WHY  WE  ARE  HUNGRY

MANILA, MAY 29, 2008
(STAR) HINDSIGHT By F Sionil Jose - Recently, in Quezon City, long lines of our countrymen bought kilo packages of government subsidized rice. It’s been ages since such lines formed, during those three years of the Japanese Occupation when we bought a pack of Akebono cigarettes, rice, or rations of cloth. The rice crisis today brings to our immediate consciousness how a bankrupt leadership has misruled and neglected the masa, and will now face the consequences of that neglect.

The Koreans call it “spring hunger,” the Ilokanos call it “gawat” — these are the lean months of June, July and August when the first rice crop is yet to come in September. It is when the farmer has little to eat. In the old days, he had two meals a day — the first at 10 in the morning and the second at 4 in the afternoon. Now many of our poor in the city and on the farm eat only once a day, often not rice but boiled bananas with either salt or sugar or nothing at all.

I remember one such period in my boyhood when hungry farmers massed in front of the town municipio shouting, “Mabisin kami” — we are hungry.

Come this rainy season when there will be no more cheap rice, I hope that there will be no rice riots; that there will be no massive demonstrations fueled by hunger and that the markets will not be raided by irate mobs.

But if it does come, this anger and hunger should be organized into a real motive force that will lead to the abolition of the great injustices that have crippled us; so that at long last, an oligarchy that has abandoned its duty to the Filipino people will either be destroyed or it will resolve our internal contradictions and return what they have stolen from us.

The rice shortage is not by itself a crisis in production or demand and supply. It is traceable to the age-old agrarian problem, which dates back to the Spanish regime and riles us to this very day. It is rooted in inequitable land ownership, in the profligacy and tyranny of landlords, in their tenacious control not only of the economy but also of the political system. It is a national malaise whose solution is entirely in our hands.

How did this food shortage come about? Was it possible to foresee it? To have avoided and even resolved it way, way back? Why was nothing really done to make this country self-sufficient in food? Japan, with only 12 percent of its total land areas arable, has long been self-sufficient in rice.

The Root Of It All

Subsistence economies can take a lot of punishment, but there is a limit to the peasant’s patience. When that limit is reached, then he resorts to the only and final argument he is capable of unleashing — the bolo. This is evident in Rizal’s novels, in the peasant Cabesang Tales who, victimized by a friar landlord, continues to pay the exorbitant rent that is raised every year. The limit comes and he rebels.

Such peasant rebellions were common in our country in the past, during the Spanish regime, and on to the future. My generation was witness to the Colorum uprising in Pangasinan in 1931, the Sakdal revolt in 1935 which was better organized (it engulfed towns in Laguna, Bulacan and Nueva Ecija) and the Huk uprising in 1949-53, and now the ongoing New People’s Army rebellion — all of them agrarian-based, all of them involving our very poor, fighting an army whose enlisted men and officer corps come from the same social class.

When will this most tragic contradiction in Filipinas ever be resolved?

One of my most lasting memories happened when I was not yet going to school — I was perhaps six. My grandfather had carried me on his shoulder then brought me down at the edge of a field, the field itself golden with ripening grain. He pointed to the near distance, the boundaries, he said, of the land that he had claimed from the forest with his brothers. Then, the mestizos claimed the land and overnight he and the other settlers were made tenants.

I looked at the old man’s face and tears were streaming down his withered cheeks.

Years later, I traced the story of how he and the other farmers who had come down to Central Luzon from the Ilokos were cheated of their lands by the ilustrados. The Americans in the Twenties started a nationwide cadastral survey to separate titled lands from those that could be claimed by settlers. The learned men, the ilustrados, took advantage of the unlettered farmers who cleared the forest, cheated them.

In the early Sixties, I had sojourned in India to look at, among other things, the Bhoodan Movement, initiated by that unique agrarian reformer, Vinoba Bhave, who was walking from village to village convincing the rich landlords to donate some of their land to the landless. There, I met the legendary Wolf Ladejinsky. In the Seventies when Contrado Estrella was Secretary of Agrarian Reform, as one of his consultants, I asked him to invite Ladejinsky to look over the program initiated by President Marcos. It must be remembered that Marcos abolished tenancy — a monumental achievement no Philippine leader ever attempted.

A word about Ladejinsky. He came to the Philippines with General MacArthur in 1945 and was the architect of the momentous land reform program in Japan, then the land reform program in Taiwan. In India, he was a consultant of the Ford Foundation.

Why didn’t MacArthur promote agrarian reform in the Philippines? This could have been effected immediately before July 4, 1946. Ladejinsky confirmed what we had always suspected. Like most American proconsuls, MacArthur had developed relationships with the landlord elites who, after all, controlled Philippine politics. MacArthur was not going to dismantle the vaunted privileges of his friends. But he had no such ties in Japan; it was easy to push through a sweeping agrarian reform program that became the primary impetus for Japanese rehabilitation and growth after Japan’s defeat in World War II.

Ladejinsky concluded that overhauling feudal agrarian societies is possible only with dictatorships or authoritarian governments. Marcos wasted all those years that he did not utilize his iron rule to overhaul the landscape, and neither did his successor, Cory Aquino, who declared a revolutionary government and promised agrarian reform, but did nothing as revolutionary as Ladejinsky proposed.

A Harsh Life

What most Filipinos — those who are urbanized and middle class — do not realize is the physical hardship of being a rice farmer: the hard labor, the hours in the sun and rain, planting rice or harvesting it. The body aches. The itch, the shivering in the cold. It is so easy to recognize the peasant — the dark, blemished skin, the gnarled hands — the feet that are like “ginger.”

Years back when I took my children to the old hometown, they saw my former classmates — all farmers; they asked why they all looked so old, why their teeth were bad and I told them because a farmer’s life is harsh, that is why many farmers would sell their last carabao so that their children could go to school and escape the drudgery of the farm.

Way back when the International Rice Research Institute in Los Baños was being set up, I talked with the American donors and asked them not to work just on new breeds of rice, but to fashion farming tools that lessened the hard work of planting and harvesting. There are such machines now, but they require oil to operate. This has become so expensive that it is necessary to go back to manual labor.

Why Production Is Low

It is not true that the peasant is extremely conservative and oblivious to innovation and change. Sure, he does not want to take risks because if his crop fails this year, then he will go hungry. He has to see first how the new techniques increase production and when he sees this, then he follows. But where are the technicians? They are mostly in the towns, behind desks, instead of being out in the field.

Critics say the agrarian reform program has failed. It has not failed — it has not been fully implemented. The landlord that gave credit has been replaced by usurers — not by rural banks and/or cooperatives.

Then the harvest comes. Where are the drying facilities? Provincial roads are used to dry the grain. Anyone motoring during the harvest season can see this. And there are not even enough barrio roads to connect farms to markets.

After harvest, the farmer has to sell his grain to pay his debts. Immediately he is victimized by the cartels, usually composed of Chinese middlemen.

Akira Takahashi, the Japanese scholar who has long been studying Filipino rural society, expressed concern that when the farmers become beneficiaries of agrarian reform, they soon become landlords and they pass on to poor rural workers the task of tilling the land.

This is completely understandable. In Japan, the landlords who were deprived of their land invested in industry. In the Philippines, there is no such industrialization to absorb the new capital.

But the more likely reason is because farmers do not like the tedium, the harshness of farm life.

Can we be self-sufficient in rice?

Of course we can. In the Fifties, a foreign aid agency conducted a demographic survey and came out with the conclusion that the Philippines, with its natural resources, can easily provide food for a population of 80 million.

In the Sixties, the late Executive Secretary Rafael Sales conducted a rice productivity program that ended with the Philippines exporting rice.

For all the depredation and plunder that Marcos and his cronies inflicted on the country, Marcos pushed through a program that stopped short of affecting the sugar and coconut lands for, as he had planned, it was these two export crops where he was to make billions with the monopolies that he started.

Many of our agricultural crops are seasonal. Eggplants and tomatoes, for instance, are often left to rot when they are in season or are so cheap because of overproduction. Why haven’t we learned to preserve them, dry them, pickle them as do the Japanese, the Koreans and the Chinese? Billions of pesos are lost each year in our own rice harvest because of poor storage and rat infestation. So many products can be processed out of rice, for instance, or sugar, or even sweet potatoes. Why haven’t we done this? A look at the shelves in our supermarkets reveal so much of what our food manufacturers have failed to do with our own products. Methods of diversified agricultural production are not new — other countries in the region have long been doing them. What is wrong, indeed, with us?

Why aren’t simple land-use laws passed and implemented? In Japan, idle lands are taxed heavily so that even in cities like Tokyo, there are vegetable gardens in residential areas.

Anyone motoring in the Central Plain can see large tracts of fallow land. How many excellent agricultural farms have been transformed into housing areas, into golf courses?

Within the next 15 years, our population shall have ballooned to a hundred million. More than 60 percent of this, according to demographic estimates, will be living in the cities, posing grave urban problems, necessitating even now not just urban land reform, but urban infrastructures to safeguard not just the environment but also the health of the people. Manila needs a much better garbage disposal and water purification system. As every Manileño knows, Manila Bay has become a cesspool.

There will be less people working the land as more and more the mechanization of farm labor becomes imperative, thereby raising fuel consumption and costs.

Words To Live By

In our life, there are slogans, quotations from famous people, memorable passages that we remember, etched in our minds and hearts forever and sometimes guiding us like a single candle in the dark. There are a couple which are apropos for our times. The first I came across when, in pursuit of my interest in agrarian reform and revolution, I visited the Emiliano Zapata ejido in Morelos in Mexico. The ejidos are the cooperative farms set up by the Mexican government in response to the widespread clamor for land by the people. As most of us know, Emiliano Zapata was the legendary revolutionary and this was his exhortation to his men when they faltered: “Men of the North, it is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees!”

The other was handed to me by my old friend, Anding Roces, who cannot recall who said it but he knew it was a Loyalist-defiant affirmation during the Spanish Civil War, “En me hambre, mando yo. In my hunger, I command!”

How truly stirring are these words, how relevant they are today. Now, when after 30 years of struggle, the New People’s Army and the communist-inspired Left have hardly achieved anything, bankrupted as they are by their barnacled adherence to a corrupt ideology. How fitting it is for us to remember these words as we continue to be held hostage to a political elite, allied with a rapacious oligarchy.

But do these words really mean anything to a generation suffering from revolutionary fatigue? How sad that the young today no longer have fire in their bellies, that so many of our young writers would rather escape our sordid reality in fantasies and Harry Potter stories.

Indeed, so many of us would rather live on our knees.

And in our hunger, we would rather beg and obey than stand up and command!

In the end, what ails us most is our colonized minds, our failure to shake off the colonial hangover and what it has done to us: crippled our ways of thinking, affirmed our sense of inferiority, which has festered in us long after the actual colonial shackles are gone.

It is the colonized mind of our leaders which does not permit them to see how well and how firm the indio can stand alone. I bring to mind that Grandfather who fought in the Revolution and yes, that other peasant, Cabesang Tales, and all those Colorums, those Sakdals and those Huks who fought for the land which they so loved and worshipped.

Could their heirs be still with us?


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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