A Philippine senator confirms that the rice supply is stable. He adds that the rice crisis in the Philippines is artificial. He blames rice hoarders and smugglers for distorting rice inventories. He insists that the Philippines is experiencing a rice distribution crisis.
What is the government doing to address the problems of the rice industry? Is there a plan to punish the protectors of the rice cartel? What steps are being taken to ensure food self-sufficiency?
Recently, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo convened a food summit wherein she outlined her plan to improve the agriculture sector. Six assistance packages for agriculture were launched under the program of "FIELDS" -- F for fertilizer, I for irrigation and infrastructure, E for extension and education, L for loans and insurance, D for dryers and other post-harvest facilities, and S for seeds.
The government promised to build farm-to-market roads, ferry ports, and airports for agricultural cargo. Rice and corn processing centers will be developed. Funds will be released to promote organic fertilizer and hybrid seeds. The agricultural credit program will be enhanced. Rice subsidies are to be given to poor farmers. Arroyo is asking Congress to enact a law making farm land acceptable as loan collateral.
Since billions of pesos are allotted for the emergency agricultural program, Arroyo has vowed to appoint a deputy Ombudsman at the Department of Agriculture to watch over its transactions. Hopefully, this will minimize corruption in the bureaucracy.
Earlier, the government had proposed the reduction of tariffs to ease prices of agricultural products, especially rice. A Cabinet member is appealing to the public to reduce consumption of rice or to replace rice with other root crops. Restaurants are asked to serve a half-cup of rice to their customers. The private sector is enjoined to practice corporate farming or to ensure that employees are given rice subsidies through planting of rice by the country's biggest corporations.
Public universities are told to open their gymnasiums so they can be used as rice warehouses. Agricultural colleges are encouraged to increase farm demonstration laboratories to bolster the administration's food security and stability program.
The military was ordered to make military trucks and aerial logistics available for the delivery and distribution of rice around the country. Police forces were mobilized to guard against rice smuggling. The government cancelled the licenses of rice traders to weed out unscrupulous merchants. Agricultural officials are conducting spot inspections of rice warehouses to monitor the rice supply in the country.
President Arroyo reported that she has succeeded in persuading Vietnam and other countries from Southeast Asia to continue exporting rice to the Philippines.
Is the government doing enough to avert a full-blown rice and food crisis? Many people are not satisfied with the proposed action plan of the government. Senators are looking for a master plan which will comprehensively tackle the modernization of Philippine agriculture.
Many people believe the government failed to act quickly when Thailand and Vietnam restricted rice exports to the Philippines a few years ago. What was done to raise rice production in the Philippines? What support programs were implemented to boost productivity of Filipino farmers? The government-sponsored food summit was a belated effort of the government to compensate for its initial failure to draft a sustainable agricultural program.
Accusing the people of wasteful consumption of rice is unfair. The Senate president was right when he asserted, "There is nothing wrong with our eating habits, but there is with the government's spending priorities." Another lawmaker also argued, "The problem is not wasteful consumption but inadequate consumption. How can you waste rice when there is no rice to waste in the first place?"
Opposition parties are proposing the immediate release of local calamity funds for farmers. They also suggest that local governments should establish a food security early warning mechanism to ensure targeted distribution of rice.
The opposition believes that reactivation of peace talks with rebels will allow the unimpeded cultivation, planting, tending and harvesting of crops in conflict areas. Finally, creation of special investigative and prosecutorial teams is proposed to run after hoarders and corrupt elements in the agriculture department.
The government's proposed solutions to the rice and food crisis can be described as palliative. They do not address the root of the problem. The government continues to endorse rice importation and agricultural liberalization despite its failure to revive Philippine agriculture.
In fact, peasant groups explain that the country's growing dependence on rice imports is the reason behind the worsening rice crisis. A senator notes that rice importation "symbolizes the government's neglect of the local agriculture sector." An NGO adds, "Rice importation has not resulted in lowered rice prices, but worsened the bankruptcy of farmers and even placed the country in greater food insecurity."
Peasant groups want the government to increase local procurement of rice instead of relying on imports. The government, not rice traders, should buy more rice and other agricultural products from farmers. This will improve farmers' income while preventing greedy merchants from exploiting poor farmers.
Land-use conversions of rice lands should be stopped. Food crops should be prioritized over cash crops and biofuel crops. The bloated funding for debt and war spending should be realigned to food production. The rice cartel should be dismantled. Rice smugglers should be charged with economic sabotage.
Finally, the rice crisis today is an opportunity to review the land reform programs of the government in the past four decades. Landlessness remains a fundamental problem in Philippine society. Agricultural production is still backward. Perhaps it is time to implement a genuine agrarian reform. A sound agricultural system will propel the Philippine economy. At the same time, it will ensure that all Filipinos have access to food at all times.
(Mong Palatino is a Filipino youth activist, news editor of Yehey!, a Philippine-based web portal and Global Voices correspondent. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and his Web site is www.mongpalatino.motime.com. ©Coypright Mong Palatino.)
Rene E. Ofreneo, Executive Director
The President of the Catholic Bishop Conference of the Philippines, Angel Lagdameo, has a new version of the prayer ‘Our Father’. The queues for cheaper government rice (P18.25 a kilo compared to the commercial rate of P35-40 a kilo) have been lengthening in virtually all cities of this impoverished archipelago. The rice crisis has made the numerous poor – jobless, informal urban settlers, home-based producers, landless rural poor, ambulant peddlers, coastal fisherfolk, etc. – visible as they wait for hours, under the sweltering sun, for their princely share of 3 kilos of the government-subsidized rice. It is a great embarrassment to a government that was announcing in January-February of this year that the Philippines posted a GNP growth rate of 7.5 per cent in 2007, supposedly the highest in 26 years.
The poor, officially estimated at over 30 per cent of a population of 90 million (yet two-thirds of the population live on $2 a day and 65 per cent of the labor force are officially classified as belonging to the informal economy), have plenty of reasons to recite ‘Our Father’ the Lagdameo way. The price of rice, the nation’s staple food, is headed further skyward and is projected to reach P50 a kilo soon. From less than $500 a ton in January, imported rice negotiated in April is now priced between $1,000 to $1,200 a ton. It is obvious that the cash-strapped government can not sustain for long the crash political programme of importing as much rice as possible from exporters such as Thailand and Vietnam and distributing rice to as many poor Filipinos at a loss. The budgetary deficit arising from the rice importation frenzy is estimated to swell to as much as P50 billion this year, which, as one foreign commentator put, necessary if the GMA Administration has to survive.
Bread, a staple food based on imported American wheat, has also doubled, if not trebled in price in just three months. Meat and other food items have been shadowing the price curves for rice and bread. And since the poor devote as much as 60 per cent of the family budget on food, a doubling in the prices of rice, bread and other food items is like a time bomb waiting to explode.
Yet, miracles will not solve the rice and food crisis.
It is deeply rooted in the failure of the government to maintain the health of the agricultural sector, which has been ailing under the three-decade ‘agricultural deregulation’ program of the World Bank. Because of the mantra for a non-interventionist policy on agricultural markets, the government has been ambivalent and inconsistent in its support for the program of self-sufficiency in food, which was last attained in the second half of the l970s, under the Green Revolution program of the Marcos period. In the shift to agricultural deregulation, the country has become a major net food importer and is now the biggest rice buyer in the global market. Irrigation and other rural infrastructures for small farming have been neglected and are at various levels of disintegration, while a 20-year-old agrarian reform programme has been stalled by landlord opposition and bureaucratic inefficiencies. Given the weak political will to implement agrarian reform fully and the absence of a national land use policy, the conversion of agricultural lands, whether irrigated or not, into subdivisions, resorts, golf courses, idle speculative assets and so on has been widespread and has shrunk the country’s arable area by as much as one million hectares in two decades or so. In 2007, the government even concluded an agreement (now suspended) for the identification of 1.2 million hectares to be developed by Chinese agribusiness corporations to produce hybrid rice and other food items for Chinese consumption, as if the Philippines has so much land and food resources to give away!
The winners in agriculture are few. At home, only the transnational-dominated export agriculture producing pineapple, banana and other fruits is faring well. Of course, the American, Australian, Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese agricultural exporters are also big winners in the Philippine insatiable market. The Philippine food security was redefined by the neo-liberal economists as the capacity to import cheaper food outside, to export high-value crops and to generate jobs (and purchasing power) from labor-intensive export-oriented industries.
But today, with world food prices soaring, aggravated by climate change, oil price hikes and bio-fuel madness, the Philippines appears too weak and vulnerable. In particular, hunger and deeper poverty are literally staring at the millions of poor Filipinos.
This is why, on April 2, a multi-sectoral People’s Food Summit convened by urban and rural poor organizations, with the participation of the nation’s clergy, declared that the Philippine food crisis is first and foremost a governance crisis, not a mere outcome of the global food shortages. The government’s abandonment of the program of food self-sufficiency, neglect of the agricultural sector and its adherence to the World Bank’s untrammeled import and trade liberalization are at the roots of the Philippine food crisis – and even the larger agro-industrial decline of the country.
The People’s Food Summit bewailed the government programme of encouraging foreign investments on bio-fuel agricultural production, which collides head-on with the goal of food security and which further weakens the already weak implementation of the agrarian reform programme. Labor leaders in the Summit also argued that the erosion of the nation’s agricultural base is paralleled by the erosion of its industrial base under a neo-liberal free trade regime, which explains why colonies of ‘informal settlers’ have mushroomed all over the country, both in the urban and rural areas. The informal workers as well as wage workers in the narrow formal sector of the economy are among the biggest victims of the rising food prices because they are the least able to adjust to these prices because their wages and incomes are stagnant and have been declining.
The families of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), those able to go overseas for jobs they can not find at home, are also suffering because the appreciating peso has made the purchasing power of OFW remittances much smaller.
The Summit called on the policy makers and various sectors of Philippine society to transform the food crisis into an opportunity to overhaul the trade and development policy regime, push for the thorough implementation of agrarian reform, and promote sustainable agriculture that is not dependent on expensive and environmentally-injurious chemicals. Conquering hunger means reforms in economic governance and change in development policy directions.