Opinion

Honest thoughts on Villar’s ‘Seeds of Life’

This is our land.

There are over seven thousand beautiful Philippine islands. There are about 30 million hectares of God-given land.

That is a lot of land.

from “Seeds of Life: Farm Schools for Farmers and their Children;” p. 2

These were the first four sentences written from Sen. Cynthia Villar’s first known foray in writing.

Villar has been no stranger to controversy. With comments that are more or less aimed to spite every Filipino in the country, from the farmers to the researchers, Villar claimed her status as “that one lady obsessed with subdivisions.”

She is also infamously known for spearheading the highly controversial Republic Act 11203, also known as the Rice Tariffication Law, which focuses more on rice imports than exports. A big no-no for the local agricultural scene.

The front cover of the book itself.

Recently, Villar finds herself in hot water yet again. Perhaps for good reason, as she believed that overworked and underpaid medical frontliners have to adjust for our economy to thrive.

It goes without saying that Sen. Villar is a clear manifestation of the out-of-touch elite. One of the many currently sitting comfortably in the halls of the Senate. But no comment or public relations nightmare could serve as a better testament to such obliviousness than in her own children’s book.

One that has been collecting dust in my bookshelf for less than a year now.

Titled “Seeds of Life: Farm Schools for Farmers and their Children,” it was co-written with Yvette Fernandez, and illustrated by Paul Eric Roca. Copies of the work were distributed in various talks attended Villar. 

It was September 10, 2019, Tuesday, when Sen. Villar arrived by helicopter to officially commence the 3rd National Conference for Small and Family Farmers in the office of the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA). It was there when a copy of the book, which was then just a viral image viewable on Twitter, landed into my hands.

This was actually one of three known books of the series, made with the same creative team and almost the exact same covers, with minimal variations. However, both the second (titled “Park of Life: The Las Pinas-Paranaque Wetland Park – A Ramsar-Listed Wetland of International Importance”) and the third (“River of Life: It All Begins with the River”) focus more on her native Las Piñas. The former deals with the aforementioned park in its glory. The latter covers the Las Piñas River and the pollution plaguing it.

It only took three pages for me to start wondering how this one book managed to even be conceptualized, let alone make it to the printing press.

Sarcasm aside, curiosity took over, and I found the strength to read the remaining pages in the next thirty minutes or so. It was not a lengthy read, as it is only a total of 21 pages, children’s book style. Putting the book down, and lying against a wooden chair, some points were needed to be raised.

As much as it would be fun to nitpick the book from the ground-up, it would be more fitting to formally critique it, as a means to address the misconceptions that the book is mostly based around, and to shed light on the startling reality that our “backliners” have to endure.

Photo from Pop News Philippines

It is neither a good children’s book nor an insightful look at our nation’s agricultural sector.

Normally, a children’s book is, as it says in the name, a book made for children. This means that the book is designed in a way that would help enrich and educate young people everywhere in the simplest ways possible. This is why books under this type resort to colorful illustrations and simple yet creative vocabulary to fill the pages. The cover alone gives that impression.

A few pages later, and though the illustrations should help keep young readers attentive, children would simply find themselves bored at the huge blocks of text and corporate slang that they might have little to no knowledge about.

Photo from Business Mirror

One page exemplifies this, as it introduces business statistics to explain a point about farmers having to endure high-interest rates as a consequence of seeking loans. Specifically, a sentence states that they get “20% interest a day, or 7,200% a year.” This immediately comes after introducing children to the otherwise vague practice of “5-6,” or gaining 5 pesos, and paying 6 pesos in return.

As you go further into the book, you would see an entire page is dominated by a total of six paragraphs that discusses business concepts, such as supply and demand, and credit and financing. Neither of these ideas would linger in the thoughts of children if they were the intended audience to begin with.

However, even if adults would read this, none would find it any bit interesting because the way that the book presented agriculture as a place for broken dreams and lost opportunities. One only has to read just how the book emphasizes the hardships, especially poverty, over how farmers feed every empty mouth and fill every empty stomach that they can.

The interest statistic presented here generalizes the situation, and it does not consider all of the other potential factors. As of writing, there is no official source that states that all farmers are expected to pay back with 20% interest a day, and there is not a single article online that has stated that many farmers would even go through this.

If adult readers would be seeking any piece of information about commerce, perhaps they would be better off looking for other sources.

In other words, the book would have benefited more from a lesser focus on the commercial side of things. As this is a book distributed in a seminar for farmers, Villar should instead opt for a simpler use of language on “educating the farmers”.

An easier to understand vocabulary, however, can also serve the secondary purpose of presenting education about the farmers, if ever other people managed to get their hands on a copy. Not even the mention of the vegetables from the song “Bahay Kubo” can pass this book off as a children’s book.

Neither can it be passed off as a small form of entertainment for the grown-ups.

No business will earn this much.

Many of our farmers do all these things because they do not know.

from “Seeds of Life: Farm Schools for Farmers and their Children;” p. 8

This entire book presents a problematic and hypocritical take on local farmers.

Imagine if you were a farmer. You struggle to keep your business afloat against a market flooded by imported goods, due in part to the Rice Tarification Law that deregulated the number of imports, and in turn, decreasing the prices of local products. As the book illustrates, you struggle to provide food for your families, while also fearing the possibility of your own children making unwanted sacrifices because of unfortunate circumstances.

An infographic that discusses the very low wages farmers normally receive (Photo from Bantay Bigas South Cotabato, and was posted in Davao Today)

Imagine if you managed to have a copy, and opened to one specific page, which elaborated that farmers are the causes of their own problems by “not knowing that there are easier and faster ways of getting things done,” and by not understanding “how to run the farm efficiently to make it profitable.”

Imagine having to read that because of how many farmers borrow money through practices that they never wanted to do in the first place, disregarding the fact that there are other possible reasons as to how they would arrive at such a situation.

We cannot deny that some of these do happen in a few instances. However, painting farmers in such a negative and overall very stereotypical light would not only alienate the farmers that this book is supposed to appeal to, but also to others who should be expressing support to them. 

Though the first parts of the book emphasize the importance of farmers being the providers of citizens’ food supplies, more effort should also be made in explaining factors such as the nation’s failing economy and the lack of proper programs that would help them.

What can be considered as more damning about the writing is how it conveniently negates the unfair system‘s part in bringing about these unwanted experiences. No farmer wants to be caught in a position that forces them to undergo hardships, but they are because of a long history of being taken advantage of or harassed by private institutions and even by the national government.

One would only have to look at the ghastly legacy of Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco Jr. While many view him as a philanthropist, his crimes linked to the tragic Coco Levy Funds scam starved many coconut farmers, and even now, only a handful have been lucky to receive a single centavo from Cojuangco’s immortalized sins.

All because the farmers were mislead with the hope of having something to nurture their families.

One school in every city and town in the Philippines. All 1600 of them. That is my dream. I know it will happen. One school at a time. We can all make it happen if we all work together.

from “Seeds of Life: Farm Schools for Farmers and their Children;” p. 22

The second half dedicates itself to shameless self-promotion.

As the book then shifted its focus later on, more emphasis was placed on Villar’s Social Institute for Poverty Alleviation and Governance (SIPAG) farm schools. This and all succeeding pages now present the idea that these schools are the ultimate answers to much of the farmers’ needs, from education to business management.

However, the problem does not lie on the thought of promoting a farm school, as even companies such as Jollibee and McDonald’s promote philanthropic endeavors through their brands. It lies more on the constant mention of the “I” pronoun.

The “I” in prIde. “I,” as in the schools that “I” (Sen. Villar) built, with the money “I” spent.

This would ultimately be interpreted as completely self-congratulatory and self-serving. Considering that this is supposed to appeal to many social dimensions, the heavy emphasis on the “I” would only drive readers away from the book.

What should have been done instead is to focus more on the “us” in trUSt. As in, we could make the agriculture sector better for everyone if each of “us” came together to make it possible.

In other words, the book should have been inviting not only the farmers to participate in the mission for better modes of livelihood. This way, not only farmers would be compelled to attend these schools, knowing that the knowledge given would benefit them financially, but even people who are not farmers would sense the urgency and importance in the matter.

Photo from the Office of Sen. Cynthia Villar, and was posted in Business Mirror

The verdict

Seeds of Life, in all honesty, is a very painful read. Children would not find any source of enrichment from paragraphs that have no sense of entertainment or fun, and adults would not be able to bear the otherwise basic exploration of timely matters. It is a very stereotypical portrait of farmers as clueless and criminal in nature.

There is no shame in promoting farming schools, but Villar’s high-profile sense of pride and self-righteousness (and the apparent lack of any other program to better the agriculture sector) only further dwindled the book that has a quality of an unedited first draft.

Photo from C! News Magazine

Though better writing and presentation would benefit the book, there should be more done outside of the writing process. No matter what happens, as long as the Rice Tarification Act stands, this book would always be viewed as an attempt to improve one’s public image rather than a means to inspire hope for the agricultural sector.

After all, even if the farmers attended all of the sessions provided by the schools, how can they be assured that they can stand tall in a market overrun by imports? How can the families of the farmers who attended the conference be assured financially?

But what can we do? The persecution that farmers face has seemingly no end, with state agents constantly hounding every single laborer as a potential terrorist. Mass arrests continue and farmland destruction persists, even during a pandemic such as this one.

What we can do is to tell their story, and let these tales of injustice shed light on the failures of the national government. Remind the rest of the nation that no amount of infrastructure built over greenery could cover the pool of blood underneath them. 

The farmers are essential, and we have to remind ourselves and everyone else that they rightfully deserve peace and above all else justice.

Whether Villar had good intentions or not, this book makes it quite clear that the pleas of the farmers continuously fall onto deaf ears. Whether Villar likes it or not, this book will serve as a reminder to future generations that she truly is “that one lady obsessed with subdivisions.” A land-grabber even.

Now, let this book be a symbol that immortalizes her obliviousness. Let this be the fruit that her incompetence sows. Let this be our seed for a fresher start. [P]

Photo from Pop News Philippines

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