Bernardo M. Villegas
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District 12

           Suzanne Collins, author of the Hunger Games trilogy, wittingly or unwittingly, provided economic planners in developing countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America with an interesting paradigm for addressing mass poverty, which is predominantly rural poverty.  For example, in the Philippines, among the twenty million or so who go to bed hungry every day, some 75 percent are in the rural areas.  In the language of author Collins, they are residents of District 12, the home of Katniss, Gale and Haysmith, the main protagonists of the Hunger Games.  District 12, thanks to the callousness and utter negligence of the Capitol (the center of a cruel and dictatorial State), is a coal mining area completely devoid of agricultural resources where children starve to death  or have to risk their lives to obtain the most meager food rations from the Capitol , which in contrast is wallowing in abundance and luxury.  The Capitol in the story is a symbol of the Philippine State, which for some three decades completely neglected rural and agricultural development in its obsession with the wrong kind of industrialization.

          The solution to the misery in our rural areas will take time to implement:  the building of more infrastructures such as farm-to-market road, irrigation systems, post-harvest facilities, etc.  In the meantime, the rural poor will have to survive on sheer ingenuity, resourcefulness, hard work, and hope.  They have no alternative but to emulate Katniss and Gale who fed their respective families by squeezing from the adjoining forests whatever food they could obtain through  hunting, fishing, and picking low-lying fruits, berries and edible plants.  The rural poor, as they wait for long-term solutions to their problem, must be helped to nurture the mentality of the generation of Filipinos who had to endure the food crisis during the Japanese occupation.  I was two years old when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941.  Thus, for the next four or five years, although only a child, I experienced what  my parents and other adult relatives had to do to feed their families during those years of austerity.

          I am glad that I had a recent conversation with a prominent lawyer, Atty. Eduardo Hernandez, who for the last thirty five years has been addressing the problem of rural poverty in the countryside in Iloilo.  A sugar planter himself, he has racked his brains about how to help the numerous small farmers and rural workers in Iloilo with the primary problem of feeding their families, especially the children, with sufficiently nutritious food.  As pediatricians always emphasize, if children from the age of zero to six are not fed protein-rich food, their brains are permanently damaged, thus handicapping them for the rest of their lives vis-a-vis the children of the well-to-do.  What Atty. Hernandez told me reminded me of what the adults fed us in the remote areas of Batangas where we spent most of the Japanese occupation:  the broth from boiled banana and papaya peels, corn cobs and stalks, chicken and fish bones, etc.  He reminded me that all the parts of a fruit, vegetable or livestock can have nutritive value.  Nothing should be thrown out.

          He also reminded me that, as Katniss and Gale realized from the beginning of their hunting career, that everything that birds and animals in the forests eat can be eaten by human beings. In fact, that was how Katniss discovered which berries were poisonous:  the birds never touched them.  I remember my late paternal grandmother, with whom we spent some time during the occupation,  who knew every weed, grass and vine that could be eaten as vegetables, whether boiled or fresh.   These plants went much beyond the more familiar vegetables like kangkong, moringa (malunggay)  or saluyot that can be found in the wild.  I remember how tasty some of the more unfamiliar plants were, especially when seasoned with coconut vinegar.  Atty. Hernandez, in fact, has put up a training school for farmers in his hacienda in Dingle, Iloilo, to educate the farmers and their families to maximize the consumption of whatever nature can offer as food.

          Of course, in peacetime, there is much more that can be done than just depending on the bounty of nature.  Backyards can be planted to the wide array of vegetables and fruits enumerated in the popular song "Bahay Kubo."  We have to persevere in teaching grade school children (many of them will drop out before reaching high school) the cultivation of all types of nutritious fruits and vegetables in garden plots at the back or near their respective schools.  Now, there are high-technology seed firms like East-West Seed and Harbest that can provide the seeds and technology for back-yard farming.  In fact, these firms and many others  channel some of their CSR program to tying up with schools in the rural areas to disseminate the technology of growing high-value crops for both self-consumption and sale to nearby markets.  If the appropriate scale can be reached by cooperative farming, enterprises like Agrinurture (publicly listed) are always in search of fresh vegetable and fruit products for sale to the urban supermarket chains.

          It is not my habit to dwell on very pessimistic forecasts.  I always try to see that the glass is at least half-empty.  But I must point out that at least in the next few years, there can be serious food shortages, partly because of extreme weather patterns as can now be observed in the U.S., or because of still very inadequate supply chain facilities.  The Philippine rural areas can still experience serious food shortages.  That is why, like Atty. Hernandez, we have to impress on the minds of the rural poor that they have to act like the generation of my parents did during the Japanese occupation:  to have a siege mentality that required extreme measures in squeezing the most out of our natural resources, without destroying the environment.  Only then can the present generation of poor people in the rural areas bridge the transition to a better fed population in the future, without sacrificing the health of their children today.  For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia