BATU, Indonesia. Photo by Jes Aznar

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Marie's story and the rice crisis in the Philippines

Marie Katoliko steps out of the family’s rented shanty to check if the truck has arrived. It is Wednesday, the time of the week when the NFA truck visits Marie’s barangay on a narrow, uphill road along Old Balara in Quezon City. The narrow road opens to a maze-like slum area which outsiders call the interior. It is home to tricycle drivers, carpenters, vendors, laborers and street kids.

The National Food Authority truck usually comes in the morning and distributes sacks of rice to an accredited store in the area. The truck’s roaring engine is Marie’s signal and her neighbors’ to filter out from their homes and queue for cheaper subsidized rice at P18.50 per kilo. That’s nearly half the commercial price in the market.

The truck soon arrives. Marie, with P100, lines up to buy five kilos of rice. This will be good for seven to nine days for her children, Andoy, 16; Marissa, 11; and her husband, Max.

Max, who works as a family driver, brings home P2,000 every Friday, which Marie budgets for food, electricity, water, a monthly rental of P2,500 for their place and to pay debts to a nearby sari-sari variety store.

Home for the family is a dimly lit single-door shanty with an electric fan, a small television set and a makeshift wooden table. Today, there is bowl of boiled potatoes that Marie has cooked for lunch.

Her neighbors also rush to line up for cheaper rice, unmindful of the heat and the long queue. Today, as usual, more than 30 are in queue. In the past, Marie would buy rice in the nearby talipapa or the nearby wet market.
“Pero hindi na kakasya ang kita ng mister ko pag sa talipapa padin ako bibili ng bigas. (But I can no longer stretch my husband’s earnings if I continue buying rice from the market),” she says.

Marie says that two years ago, the price of commercial rice ranged from P17 to P20 per kilo. Last year, the price ranged from P22 to P25 per kilo. These days, the cheapest commercial rice is at least P37 per kilo.

“Ngayon sa P37 per kilo, kailangan ko ng P185 para sa limang kilo pero sa NFA rice, may sukli pa na otso peso ang isang daan ko. (Now, at P37 per kilo, I would need P185to buy five kilos. With NFA rice, I only need P100 for five kilos and I would still have change of P8 pesos),” Marie explains.

She has no complaints with the quality of NFA rice. “Hindi naman sya mabaho katulad ng sinasabi ng iba. Masarap din naman. (The rice from NFA does not smell, contrary to what others have said. It is of good quality),” she said.

Marie decided to buy rice from NFA stores early this year, taking after her neighbors.

Fely Santos, a 52-year old domestic helper, also buys rice from NFA to cope with the rising cost of living. She takes home P1,000 every Friday which she spends for food, rice and utilities. Her household, comprising her husband and nine extended family members, consumes 12 kilos of rice per week. At P18.50 per kilo, she spends P222 for P12 kilos.

“Halos kalahati ng sweldo ko sa isang linggo ang mauubos pag bumili ako ng bigas na P37 ang kilo. (If I buy rice at P37 per kilo, almost half of my weekly salary will be wiped out,” Fely said.

Fely heaves a sigh of frustration over the high prices of rice.
“Grabe na talaga. Tinatago kasi ng mga negosyante kaya tumataas ang presyo. (The situation is really terrible. Prices have gone up because of the hoarders,” she believes.

Joy de Guzman, a government employee, says her daily budget for food has been affected because rice at the office canteen now costs P10 per cup as against P5 per cup last year.

The long queues at NFA outlets reflect the hard times. Tamar Hizon, a security guard at the NFA warehouse along Visayas Avenue, says the lines never seem to end. The warehouse opens from Mondays to Fridays and people line up as early as 6 a.m. “Pag dumating ka sa umaga, talagang napakahaba ng pila. Iisipin mong mauubusan ng bigas kinabukasan. (If you come in the morning, you will see the long queues. If you see the number of people lining up, you would think there’ll be no more rice available the next day),” says Hizon.

Despite the high prices of rice in the country, the Department of Agriculture said last month that prices here are still cheaper compared to other countries in the region.

NFA administrator Jessup P. Navarro said in May the domestic selling price of rice in Vietnam and Thailand, two of the Philippine's major rice suppliers, was at P59.01 per kilogram and P 45.11 per kg, respectively.
“For the same month, the average domestic price of rice in the

Philippines particularly the commercial varieties was P33.26 per kilo,” Navarro said in a statement issued by the NFA.

The rice problem in the Philippines is part of a larger global rice crisis caused by a number of factors such as rising cost of oil and fertilizer.
The problem is aggravated by insufficient supply and growing demand.

People like Marie can only hope that cheaper rice will continuously be available whenever they fall in line at NFA stores.

“Sana tumigil na ang pagtaas ng presyo kasi grabe talaga. Lahat ng bilihin ngayon mataas na. (I fervently hope that price increases will stop because the prices of almost everything now is going up),” says Marie, clutching a huge bag of rice she has just bought for her family. ###