My first encounter with death by starvation was in Olongapo City many years ago when I was called out to bless a dead child. I was led to the hovel made of cartons and plastic sheet where the three year old was about to be buried. I found a little girl about in a cardboard box covered with a dress cut out of paper. It was all the emaciated mother could afford. The family hadn't eaten in days. It led me to ask why and what could I do to prevent it.
That quest pulled me out of the comfort of the church rectory into the farms and factories, onto the streets and into the harsh realities of poor people’s lives and to understand better the causes of poverty and led to me to start Fair-trade projects all over the Philippines. How could I be content to eat well everyday and enjoy food security when millions went hungry? It led me to look closely at the social teachings of the Catholic Church and to realise that faith in the God-given dignity of the human person is only real when it leads to action for justice that will uplift the downtrodden and lead to a life of dignity for all.
In the Philippines, about 200 families own or control 70 per cent of the wealth. They control the congress and the army ensures their survival. Only a handful of rich families, politicians, and tycoons own or control most of the private arable land in the Philippines while the majority goes landless and hungry.
For example, seven out of 10 peasants still do not own land while less than one third of landowners own more than 80 per cent of agricultural land. Not only has the land reform project (CARP) failed, only a fraction (17 per cent) of the 1.5 million hectares of private land has been fairly redistributed to the tenants who worked the land.
The previous government of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo negotiated a 25 year lease with South Korea for 94,000 hectares of prime arable land in Mindoro for food production for South Koreans while Filipinos went landless and hungry.
Since the rapid world-wide increase in commodity prices three years ago, rice has remained at an all-time high in the Philippines. Small farmers did not benefit, fertiliser and pesticide costs rose, millions of pesos designated to help subsidise the inputs were allegedly siphoned off to support the re-election of the president. Besides, the government did not offer higher prices to farmers to grow more rice, instead they imported millions of tonnes of rice and allowed traders to manipulate the prices by hoarding. So as usual, the rich are getting richer on the hunger of the poor.
There are a billion hungry people in the world today, most of them in Asia at 642 million, in Sub-Saharan Africa 265 million, Latin America and the Caribbean 53 million, Near East and North Africa 42 million and developed countries 15 million. Children suffer most from this global malnutrition. If they don't get the basic food intake between one to three they are brain damaged and if they survive, will join millions of children who are unable to learn and remain uneducated and can never have a decent job and a life of dignity.
Undernourished children are sick 160 days of the year and this leads directly to the death of an estimated 5.4 million children every year. Another 5 million children die because of preventable diseases: diarrhoea (61 per cent), malaria (57 per cent), pneumonia (52 per cent), and measles (45 per cent) which do their deadly damage because the children are so weak from undernourishment.
Three years ago, almost 33 per cent of Filipinos were living below the poverty line. Now it is even worse because of the recession. As of 2005, 10.8 per cent of the country's population survive on just $1 a day, and another 41.2 per cent make do with less than $2 daily.
This is the greatest challenge that faces the Aquino administration. It also challenges all people of good will, and non-government agencies, to continue to work helping the poor to grow food and develop livelihoods.
(c) Shay Cullen is a Columban priest and director of the human rights centre PREDA, which is best know for its campaign work and investigations into syndicates and paedophile rings, its rescue and rehabilitation of children, and for bringing successful prosecutions against Filipino and foreign offenders. Visit www.preda.org for more related articles. Shay Cullen's columns are published in The Manila Times and in publications in Ireland, the United Kingdom and Hong Kong.