Checkmate: This is not a sports column

(Felix Mittermeier/ Unsplash)

We Filipinos love our basketball. You may have no interest in sports but will still know who Robert Jaworski is. Alvin Patrimonio. Benjie Paras. Basketball is the biggest sport in the country, its players the highest paid local athletes, the sport earning millions, if not billions, each season. Nothing wrong with this. We love our basketball.

But outside the country, the Philippines is known for other sports: in the past, it was billiards because of Efren “Bata” Reyes, bowling because of Rafael “Paeng” Nepomuceno and Arianne Cerdeña, boxing because of Senator Manny Pacquiao, and more recently, Hidilyn Diaz for weightlifting and EJ Obiena for the pole vault.

Basketball is our national sport, its teams well-funded, its players well paid. In contrast, many other athletes, unless they come from very rich families, languish from lack of funding, with only a few managing to excel despite their lack of support from both institutions and the people around them. That is, until they win something, and then suddenly, their victory is also everyone else’s.

Pacquiao’s and Diaz’s stories are familiar: working with what they have (which wasn’t very much in the beginning), supporting themselves while they trained, barely scraping  until they finally began winning competitions big enough for the country to take notice. But for every successful Filipino athlete, there are hundreds, if not thousands more training by themselves, lonely, unrecognized, and unsupported, at least until they make a big enough splash for people to take notice.

Once in a while, we get a Wesley So, who got so sick of the way he was treated he accepted an offer to play for another country, one that offers him the institutional and societal support he needs to thrive and excel, one that recognizes his talent. You can’t blame him. He went to where he would be supported and most people would do the same. In any case, the Philippines may have lost an athlete, but it doesn’t seem to care because chess doesn’t fit its idea of a sport.

(Felix Mittermeier/ Unsplash)

You’re probably wondering why an agriculture editor is rambling about sports. I’m just trying to say that some crops, like rice, are like basketball. Well-loved to the point of being synonymous with being Filipino, its industry well-supported. Nothing wrong with this. We love our rice. No meal is complete without it.

But for every crop like rice, there are many, many more agriculture industries that are left behind because, well, they aren’t popular. The vegetable sector complains about this, as well as the fisheries, bamboo, and ornamental plant sectors, and so on and so forth. Other industries, like coffee and cacao, have gained prominence through the efforts of their practitioners, who are mainly from the private sector and who have utilized their resources to make it to the world stage. But even then, winning international competitions doesn’t translate to a thriving industry, because many coffee and cacao farmers are still underpaid and lack institutional and societal support.

I’m not saying the local agriculture industry should strive for export or world recognition all the time, though I do think that the Philippines should at least strive for self-sufficiency within its 7,100 islands. Hard to call yourself an agricultural country when so many people cannot afford to buy food, and when your farmers and fishers are some of the poorest and most marginalized sectors.

I’m also not saying that we should be less interested in popular crops like rice (as a biko apologist, this would be hypocritical), but that the government should give more institutional support to other crops and agricultural industries that show potential (and support and guidance for those that don’t yet) right now, while they still need it, instead of when they become big through their own efforts and their victories suddenly become a point of pride for everyone, even the people who didn’t care about them before they became a thing.

Struggling industries should be given support now, while they still need it, and not when they’re finally stable, when it suddenly becomes sexy to be associated with them. It’s time we stopped glorifying resilience and started normalizing comfortable, supported growth, particularly when there are available resources that can be channeled towards such.

Otherwise, we’ll end up with more Wesley Sos–farmers leaving the industry or the country because they want decent lives that allow them to thrive, or even worse, just survive. And who can blame them?

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Yvette Tan
Yvette Tan is Agriculture magazine's managing editor’s web editor. She is an award-winning writer who likes to eat, travel, and listen to stories about the strange and supernatural. She is dedicated to encouraging people to push for sustainable food sources and is an advocate of food security, food sovereignty, and the preservation of community foodways.

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