More on the rice crisis

Posted: April 25, 2008 in Socio-Political
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Last March, when word of a possible crisis broke out, the government was swift to quash any speculations by saying that there was NO rice crisis. Proof of the absence of a crisis was the ABSENCE of long lines. As Agriculture secretary Art Yap so eloquently put it; “walang krisis kasi walang pila sa palengke”.

A week after that, people lined up for rice started to be more noticeable. We saw long lines of people in Bicol, then we started seeing long lines here in Metro Manila, along Commonwealth Avenue. So much for government’s reassurance that there wasn’t any crisis. Every time government tries to defuse a potentially volatile situation, the whole thing just blows up on its face.

It has been more than a month since the rice crisis started to become more apparent and more real than the government was willing to acknowledge.

I was particularly peeved by sight of fully-armed soldiers being dispatched to distribute rice. The image of armalite-carrying, fatigue-clad soldiers at NFA distribution centers is particularly disturbing. Either the government is conditioning the public of worse things to come, a virtual martial-law situation amidst a full-blown food crisis, or maybe the government simply has very low regard for poor people falling in line for rice, thinking that they would riot and overrun the NFA distribution centers and take away all the rice. I just think it’s wrong to have these armed-men distribute rice. For all its claims of economic normalcy, the government sure has a weird way of showing it. Armed-men on board military trucks distributing rice is anything but normal.

Next week we’ll have so-called Family Access Cards for poor people. Government has decided to pull-out hte P18.25 NFA rice form the markets because it thinks that even not-so-poor people are lining up to buy cheap rice. To prevent this from happening, they will be subjecting NFA rice to strict monitoring and distribution through these Access Cards.

Well, the reason why the not-so-poor are also lining up to buy cheap NFA rice is because they can no longer afford commercial rice at P34-40/kilo. Is it wrong for them to line up to buy cheap rice? Of course not. Times are getting harder and it is natural for people to look for cheaper rice. It’s not because they want to deprive others who are less fortunate.

Governent’s response should be to increase the volume of cheap rice available to an increasing number of people, the poor and even the diminished “middle-class”.

But in another move that highlights how bad the crisis has become, government has pulled NFA rice out of the markets and decided to issue Access Cards. First question we ask, who will be eligible to get Access Cards? Government says the poor. Who exactly are they? How many are they? How are they classified?

Government has a bad habit of understating the number of poor people in our country. Remember, as far as government is concerned, if you have something like P36 a day, that doesn’t qualify you as poor. Given the hocus-pocus when it comes to determining poverty threshold, we don’t know how many people will actually get Access Cards.

Second problem with this system is that it will rely on Barangays, or the village councils for distribution. It subjects the whole process to a lot of politics. Questions arise regarding possible abuses, of Baranggay officials favoring some over others, of rice being used as a political tool. He who controls the distribution of rice would be placed in an unusual position of great political influence. The Barangays would end up having the keys to a family’s next meal. Also, Barangays are not exempt from political influence coming from elsewhere, say, the mayor, councilors, congressmen and so on. Simply put, there’s going to be a lot of politics. There’s even the possibility of using the Access Cards as some twisted counter-insurgency weapon especially in the provinces. Suspected “NPA-sympathizers” may be deprived of Access Cards or forced to “denounce” their political affiliations before being granted the cards.

Speaking of Barangays, there was this one village chief in Commonwealth Avenue who decided to take advantage of the Access Cards by printing his own and selling them for P10 each. Very enterprising, but also very, very wrong. Gives you an idea how untenable the implementation of the cards is expected to be.

The worse is not yet over, as many analysts predict. Thai rice has hit $1000/ton level. Countries like Brazil have suspended the export of rice surplus as it braces for possible tight supply in the future. There are even talks of rice shortage in the US and Canada. There is tightening global supply, aggravated by speculation and flawed economic policies that include land-use conversion in favor of more “marketable crops”.

The global situation underscores the need for the Philippines to embark on a serious and long-term program of food self-reliance. There’s no other way out of the crisis. We are an agricultural country and we have what it takes to be self-reliant. But should be serious changes in the way agriculture is structured. The old feudal ways have to go. Land reform is a must. Government intervention and support is necessary. Agriculture for domestic consumption is not such a bad proposition. Government should stop looking the other way and address this matter head on.

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