Rice is the staple food of most Filipinos. Life without rice is deprivation. Even the cheapest NFA (National Food Authority) rice can satisfy the hunger of a poor Filipino family. When the agriculture department advised that we should eat more corn for its nutrients and to avoid high blood sugar levels, that call was in vain. Many thought it was meant only to divert the issue of rice shortage, artificial or not. Rice has remained the “superstar” on the dining table.
Some years back, poor Filipinos queued for rice from Namarco (National Marketing Corporation) carts, and from the NFA. Every year, government officials would announce the urgency of importing rice from neighboring countries in Asia. But if Vietnam and Thailand can supply us tons of rice, why can’t our country be rice sufficient? In a recent radio-TV show, the broadcasters discussed how the government of Papua New Guinea had hired several farmers from Mindanao to plant rice for its people, because our farmlands were getting scarce. What a shame.
Without a national land use law, land conversion has been rampant. Local government officials, with the concurrence of the national agencies tasked to “protect” agrarian reform beneficiaries, use zoning ordinances as bases for land conversion, and have the first and last word in the approval of an application for land conversion.
Prime agricultural lands have rapidly turned into subdivisions or malls and other commercial complexes; or are quarried and mined, while many Filipinos are scrambling for rice to eat.
A former Duterte administration official who witnessed the disaster in Itogon, Benguet, sadly stated that the mining/quarrying permit in Itogon would not have been approved because of the vulnerability of the area to landslides—had there been a land use law then. The former lawmaker who interviewed the former official lamented that discussions on the land use bill, in his time, were stalled in Congress.
In Region 3, a prime, irrigated rice land was converted into a huge business establishment. After about two years, the business was expanded with an annex structure, put up in another converted agricultural land just across the main establishment. Extensive areas of former rice lands in the Calabarzon (Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal, Quezon) are now exclusive subdivisions for the monied, many of whom already have other residential properties, and commercial and industrial sites. A large part of Marilaque (Manila, Rizal, Laguna, Quezon), especially in the supposedly protected areas of Tanay, Montalban and Antipolo, Rizal, has also been converted into quarrying areas, or into resorts and subdivisions. Before the Marawi siege, several residents we met while we were there said that landslides and flooding in their place, which also affected their livelihoods, were due to denuded forests.
Communities in the countryside are often blamed for their being in at-risk areas. Forced to leave their homes and livelihoods to go to evacuation centers, some are left with no choice but to eventually and permanently abandon the places where they were born and raised.
They are not the culprits. The culprits are rather those who persist in land conversion, illegal logging, mining and quarrying, garbage dumping, the burning of organic waste, and the like. These extractive and destructive activities render the land unproductive and vulnerable to danger, and contribute to global warming and climate change. Extreme heat prevails in the summer, while rains also come at unprecedented volumes, leading to massive flooding. No longer are there distinct wet months as we used to know them.
The passage of the rice tariffication bill could cause a deluge of imported rice in the country. Instead of rice tariffication, land conversion must be put to a halt now, and a land use law enacted immediately. Tariffication will only further cause Filipino peasants to suffer, as land conversion will become more rampant while the country will end up 100-percent dependent on rice importation.
Only genuine agrarian reform and a national land use law will give meaning and substance to the “pro-poor” declarations of administrations past and present.
Joey C . Papa is the president of Bangon Kalikasan Movement (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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