SOME 6,000 starving farmers stood their ground on Day 2 of their human barricade of the Cotabato-Davao highway to demand that the government give them 15,000 sacks of rice as aid for as many families affected by the severe drought.
Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas secretary-general Antonio Flores said the drought-stricken farmers lay on the highway and stayed there for two days now to dramatize their plight and to protest the government’s inaction after five months of drought brought on by the El Niño phenomenon.
“Farmers are demanding the release of 15,000 sacks of rice as subsidy to farmers which was previously approved by North Cotabato Gov. Emmylou Talino-Mendoza. The NFA simply told the farmers that their demand is ‘under process’,” Flores said.
Flores said the farmers from Makilala, Mlang, Tulunan, Magpet, Roxas, Antipas, Arakan towns and Kidapawan City set up camp near the National Food Authority warehouse in Kidapawan City.
The barricade has stopped traffic from moving both ways along the highway.
Negotiations between farmers, the local government and the NFA were ongoing at the Diocese of Kidapawan mediated by Diocese Administrator Lito Garcia.
He said the farmers would lift the barricade only after their demands were met.
“Even the rice field rats and snakes evacuated the areas because there was nothing left to feed on in the farms,” Flores said.
The KMP also lambasted the North Cotabato police for alleging that farmers were duped into joining the ongoing massive protests that barricaded the Davao-Cotabato highway to demand urgent calamity assistance to farmers and lumad—or native tribes—severely affected by drought in the province.
Flores said North Cotabato Police Chief Supt. Bernard Tayong alleged that organizers of the protest led by Kilusang Magbubukid ng Kotabato, KMP’s local chapter in North Cotabato, tricked the protesters by promising them that rice would be distributed by the provincial government.
“Chief Supt. Bernard Tayong is not thinking. The farmers’ protest is just and legitimate. Anyone who is hungry will seek ways to find food and livelihood,” Flores said in Filipino.
“The farmers are just getting what is due to them. Militant and daring actions are an expression of the people’s assertion of rights. The granting of rice subsidy to drought-affected farmers was already approved by the LGU. But because the national government is slow, the starving farmers are taking action,” Flores said.
Aside from rice and food aid, farmers were also demanding free distribution of seedlings, an increase in the farm gate prices of agricultural crops and the immediate pullout of military troops in the North Cotabato towns, Flores said.
The local government, however, insisted on distributing the rice subsidy through the food for work program of the local Department of Social Welfare and Development, he said.
“Due to the drought, farmers cannot plant rice and crops and they have no alternative livelihood. Their families are already hungry and in need of urgent assistance. Instead of acting swiftly to provide immediate relief to farmers, the LGU wants to follow circuitous and bureaucratic processes,” Flores said.
“Farmers will continue with their collective actions until the local government accedes to their demands,” he said.
In the Palace, a spokesman for President Benigno Aquino III said the government has taken steps to counter the effects of the El Niño.
Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr. said the Agriculture Department was carrying out El Niño mitigation programs in the area and was working with the local government to address the farmers’ concerns.
“But the DA is not directly involved in the matter of giving rice to the farmers as the DA itself is focusing on other El Niño mitigation projects,” Coloma also said.
North Cotabato was placed under a state of calamity in January due to the dry spell brought about by El Niño.
Pedro Arnado, chairman of KMP Southern Mindanao, said they will continue with their protests until officials from the Cotabato provincial government meet their demands, including their call for Mendoza to negotiate with them.
Jessie Ined, assistant executive secretary of the governor, said Mendoza would meet with the protesters and denied that they had tried several times to set up a meeting.
Norma Capuyan, chairperson of Apo-Sandawa Lumadnong Panaghiusa in North Cotabato, said that during negotiations with Kidapawan City Mayor Joseph Evangelista, the mayor wanted to get the names of those who joined the rally, saying the rice would be coursed through their respective barangays.
But Capuyan said they want to sign a memorandum of agreement with the provincial governor, at their barricade to ensure that their demands will be met.
“This is not the first time that farmers here put up a barricade during El Niño,” Capuyan said, referring to a similar action in 1998. “And this was not the first time that we heard that line from the politicians.”
She said the farmers do not want to have a repeat of what happened 18 years ago where they went home with nothing.
“We want to receive the rice here in the picket line. We will not leave this place until Governor Lala negotiates with us,” she said.
In its El Niño Advisory No. 13 issued on Feb. 9, 2016, the weather bureau said 18 provinces, mostly from Mindanao, experienced drought conditions in February.
As of Feb. 29, 2016, the provinces including Zamboanga del Norte, Zamboanga del Sur, Zamboanga Sibugay, Bukidnon, Lanao del Norte, Misamis Occidental, South Cotabato, North Cotabato, Sarangani, Sultan Kudarat, Basilan, Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi have experienced drought, the bureau said.
“Meanwhile, occurrences of grassfires in General Santos City and Cotabato City have been reported due to the prolonged dry conditions and warmer than average temperatures attributed to the on-going El Niño phenomenon. The highest temperatures recorded were 38.0 °C in General Santos City and 36.2 °C in Cotabato City for the month of February,” the advisory said.
The largest by far in the grassfire last Saturday, March 26, that razed 300 hectares surrounding the country’s highest peak, Mt. Apo found on the boundaries of Davao City, Davao del Sur and Cotabato provinces.