Bernardo M. Villegas
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Business Covenant with the Pope

           Pope Francis spent most of his time in Tacloban and Palo, Leyte with the poor, many of them victims of Typhoon Yolanda still suffering from great economic deprivation.  It was not his intention, however, to romanticise poverty.  It is his greatest wish that as soon as possible these poor people, especially the children, would as soon as possible live with a minimum of physical comfort and decency as befit human beings.  It is my hope that the few business people and government officials who were fortunate enough to be among those who had a dialogue with the Pope have pledged, whether officially or unofficially, to work for the liberation and promotion of the poor.  As he wrote in “The Joy of the Gospel,” the Church expects all to work to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor.  He reminds especially government and business leaders that the word “solidarity” is a little worn and at times poorly understood, but it refers to something more than a few sporadic acts of generosity.  It presumes the creation of a new mindset which thinks in terms of community and the priority of the life of all over the appropriation of goods by a few.

          The harsh reality in the Philippines is that the nation’s wealth is still concentrated in the hands of a few, a result of decades of a feudal structure and oligopolistic control of vital industries, justified under the pseudo-nationalistic “Filipino First” policy.   There is without doubt a need for basic structural reforms especially through some constitutional reforms that will remove the vestiges of “the rich Filipinos First” policy and through a competition law that will break up the remaining oligopolies in strategic industries.  Pope Francis, however, points out that “Changing structures without generating new convictions and attitudes will only ensure that those same structures will become, sooner or later, corrupt, oppressive and ineffectual.”  What is needed is a change of heart, a new mindset among the moneyed class.

          Business leaders must live the true spirit of solidarity, which is a spontaneous reaction by those who recognize that the social function of property and the universal destination of goods are realities which come before private property.  The private ownership of good is justified by the need to protect and increase them, so that they can better serve the common good; for this reason, solidarity must be lived as the decision to restore to the poor what belongs to them.  Once these convictions and habits are deeply ingrained in those who own the country’s wealth, then the structural reforms will guarantee long-term inclusive growth.    To repeat, changing structures, without changing hearts and minds, will not remove injustice and inequities.

          Since the poorest of the poor in the Philippines are in the rural areas and are involved in either agriculture or fisheries, it is most important that the change of mindset towards authentic solidarity will be among those who have the control of land and other natural resources.  I am glad to observe that there is an increased interest among large investors in agribusiness activities in the time-tested nucleus estate system of farming perfected by the Malaysians in such high-value crops as palm oil and rubber.  Made famous by FELDA and FELCRA in Malaysia, this approach to farming combines the advantages of large-scale cultivation and processing by big enterprises (the nucleus estate) and the participation of thousands of small farmers in supplying the raw materials to the nucleus estate.  The big investors (such as Sime Darby, Guthrie, etc. in Malaysia) took upon themselves the responsibility of helping small farmers with the appropriate infrastructures, technology, financing and marketing services in  a symbiotic relationship inherent to the nucleus estate system of farming.  This can be applied not only to palm oil and rubber (which are appearing in bigger numbers in Mindanao) but also to coconut, sugar, cacao, coffee, etc. as has already been applied successfully for many decades to bananas and pineapples in Mindanao.

     I compliment business groups like First Pacific, Roxas Company Holdings, ABrown, the DACON and the Lorenzo groups, among others, for their fledgling efforts to apply the nucleus estate farming system in the Philippines.  I also know of significant efforts in coconut regions like Nakar, Quezon; Southern Palawan; Eastern Visayas and some regions in Mindanao to consolidate coconut lands so that they can be managed along the lines of nucleus estate.  Another very encouraging trend is the increasing interest of large banks like Development Bank of the Philippines, the Metrobank, the Land Bank of the Philippines, and the Bank of the Philippine Islands in the nucleus estate approach to farming as a way of complying with agri-agra requirements of the Central Bank.  They are no longer satisfied with either purchasing government bonds or paying the penalty, which can amount to hundreds of millions of pesos, as a substitute for actually investing in agricultural ventures.  I just hope that the new version of the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law being crafted by our legislators will not throw a monkey wrench into these laudable efforts to help small farmers improve their lives.

          The Pope will be especially happy if many of these initiatives to help small farmers will be located in Eastern Visayas (Leyte and Samar) where he saw some of the most unfortunate victims of natural disasters and where for decades poverty incidence in the remotest regions has been as high as 50 to 60 percent of the population.  Although his primary objective to visit us in the Philippines was to strengthen our faith in and love for Jesus Christ, the Pope would be very happy if his presence among us inspired our business leaders, working closely with our government officials, to live solidarity with the poor in the very concrete way of nucleus estate farming. For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia