Looking Back

Basic food sufficiency, then and now

Someone should study panic-buying trends in different countries affected by the coronavirus. That masks, hand sanitizers, antibacterial wipes, alcohol, and bleach have flown off the shelves is understandable, but friends in Japan report about the shortage of toilet paper! Some places have seen people stocking up on food and medicines ever since the Japanese government suspended classes in all levels and discouraged public gatherings for the next few weeks. So far in the Philippines, there has been no panic-buying except for masks, sanitizers, and vitamins. That rice can still be had from markets and supermarkets made me wonder about the country’s rice supply and whether we still are working toward self-sufficiency or relying on imports.

There are many rice fields on both sides of the North Luzon Expressway; these fields, golden at harvest time, were immortalized many times over in the cheerful sunlit canvases of Fernando Amorsolo. However, the Amorsolo landscape has changed, especially in the south of Manila where rice fields are slowly being “developed” into gated communities or malls. When rice fields disappear, what happens to farmers, carabaos, and our rice supply?


National Artist F. Sionil Jose, who came of age in a prewar Pangasinan town, used to point out idle lands and rant, because these were not used to plant vegetables and fruit that people in the community could consume or sell. This reminds me of the seasonal fruit vendors in that small shady stretch of Katipunan, between the UP Campus and Balara; the place should have been full of kaimito a few weeks ago. But, according to an FB post by Ramon Sunico, the QC City Hall dispatched police to drive away the vendors and confiscate their wares because they didn’t have permits to peddle fruit there.

Kaimito harvest is limited to a week or two, and the people who gathered them free from what’s left of the Diliman forest lost the opportunity to make some change. How does the local government balance its need for permits and its treatment of small people who choose to make a living in our harsh metropolis rather than beg or steal?


These came to mind recently as I was looking for primary-source accounts of the Philippine-American War for use in class. Gen. Vicente Lukbán, writing from Samar in August 1900, made reference to impending famine in the pueblos resulting in low crop yield, due to a locust plague and the difficulties encountered by farmers who could not till the land when called to fight in the Philippine-American War. While Lukbán encouraged people to resist the enemy, he said that during a lull in engagements, they should continue the traffic in abaca, copra, and other traditional goods:

“For the same reason by which traffic in abaca is permitted [from the pueblos of Oras to Basey], the latter are obliged to devote themselves to the cultivation of the land by planting palay, corn, gabi, kamote, and other tubers, but principally palay — the kind that can be harvested within one hundred days — in order that, in case of the suspension of traffic in abaca, by reason of the circumstances of the war, they will not complain because then they will have their crops which will support them for a long time. The popular junta of each pueblo may try any person for laziness and make a report thereof to this government.”

Lukbán wanted his province to be self-sufficient, not requiring importation of rice and other necessities. He added this in his circular:

“Inhabitants who are not engaged in active warfare, and who do not own any land to cultivate shall be obliged to seek level pieces of [idle] land in the forests of the state which they shall plough in such a way that they can plant therein palay and secure crops in due time. Those who have worked and ploughed these lands shall be considered owners and no one can disturb their ownership or possession applied for to this government…”

Textbook history gives us the outcome of great battles like those in Mactan (1521), Pinaglabanan (1896), Caloocan and San Juan (1899), and Manila (1945), but rarely provides the details of the fighting and the human cost that resulted from them. History is subversive when it becomes relevant to our times. Seeking parallels between past and present makes us realize that our world should change for the better, and that things don’t have to be the way they are.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, food sufficiency, Looking Back, Vicente lukban
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