KIDAPAWAN CITY, North Cotabato—78-year-old Valentina Berdin looked up from where she stood at Saguing River, when she heard the sound of gunfire coming from the bridge above.
“I just finished taking a bath from the river below when I heard the pop! pop! pop!,” the Arakan Valley resident said. And then people, men and women, ran in all directions to hide, she said in this province’s language.
One of those was Dionisio Alagos, 68, from Barangay Kalodkod, also of Arakan Valley. He hid inside a small hut near the river. It was where he and most of the farmers washed their sun-baked bodies on that early morning of April 1.
Berdin, Alagos and hundreds of farmers attempted for the second time to get a free sack of rice to fend off extreme hunger in their drought-stricken farms.
Berdin still managed to laugh as she recalled how she convinced a pair of police officers at the Kidapawan side of the bridge to arrest her, while antiriot police rounded up farmers, many of them elderly, shortly after police fired guns to disperse their protest rally.
Authorities said Berdin, Alagos and the farmers were blocking a highway.
“The son of the owner of that house was hit by a bullet and died,” Alagos said pointing to a dwelling with thatched roof.
The number of people police said they arrested that day vary from 79 to 89. Organizers of the protest rally insisted on a higher figure because they believe people who were questioned at a police station after the rally should be included in the count.
These men and women were the farmers who joined the barricade from March 28 to April 1 “just to get a sack of rice.” They became the painful face of a local government’s iron-handed response that has generated both national and global reaction. Reaction also came from members of Protestant churches after one of their own was dragged into the scene after opening a church compound to shelter fleeing farmers.
What forced these farmers to join such a desperate action?
THE obvious answer is El Niño, whose effects in the Philippines have been well documented since 1998.
“The dry spell and drought conditions prevailing in Mindanao this year are comparable to what happened in 1998,” Thelma A. Cinco said. Cinco heads the Impact Assessment and Application Section, Climatology and Agronometeorology Division of the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services
Cinco explained that Region 12, where North Cotabato is located, have experienced three consecutive months of way-below-normal rainfall from December to February. This meant the region was suffering from drought.
Aside from Region 12, four other regions in Mindanao were also drought stricken: Region 9 (Zamboanga Peninsula), Region 10 (Northern Mindanao), Region 11 (Davao Region) and the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
The first to feel the drought’s full effect were the upland farms.
“Upland farms are reliant on rainfall,” Cinco said.
Farmers in these areas were hard hit. After three months of drought, their crops failed. And because there is not enough moisture, they cannot even plant new crops to sustain their livelihood.
Loss of livelihood meant hunger for people in these far-flung farming villages. After suffering from three months of drought, the men and women in these agricultural communities were desperate enough to gather in Kidapawan for a chance to get some rice for their families to eat.
For these farmers, the matter was now about survival.
BERDIN explained the offer of getting rice enticed her to join the rally organized by the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas and affiliate farmer organizations.
“I brought my two older grandchildren here to help me carry that one sack,” she said, “but there would be no sack after all.”
Antonio Opiniano, 48, from an interior farm of this city, also joined the barricade hoping to pressure the government to release the rice at the National Food Authority (NFA) warehouse here.
“Rice is a luxury for all of us farmers,” said Edwin Inagong, 39, of Barangay Lamatikon, Abakan.
Families in the country were now subsisting mainly on saba, a variety of banana, for the past several months, Inagong explained.
Whatever coin they can spare would be used to buy a fourth of a kilo of the cheapest regular-milled rice, sold for P32 a kilo, or $0.69—the price of a song downloaded from Amazon. “They would be given to the younger children.”
Sharing was supposedly a common trait among rural families. However, the times were tough.
“Now we have to make it on our own, even if we see smoke in our neighbor’s kitchen,” Inagong said in the native tongue.
“Ang amon na bukid, pegado na gid kahit sa mga gulayon. Waay na gid, patay na lahat, camote at saging na lang [It’s very difficult in our farms, even with vegetables. All plants cannot grow anymore, except for camote and banana],” Alagos chimed in.
His simple statement was a stirring confirmation of Pagasa’s climate outlook assessment, which mentioned in part: “the region has been experiencing drought condition [sic], hence, all farming activities are hampered. The rainfall received is still insufficient for any farming activities undertaken.”
State of calamity
THE Kidapawan city government declared a state of calamity on February 2, allowing it to use 5 percent of its annual budget of almost P500 million to deal with the searing effect of El Niño.
The city has identified 11,240 households for direct food assistance, as well as a food-for-work program that had a budget of P3.3 million.
“We also have water rationing for affected areas and provide irrigation equipment for areas where water can still be extracted,” a city official who requested anonymity said. “That is why we are very dismayed about the incident. It put us in a bad light,” the official said, adding that “many of these protesters are not from Kidapawan City.”
“Why Kidapawan?” the official asked. Last week, the city mayor, Joseph Evangelista, requested the city office of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) to conduct a study on the economic losses incurred. The city planning office said the DTI has already finished its study, based on evaluations and estimates made by business groups and other economic sectors.
The city planning office explained that the DTI study will be disclosed after the mayor evaluates the report.
PEDRO Arnado, KMP regional chairman, said Kidapawan was selected as the center of the move to ask for calamity assistance for a specific reason.
“This is where the biggest NFA [National Food Authority] warehouse is located, and in case that the provincial government would finally agree to release the rice assistance, it would not burden our farmers anymore,” he told
The rice is there, he said, “and it was only disheartening that the provincial government would not release them to farmers when it has already declared a state of calamity.”
However, he denied that his group told the farmers that the rice already in Kidapawan City was theirs for the picking.
“It is not exactly what we have told the farmer leaders. Maybe, the communication eventually turned very simplistic as the message went from one person to the other,” he explained. “What we have in mind is to exert pressure on the provincial government until it agreed to release the rice as assistance.”
The protesters have demanded the release of more than 15,000 sacks of rice from the NFA-Kidapawan warehouse.
“From our computation of the calamity fund, we know that there is sufficient number of sacks of rice for farmers, including those who joined the mass action,” Arnado said.
“If only the police allowed the protesters, or facilitated them to proceed to the NFA warehouse, it would have been done in an orderly manner and would not [have turned] violent,” Pastor Manuel Rapisura, director of the Spottswood United Methodist Center here, said. The center became the refuge of the protesters during and after the police dispersal.
SUPT. Noel Kinazok, the North Cotabato Police deputy director for administration, has since replaced city police chief, Senior Supt. Alexander Tagum.
On Friday the police herded 17 male farmers on two police vans that brought them to the Regional Trial Court for final decision on to where they would be jailed.
The move came a day after the Senate committee investigating the bloody dispersal ordered senior police officers in Kidapawan City to release the arrested farmers, following the committee finding that pregnant women and the elderly were among those arrested.
Several women, including Berdin, were still housed at a makeshift cell in a closed gymnasium. Police prohibited the press and members of the media from talking to them. Seen inside were members of the City Social Welfare Department who also avoided reporters.
The wife of detained farmer Opiniano watched blankly as she saw her husband handcuffed and made to sit at the back of the police van. “It would have been better if we have that rice now and nothing had happened. Or if that rice were only given now, I would gladly trade it now for the release of my husband,” she said.
“We were only wishing for the rice. But things turned out differently now,” Opiniano said.
(With reports from Fil V. Elefante)