Talahib ka ng taong bayan uring sinawi ng kagutuman
(Grassroots peoples crushed by hunger)
Dahil sa mga naghari-harian umindayog ka ng digmaan
(In the hands of petty tyrants, you danced waves of rebellion)
—“Talahib”, Talahib People’s Music
Five years ago, in February 2016, then presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte was asked in a pre-election interview what his priorities would be should he win the election; he promised, “I must see to it that for the billionaires and the poorest, there is food on the table and it is affordable.” In July of that same year, in his first State of the Nation Address (SONA) after winning the presidency, he declared, “My administration shall implement a human approach to development and governance, as we improve our people’s welfare in the areas of health, education, adequate food and housing, environmental preservation, and respect for culture.”
But what are words worth?
Rhetorics and figures
In October 2017, a year after taking the helm at Malacañang Palace, and faced with a series of strikes and growing opposition to his government’s plan to phase out old jeepney units, Duterte vituperated against transport workers, “You’re poor? Son of a bitch, suffer hardship and hunger, I don’t care.”
In May 2018, amid mounting complaints over soaring prices of fuel and basic goods brought about by a new regressive taxation system, Duterte’s then Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia said, “Let’s just tighten our belts. Since it’s already there, let’s live with it. It’s a short-term pain for a long-term gain.” Reacting to calls for the suspension of the tax reform law, Duterte’s then Secretary of Budget and Management and now Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas Governor Benjamin Diokno insisted that Filipinos should not complain too much, should “be less of a crybaby.” Just a day after Labour Day, Diokno was asked to comment on Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) who were forced to return home following a diplomatic crisis with Kuwait. He answered, “You know, I think if you’re hardworking, you won’t go hungry in the Philippines. If you’ll just be hardworking.”
This cesspool of out-of-touch chiefs living in ivory towers became one of the trademarks of the Dutertismo brand of leadership, an authoritarian government empty and devoid of humanity, a ruthless state with no heart for the poor and hungry. Not only have Duterte’s campaign promises amounted to nothing but no meaningful change has come as well despite his bold rhetorics.
Words are cheap yet they come at a price—but who bears the brunt?
Under Duterte’s watch, the proportion of poor Filipinos whose average income earned is insufficient to meet their basic food and non-food needs has remained significant at 16.7% in 2018. Although the poverty incidence among population went down by 6.8 percentage points from 23.5% in 2015, this still translated to about 17.7 million Filipinos living in poverty according to the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) in its latest Full Year Official Poverty Statistics. Furthermore, poverty incidence increased in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (53.8% to 54.2%) and the basic sectors persistently registered the highest poverty incidences relative to previous years: farmers (31.6%), fisherfolk (26.2%), other people in rural areas (24.5%) and children who belong to poor families (23.9%). While average annual family income increased across all deciles and income gap narrowed from 25.1% in 2015 to 21.7% in 2018, this still meant that the top 10% were earning about eight times more than the poorest 10%.
Perhaps lending a face to these numbers are the many stories that have been told about the plight of the basic sectors: of small-scale farmers reeling from low palay prices brought about by the rice tarrification law, of artisanal fisherfolk struggling with the rising cost of fuel, and of landless agricultural labourers perpetually trapped in a vicious debt cycle. One particular story recounted by Marinel Cueno, an urban poor community leader and cultural worker, told of a Manila Bay fisherman in the slums of Parola forced to scavenge for fish scraps at the local market after a scant morning’s catch. These chronicles of lived experiences bear witness to the tragedy of the ironic situation—that those who feed the nation are the least able to feed themselves, and remain the poorest of the poor.
Three years into the Duterte administration, the Philippines ranked 70th out of 117 countries in the 2019 Global Hunger Index (GHI) with a score of 20.1. The GHI is a tool that measures a country’s severity of hunger as low (≤9.9), moderate (10.0–19.9), serious (20.0–34.9), alarming (35.0–49.9), or extremely alarming (≥50.0). In September 2020, a Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey reported a hunger incidence of 30.7%, the highest rate since the previous record of 23.8% in March 2012. This meant 7.6 million Filipino families went hungry in the earlier peaks of the coronavirus pandemic, 5.5 million of which experienced involuntary hunger (hunger due to lack of food to eat at least once in the past three months) and 2.2 million suffered from severe hunger (experienced hunger often or always in the last three months).
According to the Food and Nutrition Research Institute of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST-FNRI) in its most recent Rapid Nutrition Assessment Survey (RNAS), 62.1% or six out of ten families experience moderate to severe food insecurity and 71.8% are forced to borrow money to buy food. In the first quarter of 2021, the PSA reported that food inflation rates more than doubled the 2020 average of 2.8%, reaching a high-point of 7.0% in February before settling down to 5.0% in April. The National Capital Region (NCR) registered numbers higher than the national average, 9.0% in January and 7.7% in February.
In its latest Labour Force Survey, the PSA reported that jobless rate reached an all-time high of 17.6% before easing to 7.1%. These are reflected in the number of jobless Filipinos at 7.3 million in April 2020 at the height of the strict lockdown measures, to 3.44 million in March 2021. However, the underemployment rate or the percentage of the working population looking for more hours of work stood at 16.2%. Food insecurity, rising commodity prices, lower purchasing power, and joblessness simultaneously burdened the people at a time when the country was reeling from an economy that crash landed into one of the worst recorded recessions in the region—a full-year contraction of 9.5%, the highest since World War II.
Figures are bleak but in no way completely convey the disruption, hardship, and trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic. Notwithstanding, it shows a clear picture: five years on, Filipinos just barely scrape by, some with little to no food at all on their table.
How does one pick up the pieces, amid a pandemic at that?
Power of the small
The world was forced to shut down by the coronavirus disease outbreak, a global pandemic caused by a highly infectious pathogen, microscopic in size. The SARS-CoV-2 is a virion with an average particle size of 100 nanometres or one billionth of a metre—smaller than a grain of salt and invisible to the naked eye. To date, it has infected over 150 million people and has claimed more than three million lives worldwide.
The unprecedented health and economic crisis and the ensuing government responses to tackle it have made visible and further compounded the stark realities of social, economic, and political inequalities that have existed even before COVID-19. These inequalities have not only endured throughout the pandemic but have also been exacerbated by the upheavals and differentiated impacts of COVID-19 across the globe. The lockdown measures and limitations imposed on mobility have exposed the fragilities of corporate-captured food systems and ramifications of decades of enduring neoliberal prescription. This meant that smallholder agriculture—which could have provided the needs of a hungry and locked down populace—could not sufficiently do so because of years of neglect and underdevelopment. At the same time, disrupted global value chains have shown starkly the vulnerabilities of an economy that has been overdependent on importation.
In the Philippines, a waning leadership characterized by violent “othering” and rhetoric founded on blame game has proved costly, but from which a progressive turning point has also come about.
In sharp contrast to the Duterte administration’s criminally incompetent COVID-19 response, various peoples’ alternatives have emerged. Beset by quarantine strictures and public transport suspensions, meagre aid and deferred compensations, lack of proper healthcare and social support, and restrictions to peoples’ access to nutritious, affordable, and sustainable foods, communities have been effectively left to fend for themselves. Limited government aid in the form of a social amelioration program has proved too little, granting a paltry amount of ₱5,000 to ₱8,000 (~$104 to $167) cash subsidy for poor families for two months. This further went down to a one-time cash aid of ₱1,000 to ₱4,000 (~$21 to $84) as NCR and nearby provinces were placed back under the strictest Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) last month following a spike in COVID-19 cases.
Eventually, Filipinos grew fed up with late night ramblings to the nation on television, the imposition of recurring stringent lockdowns, and confusing quarantine classifications and acronyms. More and more, it became apparent that government aid was woefully deficient and plagued by patronage politics. Consequently, small-scale solidarity and mutual aid initiatives popped up here and there to plug the holes of the government’s incoherent plans and insufficient response. “Tayo-tayo na lang.” (Let’s do it by ourselves) became the battle cry and rallying call.
These collective initiatives led by small-scale food providers, cooperatives, advocacy groups, and grassroots peoples have manifested in the form of community farms and fisheries, urban gardens, seeds exchange, and solidarity relief efforts among others.
In Mindanao, the Tri-Peoples’ Organization Against Disasters Foundation (TRIPOD), a group of indigenous peoples, Bangsamoro, and migrant-settlers in Southern Philippines, initiated “Kusina Bayanihan” or community solidarity kitchens run by grassroots communities in conflict-affected areas severely affected by lockdowns and forced evacuations. In the Visayas, the regional organization Youth Voices Count spearheaded Rainbow Relief Responses for people living with HIV and LGBTIQ+ communities to address the need for health kits and hygiene products such as sanitary napkins, condoms, vitamins, and face masks which are not typically included in relief packs, as well as transportation and communication allowances to access antiretroviral drugs and connectivity for online classes.
In Luzon, aside from the setting up of community kitchens, various social enterprises organized rescue buying initiatives for distressed farmers and local bagsakan markets where small-scale food producers can deliver and sell their fresh produce directly to consumers amid disruptions in trade. In NCR, Laban ng Masa (Struggle of the Masses), a national mass movement-based political centre, organized “Tulong ng Masa sa Kapwa Masa” (Relief from the Masses for Fellow Masses), linking up donors, displaced informal vendors from whom the relief goods were purchased, and hungry communities, some having been evicted in the midst of the new lockdowns and thrown to the streets.
Then, about a month ago on April 14, a community pantry sprouted along Maginhawa Street in Quezon City, the largest and most populous city of Metro Manila and home to most of the urban poor in the Philippines. When the first pantry was set up, the city was grappling with more than 12,000 COVID-19 cases and close to a thousand daily new cases on average, the highest in the country.
A modest bamboo cart was installed and stocked with bags of rice, some chayotes and cabbages, canned goods, coffee, milk, vitamins, bars of soap, face masks, and other pandemic essentials. An accompanying cardboard sign read, “Magbigay ayon sa kakayahan; kumuha batay sa pangangailangan.” (Give whatever you can; take only what you need.) From the community initiative’s simple operating principle, the Filipino tradition and spirit of bayanihan (communal unity) was reignited.
The Maginhawa Community Pantry has since transformed into a drop-off point for donations for other local food banks, and has not only provided much needed food for the hungry but has also empowered the community to mobilize, take care of, and break bread with one another. They have been able to raise more than ₱1.05 million (~$22,042) since April 21 as cash donations poured in, mainly from OFW contributions. Subsequently, distribution hubs in the nearby provinces of Cavite, Laguna, Bulacan, and Rizal were set up by other groups.
Soon, a plethora of community pantries mushroomed all over the country—6,700 and counting according to the tally of the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG)—with volunteer geographers mapping out close to a thousand as of this writing.
With its compelling message, the initiative has also garnered naysayers and critics, most prominently from state actors. National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) spokespersons Lieutenant General Antonio Parlade Jr and Undersecretary Lorraine Badoy-Partosa have both red-tagged community pantries, accusing them of having ties to the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People’s Army. One sees the truth in Brazilian liberation theologian Hélder Câmara’s words: “Quando dou comida aos pobres, chamam-me de santo. Quando pergunto por que eles são pobres, chamam-me de comunista.” (When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.)
There have also been documented incidents of harassment, threats, and profiling of community pantry organizers by government agencies including the police. Earlier on, DILG Undersecretary for Barangay Affairs Martin Diño asserted the need for community pantry organizers to secure first a permit from the local government before operating. This was refuted later on by several mayors and no less than by his boss DILG Secretary Eduardo Año.
The absurdities and contradictions became more evident among the public as Parlade likened the rapid spread of community pantries all over the country to the work of Satan. All these reveal the extent of disquiet among the powers that be over the community pantries; on the other hand, such reactions from officialdom ironically further kindled enthusiasm and support for the community pantry movement.
At the same time, debates have sparked on the politics and sustainability of the movement. Some say that eventually, the community pantries will be overwhelmed by human greed and donor fatigue. Some reject the notion that community pantries represent a covert condemnation of the government’s mismanagement and dereliction of duty over the COVID-19 crisis. Some argue that the community pantries should not be politicized, but seen purely as charitable work out of mere kindness and generosity.
Ultimately, what do community pantries reveal and signify?
Various interpretations of the community pantry by different social scientists have been put forward. For a group of sociologists, it is “a contagion of mutual aid for the similarly situated and is an oblique critique of the greed and callousness that for some are clearly named and for others remain unnamed and are silent about.” For one political scientist, it signals “the beginning of the end of the long years of a demobilized publics” and readiness “to rebuild communities of trust and solidarity that the war on drugs so effectively dismantled.” For an anthropologist, it is a “revolutionary kindness” that challenges the dependency myth and leads to social solidarity. For a social worker, it shows “the necessity of reflexivity in social sciences” and that “our articulation of our proposed alternatives is not just through words, papers, or reflection but it must also come through our actions.”
Therein lies the beauty and magic of the community pantry and its different interpretations, variants, and evolutions.
True to the flexibility of the bamboo and its ability to grow rapidly, that one seed in Maginhawa has flowered and produced masses of seeds. It has given rise to new generations of plants that may at first be identical in appearance and pattern of growth, but also may later on produce new cultivars with different characteristics and development. They may have the presence or absence of political stripes, and display variety or uniformity in the political coloration of their culms, but precisely in that diversity they find unity to move progressively “mula sa masa, tungo sa masa” (from the masses, to the masses).
True to the versatility of the bamboo and its many uses in culinary arts and food science, writing and communication, woodworking and construction, that one seed in Maginhawa has propagated into different variations and forms. It has transformed into different innovations catering to different groups, among others: a community pantry on wheels, a community “paw-ntry” for stray animals, a community pharmacy pantry providing free medicines, a traditional seeds exchange, a peasant-fisherfolk cooperation, a street library to “feed one’s mind”, a students’ pantry distributing notebooks and educational materials, K-pop-themed food banks, and just last Sunday, on Mothers’ Day, community pantries honouring mothers.
As spontaneous expressions of grassroots solidarities sprouted, so did a bamboo counternarrative rooted in the recognition of shared struggles.
Are community pantries charities? Sure. But they also go beyond relief and assistance. They confute the lazy presumption that forever blames the “masang pasaway” (unruly masses) for their own destitution and misery. They challenge the privileged notions of social reality that question motivations, limitations, and protocol violations, but not why the poor and hungry, in the first place, choose to line up under the heat of the sun and risk exposure to the virus. They depict how structural issues and structures intersect and what these intersections mean for the commonfolk and the community pantry organizers. They are not mere dole-outs as they see individuals, as Indian economist Amartya Sen describes, “as active agents of change, rather than passive recipients of dispensed benefits.”
Are community pantries political? Certainly. They are acts of resistance confronting the era of Dutertismo order. They are an affront to the state’s propaganda that “everything is in order” and that “we are better off compared to others”, despite its callous neglect and abandonment of its own people. The inutile government is called to account and placed on the defensive and forced to rationalize its legitimacy. They empower the people to be active actors in decision-making, community building, and democracy—the very antithesis of corrupt power. They strengthen peoples’ agency and foster their autonomy, while at the same time respect and uphold their dignity. As the mantra goes, “Mula sa bawat isa ayon sa kanyang kakayahan, para sa bawat isa ayon sa kanyang pangangailangan.” (From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.)
Are community pantries sustainable? Without a doubt. And this digresses from many opinions to the contrary. From that pioneer seed in Maginhawa, thousands upon thousands have bloomed abundantly in their own pioneering ways. As bamboo grasses go, some have clumped together, spreading slowly and expanding their root mass steadily in the same general area. Others have run on, variably setting up random shoots and spreading widely underground, sending up new culms to break through the surface and eventually moving into adjacent areas. Creative innovations and collective transformations would sustain the principle and inspiration of the community pantry, and as the idea progressively finds itself embedded in peoples’ values and communities’ practices.
The community pantry movement is not a panacea, and it does not claim to be, but it has shown us, together with the various grassroots peoples’ initiatives, a way to rise from the ashes of the moribund Duterte presidency—with bamboo grasses standing tall and swaying in dis(seed)ence against the prevailing oppressive order.