Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Land, Still

I sometimes think that to maintain rationality, one must submit to irrational. Otherwise the world will stop rotating on its axis until the irrational has managed to explain itself in a manner satisfactory to rational people.

December 17, 2008 was a date memorable to some, insiginificant to most. On that day the House was filled to the brim with people, some in celebration of the Christmas season, some mourning the loss of their livelihood and their way of life. Others, like me, stood at the sidelines, unable to determine which emotion to let reign. To celebrate with Christmas revelers on the last workday of the year? To commiserate with farmers, some not having eaten for days, as they awaited the fate of agrarian reform?

Inside the session hall, the Chief of Staff of a representative from Mindanao let loose some choice words for the landlord block bent on killing the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law, a landmark bill of the post-Marcos era. Her frustration was real, her empathy for those who till the soil palpable. On the floor the lawmakers milled about. Those advocating land reform and those whose interests are against it were visibly on edge. Those not visibly interested yet remained glued to their seats (instead of having dinner in the lounge), made looking bored look so easy. It should be difficult if a person in office had some semi-conscious thought about anything other than the size of her pork.

Out in the lobby the legislative staff were raffling gifts to the tune of your usual Christmas melodies. At the sidelines, milling about, are farmers in their humble garb, green ribbons tied around their upper arms. While the legis staff stuffed their faces with party fare and howled in the simple joy of getting something for free, the faces of these farmers spelled the end of agrarian reform in this country. It was bizarre, I thought, too see so much abundance and food sit side-by-side with hunger and pain and loss.

Bleeding hearts will argue land reform in this country should be rooted in social justice, that those who work the land must be allowed a way of life commensurate to their labor. This means that the eleven million or so who till the land must also own it. To ease our nation into modernity, to follow the pattern of development of other countries, we must also find a way to expropriate surplus from the agriculture sector to support a nascent industrial base, and later a service sector. This was how other countries of similar size and population have done it. As our pattern of development would have it, we have an insignificant agricultural sector contributing to the nation’s wealth even as it continues to employ over a third of the labor force. No more lands to till or no means with which to till it, millions of hungry, inutile hands and lives lay fallow. A graying demographic, these farmers sell what is left to sell and bundle their kids off to seek better fortune overseas. Those smart enough will realize that the local economy is incapable of generating job opportunities. But hey. We cannot export all our people.

One who has no heart to bleed may also see agrarian reform in a completely selfish light. If no one grows our food because we have sold all large landholdings to multinational corporations to grow GMOs for export or to foreign governments who have no arable lands in their countries, then where do we get our food? Food security is a matter of national security for rational governments. The titans of agricultural exports, the United States and the European Union, have come to a loggerheads over farm subsidies ever since agriculture was included in the world’s global trading regime. At the expense of many more developing nations, both the US and the EU spend billions on either supporting their farming industries or paying them to not plant to keep food prices high. They do so not only to support these sectors or even to honor some sort of social contract with their farmers, they do so as a matter of security.

Our little raft bobs on rough waters as the world experiences food crises on top of all others. The Filipino farmer is mercifully ignorant of the fate the rest of the world awaits. All his energies are devoted to keeping alive. This administration, and many others, have pledged to ease his suffering. So much has been said in the name of the poor. We shall end poverty, they promise. But poverty in this country is a rural phenomenon. Manila’s urban slum-dwellers are rich in comparison.

One who prefers to see things in a completely utilitarian manner will want a sensible agrarian reform policy which will see the right environment put in place to grow the agrarian economy in sync with the rest of the country. This will solve both poverty and food security. If the experience of other countries ring true, then it will also pave the way to that elusive First World status. 2020, she says. 2020. But the President, and those who share her interests, may have other plans for Philippine lands. Not for farmers to till. Not to grow food for domestic consumption. For lease. For sale. For now. Tomorrow, well. Tomorrow can go hang.

Cross-posted at FilipinoVoices.

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