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Rice is the staple food of Filipinos. Remove it from the tables and there will be mass unrest. Blaming the weather and the limited global supply to explain the rice shortage is not enough. The government has to abandon its agricultural liberalization program and its overdependence on rice imports. The government must adopt emergency measures to increase the rice output of farmers. The time has come to implement a genuine agrarian reform.

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Why a rice shortage in the Philippines?

By MONG PALATINO Column: Peripheries Published:
April 02, 2008

Manila, Philippines — The price of rice is skyrocketing all over the world. This trend will continue until the end of the year, and it is causing panic in many Asian countries, including the Philippines.

Why is rice getting more expensive? The rice supply is decreasing. Floods in many Asian countries have affected the rice output in the region. Rice exporting nations like Thailand and Vietnam have also reduced their exports to prioritize their local needs. On the other hand, demand for rice has been increasing, especially in India and China.

The Philippines is one of the top importers of rice in the world. Rice is a politically sensitive commodity in this country. It is not surprising that reports of a rice shortage have energized political debate and public concern regarding the economic policies of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

If the global supply of rice is dwindling, what is being done to increase local production? In the first place, why is the Philippines, which is predominantly an agricultural nation, importing rice from other countries?

An article entitled "Food Security and Rice" by Dr. Onofre Corpuz provides some historical background on the rice shortage in the Philippines. The article mentions the policies of the government which have weakened the local rice industry.

According to Corpuz, the annual shortages in rice production should not be described as "crises." The Philippines has been importing rice since the 1870s -- this is more than 130 years. He blames government planning on food security for the shortages in rice production.

When Spain decided to open Philippine ports in 1835, it allowed its colony to trade non-rice products to other countries. There was a high demand for cane sugar, molasses, indigo, abaca, tobacco and coffee. Rice farmers began to plant these food items, and by 1870 there was already a rice shortage in the country. The Philippines began importing rice from Indochina. During the 1890s, the Philippines was importing 45,000 tons of rice annually.

Corpuz also mentioned the following reasons for the rice shortage during the Spanish era:

1. A primitive rice culture, from land preparation to harvesting;

2. A feudal system since the Spanish conquest. Families who owned small plots did not enjoy property rights;

3. A religious culture that meant 100-120 days of "enforced idleness," since work was banned during Sundays, town feasts and church holidays; and

4. Farmers or sharecroppers in haciendas (plantations) tilled small parcels of land yielding low output, thus preventing any savings. The farmers were always in debt, and the Spanish government had no assistance program for them.

After the Revolution of 1896 and the subsequent Philippine-American War, rice production was very low. Many lands had been idled. The population of carabao – water buffaloes that helped till the land -- was reduced. And many agricultural workers died during the war.

The U.S. civilian government instituted economic measures to cope with the low rice ouput. It fixed prices, bought foreign rice and undertook the distribution of rice down to the barrio, or district, level. From 1901-36, the colonial government bought 335.5 million pesos worth of rice.

Corpuz summed up the official policy of the U.S. government on agriculture: Producing the export crops offered better returns than producing the country's rice requirements domestically; therefore, the export crop sector must be promoted, and, in the event of rice shortages, foreign rice was to be imported at as cheap prices as possible.

This led to the cultivation of more land for producing sugar, abaca and coconut -- which produced raw materials needed by U.S. industries. These products were allowed to enter the U.S. market without quota and duty-free.

The colonial regime neglected to provide rice farmers with technological programs to increase rice yields. U.S. officials collaborated with local landlords in denying the right of small farmers to obtain property rights to their lands.

In 1931 Philippine Agriculture Secretary Rafael Alunan reported that Indochina nations produced 2,200 kilos of rice per hectare, while the Philippines produced only 1,225 kilos. He also claimed that the Philippines was behind Java by 30 years in terms of scientific and technological support for agriculture.

Corpuz could not understand the low priority given to rice farmers despite the fact that during this period, "the rice sector was the largest sector in the Philippine economy in terms of value of product, labor force engaged and number of families dependent on the sector for their livelihood, and hectarage covered."

Corpuz wrote that the policies of price controls and rice imports were done to keep rice prices low "for the benefit of salaried government employees and the service population of Manila, and to keep the food costs of labor in the export agriculture and domestic manufacturing sectors low."

This brief history of the rice sector can shed light on the numerous periods of agrarian unrest in the country. It can also correct the wrong notion that the Philippines was a rice exporting nation or that it has been teaching other Asians how to increase rice productivity.

The article can help explain the rice and food shortages that the Philippines are experiencing today. Something is wrong with an economic policy that prioritizes the planting of cash crops to be exported to other countries over the planting of food crops needed by the people who are suffering from hunger.

Instead of increasing local rice production, the government is dependent on imported rice. Since joining the World Trade Organization in 1995, the Philippines has become Asia's top rice importer with average annual imports of over 1 million metric tons.

Rice lands are also disappearing because of land conversion. The government today, like the Spanish and American colonial governments of the past, has been persuading farmers to plant cash crops and other export products. Big landlords are also converting farmland into golf courses, residential villages, and agro-industrial parks to apply for exemption from the land distribution program of the government.

The rice problem is made worse by rice smuggling. Unscrupulous rice traders collude with politicians and agricultural officials in hoarding rice supplies. This creates an artificial crisis which jacks up the price of rice. Corruption is also to be blamed. In the 2004 elections, President Arroyo distributed millions in fertilizer funds to her loyal supporters. The money could have been used to improve rice productivity.

Rice is the staple food of Filipinos. Remove it from the tables and there will be mass unrest. Blaming the weather and the limited global supply to explain the rice shortage is not enough. The government has to abandon its agricultural liberalization program and its overdependence on rice imports. The government must adopt emergency measures to increase the rice output of farmers. The time has come to implement a genuine agrarian reform.


(Mong Palatino is a youth activist, Global Voices correspondent and news editor of Yehey!, a Philippine-based web portal. He can be reached at mongpalatino@gmail.com

and his Web site is www.mongpalatino.motime.com. ©Copyright Mong Palatino.)


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