It is not about rice

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

Bantay Presyo Task Force monitors rice prices in Nueva Vizcaya public markets | Photo courtesy of PIA Nueva Vizcaya

It was never just about the price of rice or its availability, but that was all we ever paid attention to. And because we did not expand our understanding of what rice represents, we are stuck with recurring problems of rising rice prices or intermittent rice shortages.

Rice is a critical subject because it is a primal representation of our country. Millions of rice farmers and their families are involved, plus all the rest of the Filipino population as rice consumers. Rice is not even an economic commodity as much as it is political because rice reflects more on our people’s poverty rather than our agriculture’s progress. If it were not so, we would not be discussing rice today.

Today’s controversy concerns rice prices and how they climb to the 50-peso per kilo level rather than sliding back to that long-dead 20-pesos a kilo. But why should 50 pesos a kilo of rice be a controversy? Because too many people are poor, the rice farmer remains poor, struggling to afford that price. Controversy because price increases beyond general affordability hit the general population yet do not uplift the economic lives of our small farmers.

What kind of a situation is this where producers and consumers lose? Yet, we have always been in this quagmire for decades as though we have no government intelligent enough to acknowledge this vicious cycle and break it. There is nothing new here: the poverty of the producers, the poverty of the consumers, and our almost total disregard for their recurring suffering. Those in power seem incapable of seeing a future beyond their terms, except if it means preparing the next generation to take over.

Is it so unfathomable to understand that producers and consumers of what are basic and essential commodities, rice being only one of them, are central concerns of governance? Producers and consumers are human, and they are Filipinos, and they are more important than roads, bridges, and other infrastructure that the government often puts greater value on. In fact, if these roads, bridges, and physical infrastructure do not raise the quality of life of most Filipinos, the decisions to build them are proven wrong.

It may be painful to accept that we have leaders in almost all fundamental sectors of Philippine society made up of the elite or their converts and soon-to-be nouveau riche. That makes our government greatly elite and less representative, quite the opposite of democratic principles. Yet, we insist on perpetuating the charade and, in the process, creating a perversion of democratic governance. We hold elections as if to show the world, and our majority poor, that each vote counts. That is totally cruel.

We started our journey to democracy after a long history of authoritarian rule, paternalistic or otherwise. I know, too, that shifting to democracy is a generational process. I am not judging that journey towards democracy by the decades we have become stuck, but the fact that we are, indeed, stuck. If we have a practical review of democracy, we cannot return to 1896. That was the first serious step towards freedom. But for democracy, for Filipinos to hold their fate and self-determination without a foreign master, we have to begin in 1946.

“The younger generations of Filipinos, with their innate idealism and the tools of modern technology, can be made to fly – if the old, powerful, and rich guards begin to let go. They will not do that all at once, but they must at least be willing to let the enslaved out of their historical cages.”

It is now 77 years from that fateful year of independence and the birth of democracy. In between, we have had two presidents considered by the world, not just us, as plunderers, plus maybe one or two more as candidates for the same title. We had an episode or a step back to authoritarianism with martial law. And if the political opposition and the International Criminal Court were to be listened to, we just came out of another episode of authoritarian rule.

Still, I understand that old habits die hard. It takes much less for leaders to exploit bad habits rather than inspire the people toward their aspirational and democratic Philippines. Sad to say, the vulnerable population crippled by their poverty and bad habits of submission and dependency are too easy to manipulate. Without the influence of external forces and role models and a successful uprising, we will be stuck indefinitely between worlds -the old and the not-yet-there new one.

The core of this painful and pitiful journey towards a more authentic democracy is the low value given to the poor and ordinary by those who control authority and wealth. The roads, bridges, and infrastructure are for the businesses of the rich and powerful. The proof is that they have become more rich and powerful. It could not have been for most Filipinos because they are still mired in poverty, dependency, lack of capacity and opportunity, and the fear of sliding back into the pit for those who have recently improved their lives.

Unless those who command power and wealth see the benefit of raising their fellow Filipinos to a dignified status characterized by solid productivity and a strong voice in the political sphere, they will not set in motion the needed mechanics for a democratic Philippines. It will still need a generation or two, but statesmen among our politicians, businessmen, and academe can lend their support and resources to a critical partner – civil society.

The younger generations of Filipinos, with their innate idealism and the tools of modern technology, can be made to fly – if the old, powerful, and rich guards begin to let go. They will not do that all at once, but they must at least be willing to let the enslaved out of their historical cages. Aspirations may start as weaker due to the need to survive, but I believe that a dream for a better life will ultimately override fear, dependency, and submission.

I may not have that long a life to see this; I trust, however, that a higher purpose will sooner than later have its way.

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