08 June 2007

Revisiting Naga's agriculture sector

My column for this week's issue of Vox Bikol.

THE PUBLIC presentation on six research areas by visiting UBC graduate students clearly demonstrates the value of speaking truth to power. It in fact forced me to go back to available data in the 2000 Comprehensive Land Use Plan of the city government, specifically its section on agriculture.

In 1998, it said, agricultural lands in Naga accounted for 75% of Naga's 84.48-sq kilometer area; the following year, it dropped to 68% of the total, due to the conversion of 616 hectares to non-agricultural use. By 2005, driven by the rate of land conversion since 1982, it was projected to go down to only 55%.

In 2000, it also said, Naga is self-sufficient only in two (beef and carabeef) of its nine major agricultural products; it is short on, and therefore outsources, rice (61%), corn (14%), vegetables (73%), rootcrops (91%), fruits/citrus (43%), poultry (89%) and pork (29%).

In that same year, the 2000 Census revealed that of the city's 26,317 households, only 5,790 (22%) own lands and further, 3,324 or 12.6% own agricultural lands. The national government's land reform program has a minimal impact, benefiting only 527 families (2%) of the total. These figures translate to average agricultural landholding in the city to 1.56 hectares.

Surprisingly, the chapter is silent as to how many of these households are exactly into agriculture. This is one of the huge data gaps on the sector that our current effort to update the CLUP hopes to fill in, with the help of the City Agriculturist's Office and hopefully the Camarines Sur State Agricultural College.

This is also one of the UBC Urban Agriculture Group's recommendations when it urged the city government to undertake comprehensive community assessments; create databases and incorporate GIS (an underutilized city government capability); collaborate with research institutions; adopt participatory technology development; and focus on "urban-specific" technologies.

In the context of the above information, does urban agriculture (UA) make sense in Naga? Off the cuff, I say it does, not because of my romantic notions and attachment to agriculture, but for the following practical reasons:

One, it is the missing link in economically empowering the urban poor. The separate UBC research report on the Kaantabay sa Kauswagan, Naga's social housing program for the urban poor, points to low income and limited livelihood opportunities available to its beneficiaries as the lingering major constraint to fully repaying their homelots.

UA-based livelihood opportunities centered on community gardens that would put to good use unproductive idle lands, particularly in the upland areas and the periphery of Naga's urban core, can address this long-standing need.

Two, the opportunity is self-evident: Naga outsources between 43-91% of its vegetables, rootcrops and fruits/citrus requirements. That is a substantial local demand that improved production by urban and rural poor communities can address.

Three, it will create an opportunity for meaningful engagement with the youth, particularly those who drop out of school (OSYs). Data show that of every 100 pupils that enter Grade I in the city, only 43 will be able to finish high school and 23 will go on to earn a college degree.

Youth-managed community gardens, as suggested by the UBC researchers, is a concrete mechanism for collaborative partnerships with the out-of-school subsector that will help move Naga to the next level, beyond its current focus on participative governance.

The above is simply an effort to make sense of the available city data, informed by the fresh perspectives brought in by our visiting researchers. Your own inputs are most welcome to further enrich it, as the city planning staff tries to come up with clearer, more responsive policy directions and programs that will restore the vitality of Naga's agricultural sector.