MANILA, March 24, 2004
By Paolo Romero - In today’s world of high-tech business ventures and music television videos, Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino (KNP) standard-bearer Fernando Poe Jr. wants the youth to go back to farming, a spokesman said yesterday.

Poe relayed his message through KNP senatorial candidate Salvador Escudero, who was attending a forum organized by the Project Development Institute (PDI) — a non-government organization concerned with issues affecting farmers, fisherfolk, indigenous tribes and agrarian reform — at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City.

Escudero, who was attending the forum in Poe’s stead, said most youths today — especially those whose parents are farmers — refuse to engage in farming because it no longer pays well.

"The tendency of the youth is to make farming their last priority because it has become an unproductive venture. That’s why the average age of farmers is going up, about 40 years old and above," he said.

Escudero, a former agriculture minister, said this development is alarming since 70 percent of families in the Philippines are dependent on agriculture in one way or another.

"Where agriculture goes, so goes our country," he said.

Escudero said Poe will set up a one-stop-shop to encourage young Filipinos to venture into farming.

PDI executive director Aurea Teves said many of those who attended the forum, representing 79 people’s organizations in Central Luzon and Southern Tagalog, were disappointed over Poe’s absence.

The forum, dubbed "Agrarian Reform, Politics and Institutional Change," was organized in cooperation with the Department of Agrarian Reform.

"Everybody was disappointed. It’s too bad since this was (Poe’s) chance to personally present his programs to show that he’s really sincere," Teves said.

One of the members of an indigenous people’s group stood up and told Escudero that what he is saying may not necessarily be what Poe has in mind.

"You can only scale a fish if you catch it," the forum participant said in Filipino, alluding to Poe’s move to send a representative.

Teves said Poe had confirmed his attendance but canceled his appearance at the forum just 15 minutes before he was scheduled to speak.

Presidential aspirant and evangelist Eduardo Villanueva had addressed the forum earlier in the day while another presidential candidate, former senator Raul Roco, also canceled his appearance at the last minute.

Teves said they appreciated President Arroyo’s early response to their invitation. Mrs. Arroyo begged off weeks before the forum, citing a full schedule even as she vowed to address the concerns of farmers and indigenous peoples.

Escudero tried to placate the audience by putting on a show of calling Poe on his mobile phone. He told the audience that Poe wanted to know who they will vote for president in the May polls.

Escudero also reportedly called the President and posed the same question to the audience. When there was a weak reply from the crowd, he "explained" to Mrs. Arroyo why she was apparently not chosen by the audience.

He also said Poe vowed that if he is elected president, he will complete the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law by the end of his term.

Poe also said he will set up a "total package" for farmers that includes support services and incentives, credit, irrigation, price support, farm to market roads and assistance in availing of high-yield crops and livestock.

Poe has been criticized for sending his spokesman, opposition Sen. Vicente Sotto III, to various fora.

In January this year, Poe failed to offer concrete policy details to businessmen who quizzed him during a dialogue on what he planned to do in his first 100 days in office if he beats Mrs. Arroyo in the May 10 elections.

He also sidestepped difficult questions on birth control, agriculture and political fund-raising.

The business leaders pressed Poe on how he planned to boost the competitiveness of the Philippines and also asked whether he would offer perks to foreign investors, but he gave few details.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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