From a son of Mindanao

I jokingly told my friend that I’m scared because right after I finish my studies here in Vietnam and go back to my country I will end up not going back to the Philippines but to something like Bangsa Moro. My family is based in South Cotabato, one of the southernmost provinces of the archipelago in the island of Mindanao.

Map of the Philippines
Map of the Philippines

For the past few weeks, the island has been once again the topic of media coverages after the trashed Memorandum of Agreement that was deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of the Philippines. This is not without complications such as the mediation (meddling) of the Malaysian government, terroristic actions that led to the death and injury of more or less a hundred individuals from the military, the rebel group, and civilians.

I was born in the central Philippines but I see myself more of a son of Mindanao. I spent my childhood there, had my elementary and high school education at Polomolok, lived my life like any probinsiyano until I left for college when I was sixteen. Although after that I seldom go back home, if not for Christmas vacations, I still feel the umbilical cord attached to an entity I consider my mother–Mindanao.

I know that it is an exaggeration to think that soon I’ll just see Mindanao seceding from the rest of the Philippines, but with the kind of government the Philippines has now, impossible is nothing, if I may borrow from Adidas’s marketing tag line. This government has done a lot of blunders before that it has lost whatever trust of the people left. And added to this blunder is the Mindanao fiasco. How could it have entered an agreement with the rebel group, thinking that in case the MOA is deemed unconstitutional, then they could easily back out from the agreement, as if it is dealing with brat kids, without thinking of the repercussions of the action?

Teenagers basking under midday sun in Basilan, Mindanao. (Photo courtesy of www.wikipedia.org)
Teenagers basking under midday sun in Basilan, Mindanao. (Photo courtesy of http://www.wikipedia.org)

I see Mindanao (or at least some portions of it) as an ideal place where plurality exists far better than in the more “peaceful” Luzon and Visayas. There is no need for assimilation, or if there is it is too subtle, because there is co-existence without having to give up whatever cultural identity each of the involved party has. I agree that there were times when this was challenged and was proven otherwise, but for the Mindanao that I know, in the deeper south, where religion does play a little role if none at all, this ideal is thriving.

Has the government looked into the core of the problem, or to be fair I’ll also be asking the same question to the rebels. The Muslim minority was given the autonomy they were asking for, but what happened? It never took them a long time to fall in the same pitfall that this government has long wallowed in–corruption, lack of political will, bad governance.

According to the U.S. Agency for International Development 2005-2009 Philippines Strategy document, the country faces a daunting range of development challenges. Some 43 percent of Filipinos live on less than 2 USD in a day as reported by the U.N. Development Programme’s 2007/2008 Human Development Report. That figure is even higher in Mindanao, where significant numbers of children are stunted, says the World Food Programme.

In areas affected by conflict, the effects of poverty are compounded by displacement. These people who are caught between cross fire are doubly, if not triply marginalized. Poverty and violence confronting their lives everyday with almost no hope of escaping from the complexities of human existence.

Conditions in evacuation centres are poor. Local government units charged with dealing with displaced people lack resources and are dependent on non-governmental organisations and external aid. Because war and displacement on Mindanao are cyclical, efforts to rehabilitate affected people tend to be unsuccessful. Quite apart from the suffering of displaced people, the broader population in Mindanao remains economically marginalised and lacks adequate access to basic social services.

The kind of Mindanao I grew up in may not be the same Mindanao I see in nightly news here in Vietnam. The language of the newscaster is as alien as the Mindanao being shown to me. But it does not mean that I do not understand what is happening. The solution may be variegated but one thing is certain, the government and its people must act now.

I still expect to go back to a Philippines that is in tact. With Mindanao still counted as one of its 7,107 island.

Where have all the rice gone?

I grew up in the vast plain of South Cotabato in the Philippines. The only obstruction there is to one’s view of the horizon is Mt. Matutum, an active volcano that nourished the soil of the province, making it the second biggest pineapple plantation in the world trailing behind that one in Hawai’i. However, despite the big revenues the local government gets from the planting of pineapples as well as the canning of these succulent fruit , not to mention the vast number of labor force Dole Philippines employs to keep its operation going, the people of South Cotabato have not abandoned the still important–and now gaining more media attention in the Philippines and in the rest of the world that considers it as their staple food–rice.

The pineapple plantation of Dole Philippines on the foor of Mount Matutum (Polomolok, South Cotabato, Philippines)

My father, who grew up in Iloilo, a province in one of the islands in central Philippines, used to tell his stories about their life as a family of farmers and how he, as a young boy, had to wake up at four in the morning to bring the carabao (water buffalo) to the nearby stream and ready the beast for an early morning plowing of their one and a half hectare land. Every time we eat our meal and he sees that we wasted too much rice, he will proceed in telling us the difficulty of growing rice and the things a farmer has to go through just so we can have our bowl of rice.

Before I left for college more than five years ago, a kilo of rice cost around 20 pesos (0.50 USD in current exchange rate); however, just before I left for Vietnam two weeks ago, I was shocked when a rice variety my mother used to buy now costs 40 pesos or roughly double the 2003 price. It even shocked me more when I saw a long queue of housewives and children alike obstructing the flow of traffic just to buy subsidized rice costing around 26 pesos. Where have all the rice gone?

It is rather ironic because the International Rice Research Institute, the world’s largest research group that develops new rice variety that will have to feed the burgeoning need of humanity’s need for rice is found in the Philippines. What is even more ironic is that the Philippines is the world’s biggest rice importer. Amid this crisis, one can only ask what happened to the results of the studies conducted to improve rice production?

Granting that this is a world-wide problem as the rest of the world say Myanmar, Singapore, Japan, Vietnam are also experiencing the same fate why are these countries able to come up with mechanisms that will better enable them to face the crisis more prepared and therefore less severely hit?

I am a believer that the world has sufficient supply of food to feed its six billion plus inhabitants. With all the current technologies that make this possible, this feat is not impossible. When we look deeper into the movement of rice from preparing the field, applying fertilizer, planting, harvesting, distribution, down to the retailers and then to the homes, one will conclude that there must something wrong in one or more of the processes involved. I do not want to simplify things here. The problem is just so complex to place the blame on any of the entities. But when we try to isolate them, we shall see that the part that concerns distribution brings about most of the problem. Here politics is more than just about building farm-to-market road or giving subsidy to the farmers; here it is the game itself, especially in countries such as the Philippines that remain to wallow in cloaked feudalism/landlordism where serfs are not anymore serving the nobility but are enslaved by the more pwerful, more vicious landlord–the state.

In South Cotabato, as in the rest of the country, the promises of the Compehensive Agrarian Reform Program remain suspended in air sucking out the breath out of each farmer’s lungs. I have known of a farmer in Landan, Maligo, Lam-caliaf who continue to toil their lands without any hope of eventually owning the land of their birth.

The problem of rice shortages in the Philippines is just a by-product of a century long unwinnable struggle of farmers such as my father’s family to own the land they plow and for the government to help them secure these lands.

More than the money generated by the local government from taxes and revenues derived from pineapples, the more pressing concern is the what, the where, and the how of rice production. If it continues to ignore this problem of the people queueing for a kilo or rice these same group of people might think of another option to get food, an option that no one of us will like.