Death in the middle of summer
According to Amartya Sen, the traditional analysis of the problem of famines “focusing on food supply is shown to be fundamentally defective.” It is, he argues, “theoretically unsound, empirically inept, and dangerously misleading for policy.”
While there is no famine in Central Mindanao, the violent dispersal of farmers protesting in Kidapawan City last April 1, clearly manifested our policymakers’ lack of understanding of the relation between hunger and human poverty.
“Starvation is the characteristic of some people not having enough food to eat,” Sen writes in “Poverty and Famines.” “[I]t is not the characteristic of there being not enough food to eat.” The recent drought has affected 10,865 farmers, destroying 70 percent to 100 percent of corn, rice, banana and other crops in 18,238 hectares in the provinces of Maguindanao, North Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat, a report from Oxfam indicates.
Police and security forces were sent to the protest site, a stretch of the highway, to clear it. The protesters, reports say, were supported by Left-leaning cause-oriented groups. But some government and police officials suggest that these groups were using the farmers for their political agenda.
But there is nothing wrong in fighting for the rights of the poor, whatever your ideological inclination is. The demands of farmers don’t appear unreasonable. In fact, democracy thrives in dissent. The actual problem ensues when the state uses violent and excessive force to deny poor people their right to express their sentiments.
The farmers were only begging for food, but local officials—who should be responsible for their welfare—have served them death.
According to the World Bank, more than a third of the Filipino workforce is into agriculture, but agricultural output only accounts for 12 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. The Department of Agriculture has a budget of P48.447 billion for 2016, which is not even 2 percent of the P3.002-trillion National Expenditure Program for the year. Clearly then, our farmers and fishermen are the most deprived. If we add to this narrative the P71-billion coco levy fund that has been denied our coconut farmers, its rightful owners, then the reality is tragic.
The problem is clearly institutional. Sen notes that “a capitalist economy will not only permit the private ownership of the means of production—that is indeed one of its main foundations.” The big problem is that our farmers do not have the means to produce their own goods. They have to borrow money from unscrupulous financiers. Given the reality of a crop failure, they will be unable to repay their loans. Since it is often hard to access government financing programs because of the murderous bureaucratic red tape in the country, then the logical conclusion is a disaster waiting to happen.
The greater evil is that instead of protecting the interest of our starving farmers as a solemn mandate, some government officials have resorted to the use of violence. Our officials need to understand that “the exchange entitlements faced by a person depend, naturally,” according to Sen, “on his position in the economic class structure as well as the modes of production in the economy.” Our farmers, exploited no end, are powerless in the design of economic and social policies. For this reason, their lives and the future of their children have been stolen from them.
The fact that cause-oriented groups are there and that one local church has been helping the protesters should be welcomed as a principled way of giving life to our democracy. In truth, our government has failed, policy-wise, in instituting practices and ways to reach out to farmer-beneficiaries without the latter having to resort to protests. Precisely, if the mechanisms have been set in place to help poor farmers, then they would not need to fight for their survival.
“Policy is a function of political organization, and depends on a variety of factors, including the nature of the government, the sources of its power, and the forces exerted by other organizations,” Sen claims. Given the impact of climate change, a drought may not be avoidable, but its effects can be mitigated. Indeed, “starvation implies the reality of poverty,” but poverty should not automatically result in starvation because the country has the resource to be able to redistribute to the poor all the basic social goods as a safety net.
Sen thinks that there are “institutional factors affecting food entitlements through production and exchange.” Our farmers, in this sense, will not only need tractors, fertilizers and seeds. In order to truly change the lives of our farmers, what is needed is to transform our age-old feudal system in order to give back to the farmers not only their land but also their basic freedoms so that they are liberated from the oppressive ways of a feudal economy and can live dignified lives.
Christopher Ryan Maboloc is assistant professor of philosophy at Ateneo de Davao University. He has a master’s degree in applied ethics from Linkoping University in Sweden.
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