Lupa, Karapatan, Pagkain: A Webinar on COVID-19 and Food Security in the Philippines | #RuralVoicesMatter

Together with the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP; Peasant Movement of the Philippines), the People’s Coalition on Food Sovereignty (PCFS) co-organized a webinar on the land, food, and rights situation in the Philippines under its campaign Rural Voices Matter last Monday, April 27, 2020. The discussion was attended by farmer organizations under the KMP, academic and progressive organizations in the Philippines, and the general public.

The discussion proved timely and fruitful as it tackled the impacts of the COVID 19 pandemic to the rural people, repression under the Duterte regime, and policy demands of the people’s organizations in the Philippines.

The speakers were Sylvia Mallari of PCFS, Danilo Ramos of KMP, Ariel Casilao of Anakpawis Partylist (Toiling Masses Partylist), and Cathy Estavillo of Amihan National Federation of Peasant Women.

Here are the webinar’s highlights:

Opening the discussion was PCFS Global Co-Chairperson Sylvia Mallari. She reiterated why discussions that put rural voices at the center of policymaking are vital, especially in today’s context.

There’s a storm coming. The pandemic exposed the vulnerabilities and failures of our current global capitalist food system, which may lead to a global hunger crisis if left unaddressed.

Chairperson of KMP Danilo Ramos discussed the root causes of hunger in the Philippines. He emphasized:

Rural hunger is ultimately rooted in the continuing land monopoly and landgrabbing in the Philippines.”

Land grabbing, land monopoly, and concentration of vast tract of lands under the control of landlords, foreign agri-corporations, and mining companies have shrunk farmlands devoted to food and displaced rice farmers.

The absence of genuine land reform and neoliberal policies perpetuated by the Philippine government have worsened food insecurity and hunger in the PH.

The lands of big plantations Dole, Del Monte, and SUMIFRU are virtually owned by one family in Mindanao, whose lawyer is the husband of Davao Mayor Sarah Duterte. Seven out of ten farmers in the Philippines don’t own the land they till and four out of ten are deep in usurious debt. Those who produce our food are the most hungry even before the pandemic.”

Ramos stressed that the RA 11203 or the Rice Liberalization Law passed in 2019 has severely affected the domestic rice production and food security of Filipinos that even farmers and food producers went hungry.

Since 1996, the promise of lower prices through liberalization, privatization, and deregulation never came to fruition. Instead, all we got are skyrocketing prices of inputs and landlessness. Our rice import increased by 3.3M mT this year and many rice farmers lost their livelihood. Rice Liberalization Law is really worse than [the destruction of supertyphoon] Yolanda and the pandemic combined.”

Ramos also pointed out that before the COVID lockdown, 53.9% of PH households are food insecure. During the lockdown, 13.6 million families or 76% of the 18 million low-income families were hungry. This clearly denotes how food insecurity has worsened, Ramos said.

According to the Department of Agriculture, 18,495 farmers qualified for aid out of the target 591,000 beneficiaries. Rice farmers alone are 2.7 million all in all. Considering that there are more than 10 million farmers, that’s really small.”

He reiterated that instead of developing local agriculture and food production, the government has focused on importation and liberalization as its primary policies for food accessibility.

Ramos, speaking on behalf of the rural peoples’ movement in the Philippines, said that farmers demand immediate cash aid and production subsidy, condonation of land rent payments, and the reversal of neoliberal policies that affect food security.

We demand the following: land rights, junk rice liberalization law, P8,000 to P10,000 production subsidy, land rent moratorium, relief goods, and health benefits for farmers.”

He concluded by reiterating how farmers need to continue producing food for the people, but the government must make substantial changes for that to happen equitably.

The second speaker, Ariel Casilao, was a former representative of the Anakpawis Partylist to the Philippine Congress. He was also recently arbitrarily arrested as a relief ops volunteer by the Philippine police as Casilao’s team was on their way to deliver goods to farmers in Bulacan.

In the discussion, he talked about their relief operations, repression in the Philippines, and rural militarization.

More than 300 activists and farmers were already killed extra-judicially even before the pandemic. Thousands have been displaced and HRVs have abounded since 2016.”

Anakpawis, with rural-based groups, started the relief drive on March 20, days after the Luzon-wide lockdown was imposed.

Tulong Anakpawis and SAGIP Kanayunan are both initiatives of rural people for relief drives even before the pandemic.”

Many poor families are in need of aid. The relief goods came from donations of farmers and the general public.

We have already given relief goods to almost 2,000 families through SAGIP Kanayunan before we were arrested. Most of it came from farmers of KMP.”

He then narrated how the arrest on April 19 happened:

The April 19 relief drive was supposedly the 3rd wave to be delivered to Norzagaray, Bulacan. But we were stopped by police forces despite our government-issued food pass. When they searched the relief goods, they saw our newsletter Linang and copies of alternative newspaper Pinoy Weekly. We were then escorted to the police station.”

Everything went fine at first because we already turned over the relief goods to the barangay so we can leave for Manila. But we were held because the regional PNP wanted to speak to me. When the regional police general came, he was accompanied by a battalion of police forces. They red-tagged us and were charged with violation of ECQ.”

He said red-tagging is a common tactic in the Philippines, wherein state forces tag progressive activists as members of the armed group New People’s Army to justify any human rights violation.

It’s clear that they wanted to keep us there because they interrogated us and asserted that we are members of the NPA. Fortunately, we were able to post bail on Wednesday afternoon due to the persistence of our lawyer.”

Casilao said that Duterte has perfectly used this pandemic to weaponize policies and attack the opposition. The government is using Martial Law to justify its criminal negligence on the socio-economic and health status of the people.

[President] Duterte is really using this pandemic to impose a de facto martial law. It’s clear that this admin will use this to further repress those who want to advance their rights.”

What we are fighting for is just – the fight for subsidies, for mass testing – and this experience will just make us stronger in our resolve to fight for our rights amid the pandemic. We will continue to deliver relief goods to our farmers despite this temporary setback.”

The webinar’s third speaker is Cathy Estavillo of AMIHAN National Federation of Peasant Women and consumer watchdog group Bantay Bigas. She talked about the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and its subsequent lockdowns to rural women. She also discussed the Rice Liberalization Law and how it negatively impacted food security in the Philippines.

We can’t talk about food security without talking about our rice industry. When we entered WTO, subsidies to our farmers had been cut.”

Women are half of our food security frontliners. We are in the fields as farmers, fishers, farmworkers laboring to feed the country.”

She then narrated how rice farmers suffered an estimated PHP 85 billion loss because of the Rice Liberalization Law.

Rice Liberalization Law caused us, farmers, to be displaced and to go bankrupt even before the pandemic. Our local rice production is at 17M metric tons. Now, the government is looking at 3M metric tons deficit in rice production.”

Estavillo noted that the export freeze of neighboring countries laid bare the problem of an agricultural country relying on rice imports.

Eighty percent of our imports come from Vietnam, which is now restricting rice exports. And we need 3M mT of rice to secure our supply. We call on the government to buy all tradeable rice from local farmers.”

This is what is scary: we are in a pandemic, but we are also seeing rice prices go up. We are an agricultural country, so it is baffling that we are vying for imports.”

Estavillo says that farmers and consumers reiterate the just demand for the scrapping of the Rice Liberalization Law which wreaked havoc on the livelihood of our farmers.

We don’t want our farmers to work at a loss, so they could continue producing rice. It is really clear that we need to junk this Rice Liberalization Law.”

But scrapping the Rice Liberalization Law, as she said, will not be enough.

Food security in the Philippines needs genuine agrarian reform and the enactment of the Rice Industry Development Act. We should also junk Rice Liberalization Law and leave the World Trade Organization.”

Land use conversion is also still rampant in the countryside for Duterte’s Build Build Build projects. When farmers fight for their land, they are red-tagged, harrassed, or slain.”

In Isabela, rural women lost 50% of their income. In Bicol, women only get PHP 2,500 from the promised PHP 8,000 relief. There are a lot of discriminatory practices in the social amelioration program.”

She then ended her discussion by emphasizing how the impacts of these policies on the rural food producers ultimately affect a nation’s food security.

Our food security frontliners are facing hunger and discrimination amid this pandemic. This is especially true for rural women. When our farmers are hungry, the whole nation goes hungry, too.”

Missed the webinar? Watch it here.

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