An agenda for agri co-ops
Why has our record on farmer cooperatives been so spotty over the years, while countries around us that we mentored on agricultural co-ops made them such an important force for achieving agricultural dynamism? If we were their former mentors, we must have been good at it once.
Indeed we were — and our neighbors knew it. In the late 1950s on to the ‘60s, FACOMAs (farmers’ cooperative marketing associations) were a byword in Philippine agriculture, and a model for the Asian region. FACOMAs seemed so ubiquitous that the word entered my vocabulary as a young six-year-old in Muñoz, Nueva Ecija, where my father briefly taught at the Central Luzon Agricultural College or CLAC (later to become Central Luzon State University). My elder siblings and their friends would gleefully shout, “Ayan na ang FACOMA!” as they waited on the roadside for sugarcane-laden trucks, whose drivers would obligingly stop and let them pull out a cane or two to munch on. On hindsight, the trucks must have belonged to FACOMAs of farmers planting cane in the CLAC campus.
Dr. Eulogio “Eloy” Castillo, a UP Los Baños colleague who once headed the Agricultural Credit and Cooperatives Institute or ACCI (now Institute for Cooperatives and Bio-enterprise Development or ICOPED), told me that as a junior ACCI staffer then, he had been tasked to train Korean and other foreign visitors on our FACOMA model. Many years later, an officer from the Indian Farmers Fertiliser Cooperative Limited (IFFCO) told him that our FACOMAs were their model and inspiration when they started in the 1960s with 57 member co-ops. Now, IFFCO’s network of 36,000 co-ops is said to be the largest fertilizer cooperative in the world. But our FACOMAs that saw their glory days in the 1960s now seem all but extinct.
As of 2015, Thailand counted 3,822 farm co-ops comprising 6,666,437 members, making up 56 percent of total cooperatives membership. Vietnam reports more than 10,000 agri co-ops, also comprising more than half their total. We have 18,581 listed co-ops, of which agricultural, fishery, dairy, and agrarian reform beneficiary co-ops together number a measly 1,720, less than 10 percent of the total. I’m told that if one includes “multi-purpose co-ops” with farmer-members, the ratio goes up above 40 percent, but the numbers still pale in comparison to our neighbors, who trained with us in Los Baños not only in agricultural science, but in running co-ops as well.
What happened? Why can’t we sustain our farm co-ops, much less grow and empower them like our neighbors did? The reasons most commonly cited are weak management and leadership; poor understanding, appreciation, and commitment for cooperative principles, practices, and objectives; and lack of safeguards against unscrupulous self-motivated officers.
Knowing the crucial role agri co-ops have historically played in the dynamic farm sectors of Thailand, Vietnam, Korea, and others trained, ironically, by our own ACCI, the USAID-funded GROW-COOP (“Generating Rural Opportunities by Working with Cooperatives”) Project has embarked on the formulation of an Agricultural Cooperatives Development Agenda (ACDA). Agriterra, working with my colleagues at Brain Trust Inc., is facilitating a participatory formulation of the ACDA that would be owned and authored by agri co-op stakeholders themselves. But such a roadmap cannot succeed unless government itself, through the Department of Agriculture, puts agri co-ops at the center of the country’s agricultural development strategy. Agri co-ops development must be squarely among the top KRAs and KPIs (key result areas/key performance indicators) in the DA’s annual program planning and budgeting. It must also support a strong Cooperative Leadership Academy or network of Cooperative Leadership Training Institutes, a mechanism Korea successfully used to empower its well-known Saemaul Undong grassroots community movement.
We hope to see our own DA pursue the ACDA with the same seriousness as the Thais, whose agriculture ministry is in fact called the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives. Need we wonder why they have long beaten us at a game we supposedly helped teach them to play?
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