Since March, thousands of hungry farmers in the southern island of Mindanao in the Philippines have been staging various forms of protests in city centers demanding the immediate release of rice intended for drought victims.
Because of the El Niño weather phenomenon which has led to an acute water shortage and the drying up of irrigated lands in the country's rural areas, farmers have been unable to plant crops for several months. Early this year, a state of calamity was declared in many provinces of Mindanao, which means local authorities are authorized to use special funds in order to provide food aid to affected residents.
But in March, many farmers complained that the rice procured by the government has yet to be distributed in their villages. More than 4,000 farmers gathered in front of a government-owned rice warehouse in Kidapawan City to demand the release of rice and calamity funds. But instead of providing rice to the farmers, the police violently dispersed the street barricade protest on April 1.
Because of the incident, the hashtag #BigasHindiBala (Rice, Not Bullets) trended after Internet users questioned the decision of the police to attack the farmers who were simply asking for food. Many also commented that it is tragic to see the country’s food producers going hungry while politicians are slow in addressing the El Niño disaster.
A rice donation campaign was launched, which was actively supported by various charity groups, concerned citizens, and celebrities.
A few days after the bloody dispersal in Kidapawan, farmers in nearby provinces in Mindanao organized their own protest to demand rice from the government.
In north Mindanao, peasant leader Ireneo Udarbe explains the impact of El Niño in the rural communities:
Our livelihood is dependent on the land which is now too parched to grow anything. Farmers are innovative. We can look for alternative crops to plant, find some growths that are edible. But right now there is simply nothing – just hectares of dust that even weed won’t grow on.
About 5,000 farmers gathered in the towns of Valencia and Malaybalay to pressure the government to distribute rice to drought victims.
The protest succeeded after the governor of the province promised to distribute one sack of rice to every family of farmers affected by El Niño. He also vowed to distribute one sack of seedlings and two sacks of fertilizers per hectare to farmers in preparation for the planting season.
In South Cotabato province, about 3,000 farmers blocked a national highway in the regional capital to demand the distribution of rice. After five days, the local government agreed to provide 25 kilos of rice as monthly subsidy for all the drought-stricken farmers in the region until harvest season comes.