"HUNGER is not an issue of charity. It is an issue of justice," Jacques Diouf, former Director General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
First the facts: The El Niño struck hard in the province of North Cotabato since the last quarter of 2015.
300,000 hectares of crops in its 17 towns from coconuts to rubber to rice and corn had wilted or had been damaged by hungry rodents. It’s a loss of harvests amounting to 238 million pesos.
The province declared a state of calamity last January 16 this year due to this loss.
A five-percent quick response fund from the province’s calamity fund– roughly about P4 million – is to be released right away to the farmers hit by drought.
But this is where the facts hit a snag, or a roadblock of 6,000 farmers and lumads who occupied the North Cotabato Highway along Kidapawan City since Monday until Friday’s dispersal under the sweltering heat. The farmers asked: where did the calamity funds gone?
The answer lies solely on Governor Emmylou ‘Lala’ Taliño-Mendoza. Her initial response through negotiators was the promise of relief consisting of three kilos of rice for each family every month until May.
The governor said this is already distributed to the municipalities earlier and urged the farmers to go back home.
But the farmers would not take this offer, finding that a measly three kilos for a month can only last for two to three days. With crops invisible in the dry land, they wanted to see sacks of rice brought out in their presence so they can take it home.
But the response to their demand was the unthinkable on Friday. Beatings, rocks, water cannons, and bullets shot in succession from high-powered M16 and M4 rifles of the police broke the barricade and sent the farmers scampering.
Three people died on the incident, one reportedly a mere bystander. It was only after this dispersal that Governor Mendoza finally appeared in public in a press conference with some mayors and police officials.
She claimed responsibility over the incident but said she had to keep the road clear for motorists, as the permit for their protest had expired. She also blamed “outsiders” for stirring violence.
But where is their call for relief?
Mendoza explained that the release of the rice has to go through “a process” of verifying constituents. But later, local mayors interviewed by One Radio were at a loss on who should be really in charge of the relief.
The police continued hounding farmers who sought refuge in the Spottswood United Methodist Center. On Friday morning, police barged in and searched on alleged firearms used by farmers during the bloody dispersal, which produced only a police cap and a camouflaged-covered wallet.
Some 44 people were rounded up by police and brought to the Kidapawan Gym were their mugshots were taken.
Wounded farmers in hospitals were initially barred from being visited by family members, and later prohibited media and paralegal as well.
Amidst this seeming loss of order, came Bayan Muna representative lawyer Neri Colmenares who assured legal assistance to the farmers coming from human rights lawyers.
But the biggest boost for the farmers came from Colmenares’ companion, movie star Robin Padilla, who listened and embraced some family members of farmers.
His simple message calling “their act is an inspiration to Filipinos” moved the farmers.
More help came as well as people from Davao City, Cagayan de Oro and other places responded to calls by media to donate sacks of rice delivered to the UMC doorsteps.
Amidst this citizen’s drive, Mendoza gave this warning. “Don’t I feel insulted? Don’t make this a staging ground of your propaganda. We do feel the hardship here.”
One wonders if she felt the aftermath of her fury where five people died, 116 injured, 90 missing including six minors, 44 arrested, and 6,000 beaten up farmers still hungry.
One wonders too, if local officials like her know anything in crisis management, or the empathy for farmers who have provided for the province huge income from rubber and coconuts for decades.
It is a case, as one former development worker in this province pointed out, where local officials only look at the big gains such as profits and votes but neglect the small farmers.
The big picture also includes the lack of empathy of the current administration, which has done little to the survivors of many calamities from Typhoons Pablo and Yolanda and now this.
For now, we readers can do our part, from the small acts of donating food and other needs to the victims, and join groups in their clamor for accountability on officials for their neglect and their violent response.