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Landlessness brings hunger, unrest to rural Philippines

Prolonged drought exacerbates adverse conditions already present, farmers, church workers say

Mark Saludes, Kidapawan City

Mark Saludes, Kidapawan City

Updated: April 14, 2016 09:45 AM GMT
Landlessness brings hunger, unrest to rural Philippines

Corn plants are among the most affected by the drought that has hit the province of Cotabato since the last quarter of 2015. (Photo by Vincent Go)

Analie, a 15-year old farm girl in the southern Philippine province of Cotabato, stopped going to school last year. The money her parents saved for her education was spent during the last planting season.

The girl's parents were optimistic that the land they rented would yield a good harvest and their daughter would be able to go back to school.

But that was before the onslaught of the dry spell that left thousands of hectares of farms barren since last October. 

"We spent everything we had," Analie says. Every single centavo the family saved is gone. All their efforts came to nothing. Analie's dream of going back to school remains a dream because of drought.  

"School can wait," says the optimistic young girl. She hopes that with another planting season later this year and a good harvest, the family will be able to pay their debt to the landlord and send her to school.

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Last month, Analie and her parents joined some 6,000 other farmers and tribal people who barricaded a major highway in the province to demand food and government support. "We had nothing to eat. We had no money," says Analie. 

Armed policemen, however, dispersed the protesters with truncheons and bullets on April 1 resulting in the death of at least three farmers and the arrest of 74 others who were charged with assaulting an officer. 

Elenita Bugnat Mangga's husband, Ruben, was one of those arrested and remains in police custody. Unlike Analie's parents, the Manggas have no land to till. They are agricultural laborers who are only able to work during the planting and harvest seasons.

But because of the drought, there was nothing to plant or to harvest. "We had nothing to eat but root crops," says Elenita. There is food in the market, she says, "but we have no money to buy it."

She says they decided to join the barricade to be able to eat. "Who doesn’t want a sack of rice?" Elenita says, adding that organizers of the protest promised that they would be able to get something from the government.

Farmer Elenita Bugnat Mangga takes care of her youngest child while waiting for husband, Ruben, who was arrested by authorities for joining the barricade of hungry farmers on April 1. (Photo by Mark Saludes)


Dying farms

Most people in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao who rely on agriculture for a living have been severely affected by the drought that started in the last quarter of 2015.

"We have no irrigation system," says Mike, Analie's father. "We depend on rain. Sometimes we have to haul water from nearby streams to feed the plants."

Analie says she and her siblings have to walk about half a kilometer every morning to fetch water for the crops. "I can only carry a small pail of water. My older brothers and sisters carry bigger containers," she says.

All the sacrifices were not enough to rescue their plants. "After several days all our plants were destroyed, leaving us roots crops to eat," says Analie, adding that even the root crops have become smaller.

In the Philippines, only 29 percent of the total 5.6 million farm parcels covering about 7 million hectares of land have an irrigation system. The remaining 71 percent depends on rain and natural waterways.

The government's provincial agriculture office admits that Analie's family is among the 42,765 farmers in Cotabato province who have been affected by the severe drought.

As of March 18, some 50,000 hectares of farmlands in the province have been damaged. The government estimates that US$24 million worth of agricultural products have been lost. Some 12,000 corn farmers were badly affected, losing about US$4 million in just three months. Some 7,000 coconut farmers also lost some US$2.8 million. 

Most affected by the drought are 8,619 rice farmers who lost about US$10 million during the first quarter of 2016. Some 1,939 banana growers have a shortfall of about US$2.8 million during the same period this year.

Josephine Torres of the Department of Agriculture, however, says that food supply in Cotabato province is still sufficient and still available in the market. 

She says her office has "no record of scarcity of food products especially high-valued crops," adding that the effect of the drought on food supply will manifest "in the next few months."

"The problem is the people’s purchasing power, especially those whose income depends on land and agricultural harvest," says the agriculture official. She says farmers who invested their money on crops affected by the drought have no other source of income.

To remedy the situation the agriculture department distributed 500,000 cuttings of sweet potato as an alternative crop and allowed farmers' organizations to borrow water pumps to mitigate the effects of the dry weather.

The provincial government also conducted "cloud seeding operations" as early as January. The rain-inducing mission dispensed silver iodide or dry ice on the clouds, but it was not enough. The government later stopped the operations.

A tribal woman dries leftover rice for the next day's meal. (Photo by Vincent Go)


Lack of government support

Government efforts to help farmers did not reach its targeted beneficiaries.

"We did not receive any assistance," says Mike who lives in the hinterlands of Magpet town. "There was no one who looked into our situation," he says. "If only somebody from the government came, I would not have had to join the barricade to beg for rice."

For Elenita, who lives in the village of Binoongan on the outskirts of Arakan town, the government is a health center and an old village hall. "Nobody goes to our village, except when politicians visit us during election season," she says.

In the middle of a dried up patch of land sits Elenita’s hut where she was preparing "kayos," a type of wild yam that can be poisonous if not prepared properly. "I have no choice," the woman says.

Villagers sit outside a hut in a hinterland village in Cotabato province that has been badly affected by drought. (Photo by Vincent Go)



The independent think-tank Ibon Foundation estimates that of the estimated 5 million farm workers in the Philippines 1.5 million are in Mindanao. Data from Ibon show that at least 90 percent of farm workers do not own the land they till.

Oblate Father Eduardo Carino Vasquez says the majority of farmers in Mindanao, especially the landless, have been experiencing hunger due to severe poverty even before the onslaught of the dry weather.

Father Vasquez who has been working with farmers in Mindanao since 2003 says the basic reason for poverty in the southern Philippines is landlessness.

"Farms are now in the hands of huge transnational companies and local elite families," says the priest. "Poverty in Mindanao is really a picture of physical poverty. It is the lack of properties and privileges on the part of the poor, and even access to health services and food security," adds Father Vasquez. 

He said most people in hinterland villages lack food and have no ability to buy something to eat.

The priest blamed land-grabbing by early Christian settlers, who took the lands from tribal people, for the poverty that plagues the region. 

"Today land-grabbing has become sophisticated," he says. "The mono-cropping industry is one form of land-grabbing. What’s worse, it destroys the natural diversity and threatens food security."

Sister Famita Somogod, coordinator of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines, blames palm oil, banana, and pineapple plantations of transnational agricultural giants for threatening the survival of small farmers.

The Philippine government plans to expand oil palm plantations from the current 73,000 hectares to as much as 1.2 million hectares by 2030.  

In Mindanao, pineapple plantations alone account for 79,501 hectares of land while banana plantations cover 31,607 hectares. As of 2009, nine huge companies own a combined 70,129 hectares of pineapple and banana plantations.

Sister Somogod says agrarian reform is a "boiling social issue between the haves and have-nots." In the province of Bukidnon, there are at least 50 plantations while three out of four farmers do not own the land they till, says the Catholic nun.

"Landlessness is the very reason why the actual tillers and producers of food remain among the poorest in the Philippines," she says. 

Cotabato-based Oblate Father Ignacio Rellin says the only way the government can resolve poverty and hunger in the Philippines is through "distributive justice."

"If the problem is rooted in landlessness and the incapacity of people to access food, we should equally distribute the country’s wealth to the people," says the priest. He says "distribution means giving land to farmers who are food producers and not to companies or entities with industrial interests."

The young Analie hopes that someday her family will be able "to get out of our misery." She continues to hope that someday she will be able to get a diploma that will become her passport to the outside world.

"My parents are farmers and I was born a farmer. I always dream of getting a job in the city, far from the land where I was born," says the young girl. She says it was despair that pushed her father to join the protest.

"It never came to me to question God why this is happening to us," she says. "But I think I can ask the government why they did this to us."

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