OPINION: Prioritizing our agricultural sector will help resolve the plastic waste problem

enablePagination: false
maxItemsPerPage: 10
maxPaginationLinks: 10

When talking about eradicating plastic waste, the conversation often eases toward advocating sustainable lifestyle, but the necessary solutions are more complex than that. Photo by JL JAVIER

Editor's note: Rae Rival is a member of Rural Women Advocates (RUWA) and Gantala Press, a feminist literary press.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The Philippines is an agricultural country, yet forest denudation, uncontrolled logging, construction of mining sites, palm oil plantations, and mega dams threaten its biodiversity. Its agricultural workers, which comprise the majority of the population, remain hungry, poor, and landless.

One of the pressing environmental issues today is the amount of plastic waste in the ocean. According to a 2015 report by Ocean Conservancy and the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment, we rank third as the largest source of discarded plastic that ends up in the ocean.

Ocean plastic affects the majority of marine animals, but its repercussions also find their way back to human beings as plastic ingested by marine animals may degrade into microplastics that are undetectable yet easily consumed by humans, says Dr. Nonillon Aspe, a professor at the Mindanao State University in Naawan, Misamis Oriental.

“There are studies being conducted on marine microorganisms that eat plastic and there are algae products that can be used as alternative to plastic. But we have a long way to go. For now, people will have to cooperate and be responsible,” he adds.

When we talk about solving the problem of plastic waste, the conversation often eases toward consuming zero-waste products and advocating sustainable lifestyle. Our initial assumption is that these options are not accessible to low-income families. Mabi David, founder of vegan kitchen Me & My Veg Mouth, thinks otherwise.

“For me, it’s not enough to simply promote a sustainable lifestyle at the level of the individual because too often, it just means corporations outsource the responsibility to us,” she says. “Every little thing counts, of course, and we should be responsible citizens, but no matter how many metal straws or eco bags we use, for as long as corporations continue to produce packaging by millions daily, individual efforts will have very minimal impact.”

Plastic wastes are produced daily by countless corporations to manufacture packages made of the cheapest material. They make huge profit out of the concept “tingi” or products made available in small, “affordable” sachets that target low-income families.

According to David, the bottom of the pyramid marketing began in the late 1990s and early 2000s: “It essentially launched the sachet economy and saw the lower class as the market while positioning it as providing the poor with more choices, access to the same aspirational goods that the middle class enjoy. It didn’t take into consideration the environmental impacts.”

Until now, the sachet economy is thriving, and low-income earners are left with no choice because the root cause of the problem goes beyond what is or is not affordable; it all boils down to capitalism disguised as state policies.

Under neoliberalism, private capitalists, especially foreign monopoly capitalists, are given full advantage to plunder the country’s economy while the government and people are removed from any power to stop them. This includes policies that open our economy to indiscriminate outpour of foreign products, reducing the taxes of corporations, and removing the barriers for businesses.

Greatly affected by these policies are low-income families from both rural and urban areas. One grave example is the Rice Liberalization Law or R.A. 11203. It liberalized the importation of rice that almost paralyzed the local rice industry. In effect, the price of palay plummeted to ₱7.00 per kilo, leaving the farmers and peasant families hungry and buried in debt.

With prices of basic commodities skyrocketing, how can low-income families afford buying even their basic needs? According to the Amihan National Federation of Peasant Women, the Rice Liberalization Law is a man-made calamity to rice farmers, peasant women and families ⁠— worse than the aftermath of seasonal typhoons.

Genuine reform for agriculture

The liberalization of agriculture was institutionalized 25 years ago, when the country became a member of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. This made the country a mere supplier of raw materials and cheap labor, and a market to surplus products from capitalist countries. The Rice Liberalization Law, along with other policies, cater to the demands of the World Trade Organization.

Cathy Estavillo of rice price watchdog Bantay Bigas urges the rice farming sector in the country to realize that their probable bankruptcy this coming harvest season due to the depressed farm gate prices is brought about by the government itself, because of its subservience to the Agreement on Agriculture.

As sustainability relies on food security and sovereignty, Amihan and Bantay Bigas also urge the government to implement the Genuine Agrarian Reform Bill and Rice Industry Development Act. These two proposed bills can slowly alleviate poverty, hunger, and unemployment.

Too often, lands that have been distributed to farmers are taken away from them or are converted. If the Genuine Agrarian Reform Bill is fully implemented, the few remaining agricultural lands will be nurtured and protected from being converted into subdivisions and malls. Giving the land back to the tillers will not only solve hunger; it will also give agricultural workers security of tenure and will prevent further damage to the environment.

Holding corporations accountable

“Actually capitalism harbors trash and use of plastics. We have no choice but to consume them dahil wala namang alternatives na makamasa,” says Feny Cosico, Secretary General of AGHAM, an organization advocating for science and technology for the people.

“Hindi gagawin ng kapitalista ang maging environmentally sound kung hindi siya kikita, kaya mahirap ipanawagan sa ordinaryong mamamayan na huwag magtapon at huwag gumagamit ng plastic. Baguhin dapat ang economic capitalism system na syang root cause ng pagkasira ng karagatan,” she adds.

City ordinances that ban single-use plastics are being implemented, but it is also important to make corporations accountable. Some state policies tend to cater to the needs of businesses more than the need to address environmental problems, since there are government officials who are also owners of (or closely associated with) multinational companies and corporations. International groups are initiating projects that expose brands who are “top polluters,” but we must recognize that the state and its policies are controlled by capitalists — that the media, our worldview, lifestyle, and means of production are controlled by corporations.

Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines agrees with AGHAM. The group asserts that the country’s plastic pollution problem is “invariably tied to the socio-economic conditions of the majority of the people.”

“A lot of Filipinos work with meager pay and are forced to avail of cheaper alternatives when it comes to their day-to-day need,” the group says in a statement sent to CNN Philippines Life, adding that the fight against plastic waste goes hand-in-hand with the “struggle for better wages for the average Filipino and a more equitable society,” and that businesses must be held accountable for refusing to develop actual solutions from their end as plastic producers.

Policies that allow capitalists to profit with unlimited powers must be replaced with policies that require environmentally-sound solutions that include managing the disposal and recycling of their products.

Toward self-sufficiency

The key to ending plastic waste and other environmental problems is self-sufficiency. Estavillo says that junking or repealing the Rice Liberalization Law would be the best solution to end the man-made calamity for rice farmers and peasant women.

The amount of plastic waste in the ocean reveals the effect of capitalism and policies that are only favorable to corporations. Many state policies do not consider long-term environmental solutions. Band-aid solutions, such as city ordinances that ban plastic, must be replaced with laws that address the root of the problem: a country that nourishes the need to profit without any regard for its resources, health of its consumers, and the amount of waste it will create.

Under the guise of globalization, foreign countries and corporations rake in huge profit while people are trapped in poverty. Our economy will continue to suffer if we do not put an end to the decades-long plunder of our natural wealth. The damaged land, forests, air, ocean, and bodies of water must all recover. We need to ensure that mining, logging, and other dangerous production will be prohibited and based on the needs of national industrialization.

According to Zenaida Soriano of Amihan, “The key to genuine agrarian reform is achieving food security that is anchored on self-reliance and self-sufficiency, and prioritizing the agricultural sector that will be the foundation of a national industrialization in the country.”

We must go beyond identifying brands that are top polluters and call for an end to exploitation and plunder of our natural resources, our people and our environment. This means reconsidering our membership to WTO and strengthening our small businesses, prioritizing our agricultural sector, and eliminating not just plastic but capitalism. We must eliminate plastic by reconsidering the system that allows corporations to exploit the environment, our country and its people.