem, didn’t experience anymore, says Ella, who used to help out at her cousin’s store to earn enough money for allowance and school projects.

Nu’ng time na ‘yun katulong din ako ni Mama at Papa sa pag-gagamas sa palayan. Nagpapastol din ako ng baka,” she says.

(“At that time, I was also helping my parents attend to errands at the farm. I even herded cows.”)

Having seen firsthand how grueling farming can be, the two have decided not to pursue farming — with their father’s wholehearted support.

Asked whether she sees herself working in the farm someday, Ella says no, even as she acknowledges that it was her father’s farming that allowed her to finish college.

Kaya ako pinagtapos ni Papa ng pag-aaral para hindi na kami magaya sa kanila. Nagpapasalamat at proud ako sa trabaho ng Papa ko,” she said.

(“My father put me through school so that I won’t have to live a life similar to theirs. I am thankful and proud of my father’s job as a farmer.”)

The harvest is often a crapshoot for rice farmers. JESSICA BARTOLOME

EARLY MORNING ON BLACK SATURDAY in late April, more than a dozen hired farmers whacked at the rice crops with practiced movements. They are on the last day of harvest at one of Bernie’s farms.

Farmers in Morong have finally decided to harvest their crops after five months of waiting. They weren’t expecting much, with the El Niño in full effect, but the crops were ready, so they had little choice but to harvest.

Farming is already a gamble, and so Bernie took one more roll of the dice with this field in Barangay San Juan. The piece of land was not particularly desirable, because it had no access to any kind of water. With no river or irrigation, others deemed planting there to be doomed to fail.

Bernie had taken matters into his own hands two years ago, digging a tunnel connecting the barren field to a creek where wastewater flows. He invested in a motor pump that would distribute water to the farm, selling one of his cows to make the purchase.

And to everyone’s surprise, a bit of life survived from the crops dried by the summer heat: 141 sacks, to be exact.

Bernie and his wife Tess are pleased; this is above and beyond what they expected.

Their high spirits after the harvest contrasted greatly with the mood of those of the farmhands who did the actual harvesting. They were notably more serious, all business. Tess explains that they were far from done for the day.

The hired hands are given a total of five sacks for their trouble. Each 50-kilogram sack amounts to P800 as fresh palay is sold at P16 a kilo. Among them, each farm worker would earn only P200 for the backbreaking labor.

The half day’s earnings are barely enough to get by, so immediately after the sacks are tied up, they briskly walk away onto the next piece of land to work.

After splitting the sacks among the farm workers, the landowners, and himself, Bernie is able to take home 107 sacks of fresh palay.

Resty, the 60-year-old farmer, was present for the occasion. He was happy for his friend though he didn’t have the same luck.

The first batch of Resty's yield from his Caingin field totaled only eight sacks of fresh palay. But he had to pay four sacks to a group of harvesters. The rest, Resty still had to split with the owner of the land.

After months of waiting, Resty will only be take home two sacks of palay. He forces out a smile.

Later, Bernie would be able to take home 27 and a half more sacks of palay from two other fields he worked on. Resty would take home another two and a half from his second batch of harvest, making his total yield four and a half sacks.

With all the uncertainty that comes with farming, and getting so little after putting in so much, it is little wonder that farmers are a dying breed.

Farmers are getting older and there is no one to replace them. Like Ella who has opted to become a teacher, their children are choosing a different path.

Dito sa bayan ng Morong, karamihan ng magulang magsasaka pero ang anak engineer, teacher. Talagang iginagapang na mapagtapos para hindi na nila ranasin ‘yung hirap ng katawan,” Bernie says.

(“Here in Morong, most of the parents are farmers but their children become engineers, teachers. They really strive to send their children to school so that the young generation won’t go through the same backbreaking work.”)

This trend bears itself out in the rest of the country.

Official government data showed that from 11.84 million in 2013, workers employed in agriculture were down to just 10.26 million in 2017. This is despite the increase in the country’s labor force through those years.

According to a study by the Philippine Rice Research Institute, the median age of rice farmers increased to 55 years old in 2016-2017 from just 48 years old in 1996-1997.

And who can blame them when there’s barely any movement in the agriculture sector, with Philippine Statistics Authority data showing just 0.90 percent growth in 2018, even as the whole economy grew by 6.2 percent for the year.

Resty doesn’t see a new generation of farmers emerging.

Bernie, in fact, wholeheartedly agrees with the notion that farmers themselves are the reason they are a dying breed.

Kahit kailan hindi ko sinabi sa anak kong ‘pag ako’y matanda na, ikaw naman ang magsaka. Hindi ko sinabihan ng ganu’n ang anak ko. Ang pangaral ko sa anak ko, magtapos ka't maganda ang trabaho mo, ‘wag mo nang ranasin ang hirap kong dinaranas na pagsasaka ang ibinubuhay ko sa inyo,” he says.

(“Not once did I tell my children to take over farming when I get old. I never told them to do that. I lectured them about finishing school to land a good job so that they won’t have to bear the same suffering that I am going through in farming.”)

The apparent absence of a younger generation to take on the rigorous tasks in the farm opened up opportunities for other laborers to enter the scene.

Most of the farm workers in town were not originally from Morong, a mix of migrants from Laguna, Bicol, and Visayas, among other places.

Ang nangyayari kasi rito, ‘yung galing sa ibang probinsya, nakikigawa. Kagaya nu’ng mga mag-aani namin, magtatanim, wala namang lehitimong taga-Morong na. Lahat estranghero," Bernie said.

(“Farm workers from other provinces work here, like those who reap and plant in our lands. There are no more homegrown farm workers in Morong. All of them are strangers.”)



BERNIE MANAPAT FIRST MENTIONS the term on a hot day in March as he explains how he hires a group of farmworkers to plant and harvest rice every season.

Estranghero. In English, it means strangers.

It is the title tacked on to them by the native farmers in Morong — simply because they were not born and bred in Rizal. They come from provinces far away.

In reality, these people are hardly strangers. They have lived in Morong for the past two decades.

Fernando “Pando” Losito, 54, originally hails from Sorsogon. He decided to settle in Morong 20 years ago and he has no plans of ever leaving. His eight children grew up here. His six sons are also farm workers and so was his wife before she retired.

‘Yun ‘yung tawag ng mga taga-rito, estranghero raw kami kasi wala kaming lupa. Ang lupa namin nasa probinsya namin… pero nakarehistro na kami sa lugar na ito,” Pando says.

(“They call us strangers because we have no land here, our land is in our respective provinces. But we are registered here.”)

He is hardly the only outsider that found his way to Morong. Over a hundred of them who hail from different parts of the Philippines now consider the town their home.

The tension between the two sets of farmers is undeniable.

In initial interviews, Bernie appears to find it disquieting that the role of the estranghero in their town was seemingly growing larger than their presence.

Parang kami ang naging estrangherong magsasaka,” he says. (“It’s as if we’re the strangers here.”)

But Bernie can’t deny he needs them. They are a vital force in the field. He hires them time and again to do a lot of the dirty work, from harvesting to planting, and the things in between.

Pando says the jobs during the planting and harvest season tend to pile up. He and his team work on one hectare after another in different parts of Morong, sometimes until the last of the sun slips away.

That’s not to say they earn much.

Native farmers in Morong still call Pando an estranghero, even though he has lived there for 20 years. JESSICA BARTOLOME

In fact, their earnings definitely took a blow this season — unsurprising, given the El Niño that has wrapped Rizal in near-suffocating heat.

In April, Pando recruits a team of 10 to hack at Bernie’s hectare in Barangay San Jose. They collect the crops; feed them into the thresher that Pando saved up for; sort through the grains; and place them into sacks.

Their payment for three days of hard work came in the form of 20 sacks of rice. This was split among him and his 10 recruits, and they each earned an equivalent of P1,000.

But that’s because luck was on the side of Bernie — the same couldn’t be said in the other farms they worked on.

An afternoon spent at Resty’s one-hectare farm only yields 10 sacks of rice. After splitting the harvest, Pando and the eight farm workers who helped him only got half a sack each.

Even worse, no one wanted to buy the grains because they were crumbling — an effect of the tremendous heat brought on by the El Niño.

‘Yung palay mahina, tapos minsan maselan pa ‘yung may-ari ayaw magbigay ng konsiderasyon sa amin. Kaya kami nagtitiis na lang kesa walang kainin ang aming pamilya,” he adds.

(“The grain is weak, and sometimes the buyers wouldn’t give us any consideration. We’d just suffer through it because otherwise we’d have nothing to eat.”)

Hired hands of the estranghero are indispensable during harvest season. JESSICA BARTOLOME

The estranghero’s work is backbreaking. Pando means this literally.

He can no longer carry heavy loads because of a back injury he sustained five years ago.

The day had been close to ending and he pushed himself to finish the work, Pando recalls. He slipped from the dike and fell on his back. He was unable to return to the field for a month.

But despite the taxing work, the health risks, and even the casual discrimination thrown his way, Pando endures and keeps farming despite such little reward.

He knew from the start that he and others like him are disadvantaged because they were born into a poor family and were unable to finish their education.

Still, he sees himself in a better situation compared to when he started. After all, he originally moved to Morong because he gets paid more for a day’s work.

And like many farmers nowadays, Pando is willing to do the work so his grandchildren won’t have to experience the same hardships.

Ayaw ko na sila makaranas ng ganito, sobrang hirap. Kaya sabi ko sa mga anak ko, pagsikapan ang mga anak niyo. At ako tutulong nalang sa inyo na sila ay hindi magaya sa amin,” he says.

(“I don’t want them to experience this suffering. I tell my children, work hard for your kids. I’ll just help you so they don’t end up like us.”)

Despite the slight resentment between Morong farmers and the estranghero, the two parties have learned to coexist.

Bernie admits that there’s no one to help him; he has encouraged his two children to pursue different livelihoods and managing three hectares of land is too much work for one man.

There would also be no one to take up the job once he’s retired.

Even then, he wouldn’t go so far as to say that the estranghero will be the ones to inherit the land.

There is the issue of the landowners, whose families have always lived in Morong. Bernie says they would not easily entrust their lands to so-called strangers. There’s every chance that when there’s no farmer left to manage the fields, they will simply sell the land to be converted into commercial districts.

But Bernie says that as long as he is able, he is willing to guide the estranghero through the ins and outs of farming in Morong.

Kailangan ko sila, kailangan rin nila kami. Hanggang kailan, ang tanong. Hanggang kailan?” he asks.

(“I need them, but they also need us. The question is, till when?”)


BERNIE WAS ABLE TO BEAT THE ODDS, while Resty was not. Bernie risked more hoping for higher rewards, while Resty risked what little he had, simply hoping to survive.

Resty is the face of many farmers in Morong whose investments bore no fruit. He is also the face of those greatly affected by the El Niño, which was technically a mild one even though its impact was anything but.

Sa tagal ng pagsasaka ko, ngayon lang ako nakaranas ng nagkaganoon at ganoon ang nangyari sa mga palay, ang pagkakasira ay iba. Noon, masira man, may maaani ka pa rin. Ngayon sobra,” Resty says.

(“This was the worst that I have ever experienced in my long years of farming. This was the first time that my crops were damaged that much. In previous El Niños, I still managed to save some harvest. This time it was different. My crops were really scorched.”)

Even during what they used to consider bad seasons in the past, Resty was still able to salvage 25 to 30 sacks of palay. Now he was only able to harvest just four and a half sacks.

According to the Morong Agricultural Office, 86 farmers from Barangays Maybancal and San Pedro filed for crop insurance after their fields were scorched by the mild El Niño. Based on the damage assessment of the local authorities, half of the damaged crops were at the reproductive stage and amounts to P2.61 million. The other half was at the vegetative stage, amounting to P408,000. But these are conservative estimates because not all El Niño-affected farmers applied for crop insurance.

The effect of El Niño in the Philippines is relative. Because the country is not a solid land mass, there are parts that get sufficient rain, even as others suffer dry spells.

This is true even in Morong. Based on information from the Samahan ng mga Pangulo ng Asosasyon sa Morong, Rizal, only an estimated 200 hectares of the 700-hectare irrigated agricultural land was affected by the mild El Niño. Only 176 farmers out of 1,463 in Morong suffered disappointing yields.

As of April 25, the Department of Agriculture pegged the El Niño damage to P7.96 billion — equivalent to a volume loss of 447,889 metric tons. This included P4.4 billion in losses for rice and P3.89 billion for corn.

The El Niño affected 277,889 hectares of land, affecting 247,610 farmers and fisherfolk across all regions in the country.

Cagayan Valley was hardest-hit, comprising 33.60 percent of the total damage, followed by Cordillera, Bicol, Mimaropa, and Bangsamoro. Calabarzon, where Rizal is located, registered 2.22 percent of the total agricultural damage.

All told, the damage due to the El Niño this year is still less than that of previous El Niño seasons.

According to the Department of Agriculture, the El Niño in June 2009 to May 2010 caused P17.44 billion in damage across the country. Agricultural losses amounting to P15.2 billion were recorded nationwide when during the El Niño from February 2015 to July 2016.

But with climate change, there is a danger that the weather conditions that led to these losses could become more frequent.

“Extreme weather conditions are effects of climate change. More frequent extreme events occur. We can observe it when there’s an overabundance of rain, or insufficient amount of rain,” says GMA resident meteorologist Nathaniel Cruz.

El Niño, which used to happen only ever four to six years, could become a more regular occurrence.

At kapag naging mas madalas ang El Niño at ang epekto niyan dito sa atin ay kawalan ng ulan, eh tayo basically is an agricultural country, eh anong mangyayari ngayon sa ating crop production?” he asks.

(“And what would happen if El Niño, which leads to less rain, comes more often? We’re basically an agricultural country, and what would happen to our crop production?”)

Indeed, damage that used to be relative could simply become the norm.

For farmers, the new law allowing free importation of rice is their biggest problem. JESSICA BARTOLOME

AS FEARSOME AS IT MIGHT BE, farmers take the specter of climate change in stride. They will just have to adjust, they say, as they always do. They’re used to it after all.

What they find harder to swallow than being at the mercy of nature is being at the mercy of the government — particularly the government’s recently signed Rice Tariffication Law.

Ang climate change ‘yan nama'y lugar-lugar ah. Ang apektado kami eh iyang pagka-[tariffication] rice na iyan na iyang ang laki ng aming gastos, ang inaani namin napakababa ng presyo,” Bernie says.

(“The effect of climate change depends on your location. Our pressing problem is rice tariffication because we spend too much on capital but our crops are bought at a cheap price.”)

Republic Act 11203 or the Rice Tariffication Law, signed by President Rodrigo Duterte last February, allows the unlimited importation of rice as long as private sector traders secure a phytosanitary permit from the Bureau of Plant Industry and pay the 35-percent tariff for shipments from neighbors in Southeast Asia.

Critics expressed concern that the influx of imported rice could drown the local rice farmers’ livelihood. But its proponents said the law earmarks P10 billion for the Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund, of which P5 billion will be allotted to farm mechanization and P3 billion to seedlings.

As of mid-July, tax collection from rice importers reached P6.5 billion, according to the Bureau of Customs. The collection was pegged at an average of P1.4 billion per month after the law took effect in March.

The measure may sound promising in the long run, but for farmers like Bernie who depend on a measly profit in the industry, the daily struggle to make ends meet should not be taken out of the picture.

The expenses prior to planting is already deadly: farmers have to shell out money for diesel, crude oil, seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, and labor — only for their harvest to be sold at such a low price.

Hindi ‘yung climate change [ang problema], ‘yung presyo ng aming palay. Gaya ko, narito naman kayo nu’ng bilhin ko ang hunos nila (ng mga nag-ani), nu’ng panahong iyon ang presyo ng palay na tuyo P20, ngayon ang presyo ng tuyong palay P18. Bente ang bili ko. Ibebenta ko ng P18? Ano ako nagbibigti na?” he says.

(“Climate change is not our concern, but the prices at which our palay is sold. When I bought the portion that the reapers earned during harvest season, the price of dried palay was P20. Now the price has dipped to P18. Buy at P20 and sell at P18? That’d be like hanging myself, right?”)

The price of fresh palay went down to as low as P12 in some areas, four months after the Rice Tariffication Law was implemented. Former Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol has claimed that Filipino rice farmers could lose as much as P114 billion this year because of the steep drop.

President Rodrigo Duterte recently said rice importation should be halted during harvest season to prioritize the welfare of the local farmers. He called this a “happy compromise.”

How would this be reconciled with the Rice Tariffication Law since Section 3 of the act repealed all laws “prescribing quantitative import restrictions”?

Senator Cynthia Villar, the principal author of the law, says Duterte has the special power to restrict the importation.

Whatever action the government decides to do cannot come soon enough for rice farmers.

Marami nang nawawalan ng pag-asa. Marami nang tinatamad. Unang-una, hindi ‘yun El Niño eh, 'yung baba ng aming produkto dahil sa rice [tariffication] na iyan,” Bernie says.

(“Farmers are losing hope. Many are being discouraged. It’s not because of El Niño but because of rice tariffication.”)

Farmers in Morong begin to plant again. JESSICA BARTOLOME

BY LATE JULY, THE UNFORGIVING HEAT has been blown away and replaced by constant rains.

And after a wait that’s longer than usual, the farmers in Morong were able to start anew.

The beginning is precarious — each time the field gets flooded with water, their hopes are raised, only to be dashed again when the ground sucks the water dry.

Ang obserba namin, umulan, nagkatubig, nakapagpunla na rin kami. Bigla rin nawawala ang tubig. Kaya sabi namin, gutom pa ang lupa,” Resty says.

(“We could see there would be rain, there would be water, so we are able to start preparing the seedlings. But the water would suddenly be gone. The land is still thirsty.”)

Finally, the rains stick, and the ground blooms with fresh seedlings.

Resty is somehow able to pay off his P25,000 debt to the local co-op by saving money from his construction sideline and borrowing a little from a relative. He borrowed another P25,000 from the co-op to be able to plant again this season.

There’s no telling what will happen in the next few months. Will they get a reprieve and have a wet season that’s within their normal standards? Or will one of the many typhoons expected to cross the country this year wash their fields empty again?

Either way, they have no choice but to grin and bear it. Resty accepts a new construction job once again, just in case the worst hits again.

Maski alam kong walang mangyayari... siyempre ang kalamidad hindi natin alam kung may darating o ano. Maski alam kong lalaki ‘yung tubig o matutuyot, siyempre mahahanap mo ‘yung trabaho sa pagsasaka,” Resty says.

Masakit man tanggapin dahil ‘yung hirap namin at inaasahan ng pamilya...nagkautang pa, nagkaganito pa kami. Walang magagawa talagang sakripisyo ng magsasaka.

(“Though farming is full of uncertainties, my hands are comfortable in the field. Even though it hurts because all our hard work and our family’s source of income was lost — we ended up in debt — we must accept that this is a sacrifice that farmers have to make.”)

Bernie, on the other hand, is reelected as the president of their association. No one else would like to shoulder the problems the El Niño had brought upon their group, he says in jest.

The culprit behind the burning of the farmers’ water pump was never identified but Bernie believes the suspect was one of their own — someone who was also trying to save his crops from the unforgiving heat.

Walang aamin noon pero kasamahan rin namin iyon na maaaring nagagalit sa akin o sa aming mga namumuno kasi hindi namin napagbigyan ‘yung gusto nila… [na] gamitin namin ‘yung malaki naming bomba eh wala ngang mahithit. Wala ngang tubig eh. Kaya ang ginawa namin parang nag-reduce kami para ma-maintain ‘yung dumarating sa aming tubig, maraming makinabang,” Bernie said.

(“No one would admit to the crime but I believe the suspect was also one of us. It’s probably someone who resents the decision of the association’s officials not to use the bigger water pump that we have during the dry season. We do not want to use that pump because water was already scarce. We wanted to efficiently use the irrigation so that many would benefit from it.”)

Looking at the wet field being planted again with new seeds, Bernie takes in the picture of fresh hope after what had been a long, desperate summer. He acknowledges the bitter truth.

Hindi natin kayang labanan ang kalikasan eh. Kusang dumarating 'yan, nagdadaan,” Bernie says. “Kung halimbawa may El Niño naman eh ‘di laban lang nang laban. Kaysa naman magtigil ka sa bahay, wala namang ibang choice… ‘Di ba sabi nga’y kung maikli ang kumot, matutong mamaluktot.”

(“We cannot go against the force of nature. It comes and it goes. If there’s El Niño, then we'll just have to continue fighting. We cannot stop. We have no choice. We’ll have to bend and bear with the situation.”)