Page last updated at 16:57 GMT, Sunday, 6 April 2008 17:57 UK

Rice prices hit Philippines poor

By Lawrence Ong
BBC News, Central Luzon, Philippines

Jaime Tadeo, Philippine rice council
The food security of the Filipino people should not depend on imports
Jaime Tadeo, National Rice Farmers' Council

Rice for breakfast, rice for lunch and rice for dinner.

Like many poor Filipinos, Teresita Reyes relies on rice to feed her family and she's finding it increasingly expensive to live.

She and her family live on a few dollars a day in Malate, one of the poorest districts in the capital, Manila.

"Because of the rice shortage, we should tighten our budget. And we do not waste rice. When we cook, we just cook what's needed," she says.

Rising tensions

With rice prices hitting record highs, tensions are rising across the Philippines.

As part of its efforts to cut wastage and consumption, the government has urged restaurants to offer their customers the option of having just half the rice they normally get.

Demonstration in Manila, December 2007
More demonstrations against the government could take place

The government was forced this week to draft in troops to deliver rice to poor neighbourhoods to avoid a backlash.

Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap is not ready to declare a crisis.

"To declare a crisis means we're facing shortages and that we have food lines, we are facing food rationing, which all do not exist right now. And we don't foresee this existing," he told the BBC.

Food protests

But many Filipinos disagree.

Members of the influential May First Labour Movement have been holding small-scale demonstrations in various parts of the country against what they call the government's inaction to do more to curb rising food prices.

Slums in Manila
Large shantytowns crowd around the capital Manila

"I think the government officials are in a state of denial.

"If the best that people like Secretary Yap come up with are measures like saying Filipinos should eat half of what they used to consume in terms of rice, I think this is a very stupid pronouncement," says Elmer C Labog, who chairs the movement.

Once self-sufficient in rice, the country is now the world's biggest importer of the crop, which is also a major staple food for half the world's population.

But with rice exporting countries from Egypt to Vietnam tightening their supplies to keep prices under control at home, the Philippines is one of the hardest hit.

Many activists were not surprised.

They had long predicted the problems it is currently facing.

Agriculture under pressure

Over the past 20 years or so, the country lost nearly half of its irrigated land to rapid urban development.

Rice production in Thailand
The rising cost of rice is a problem around the world

Jaime Tadeo from the National Rice Farmers' Council showed me a few areas just north of Manila where shopping malls, condominiums, and golf courses have taken over precious farm land.

"There is still time. The Philippines has the vast potential to attain rice self-sufficiency if all land suitable is used to plant rice under the best technological and farm management conditions.

"We can even export rice if we want. So the food security of the Filipino people should not depend on imports," he said.

Worsening

There are fears that the rice shortage could worsen in the coming months.

The opposition has threatened President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo with more large scale protests.

The government has warned rice hoarders that they would be given life imprisonment if found guilty - underlining the highly sensitive nature of the issue for the authorities.

But a lack of investment in the agricultural sector is raising serious questions about how the Philippines will be able to cope with its falling domestic production in the near future.


SEE ALSO
Country profile: The Philippines
12 Feb 08 |  Country profiles
Arroyo lays out economic agenda
23 Jul 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Philippine growth at 17-year high
31 May 07 |  Business
Filipino remittances hit $12.8bn
15 Feb 07 |  Business

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