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Friday, January 15, 1999 Published at 23:22 GMT

Philippine poverty

The sunset hides the ugliness of poverty

Our correspondent in the Philippines, John McLean, looks at the problems confronting President Joseph Estrada

The province of Romblon is about as near to the centre of the Philippine archipelago as you can get. It's also one of the country's poorest provinces.

On the doors of the peasants' bamboo-and-coconut-timber houses, election posters - now faded by the sun and rain - proclaim that here live the kind of people who, last year, elected President Joseph Estrada. The majority of Filipinos are peasants, and Mr Estrada has promised to lift them out of their poverty.
[ image: Joseph Estrada pledges to eradicate poverty]
Joseph Estrada pledges to eradicate poverty

For centuries, since the Malay race first settled in these islands, people have survived among the formerly jungle-clad mountains of Romblon. Sometimes, it's hard to see how.

Standing on a hillside with my host, I pointed out a bright red flower, rather like an inverted pine-cone, and asked him what it was. My host consulted his companions.

Other figures emerged from the trees and joined what had become an animated discussion. After about five minutes, my host turned to me and said: "It's what we call, in our dialect, a 'wild flower'."

Erosion destroys rice crop

This cultural detachment from the environment is a modern phenomenon. Sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's not. In the southern Philippines, people have known for centuries that in times of drought, they can eat a certain kind of wild yam which thrives while the rice crop withers.

During last year's drought, many people did just that. But they somehow forgot that the yams are poisonous, unless carefully prepared. Dozens of people died. Others turned to the government for rice handouts.

[ image: The Philippines wants to join the Asian
The Philippines wants to join the Asian "Tiger" economies

Rice is the staple, and in this particular corner of Romblon, paddy fields beside the river used to provide a cash crop. But the excavation of sand and gravel, for use in construction, caused the erosion of the soil. Now there are no more rice fields.

Concrete irrigation channels built by the government to increase productivity are dry, and crumbling. All that remains beside the river is a local desert of more sand and gravel - and this is how many of the men and women now earn their living, sifting the sand and gravel by hand, and shovelling it onto trucks.

Rice must now be purchased, or begged for from relatives.

The traditional extended family can be a source of support in many ways. Night falls - and by the light of fireflies, and lamps made from old gin-bottles - the drinking begins.

Gin, distilled by a company whose shares are much sought-after on the Philippine stock exchange, can be bought for a few cents. With the drinking, comes the fighting. The rural silence is broken by shouted insults and screams as domestic disputes break out.

Hair conditioner or food?

Life is not entirely grim. Daylight reveals an ages-old scene: a row of young women sitting in the shade of a huge mango tree, one behind the other, picking lice from each other's hair. That's not the limit of their grooming.

The local shop stocks most essentials, such as shampoo and hair conditioners - bearing brand-names that are known the world over. But here, these products are sold in tiny sachets, only a few grams each. Many of the other goods are sold in the same, miniscule packets.

I ask my host whether it wouldn't be cheaper to buy these things in larger quantities. His answer: "Why spend a fortune on a bottle of hair conditioner, when you don't know where your next meal is coming from?"
[ image: Collecting water: irrigation loses out to consumer products]
Collecting water: irrigation loses out to consumer products

There's always the solace of religion. Filipinos are predominantly Roman Catholic. In the distance, naked children frolic in a gravel pit flooded with filthy water.

I suggest that it would be healthier if they swam in a nearby pool of clean water, in the river itself. My host says the children are forbidden to swim there, because witches have cast evil spells over the pool.

The witches and other manifestations of the supernatural are just as real to the children and adults as the plastic statue of the Virgin Mary beside the door.

Traditional culture versus modern life

It's not just poverty that President Estrada has to tackle. He has to deal with a culture that often adopts the more useless aspects of both traditional life and modern life, but discards the more useful features.

It's a traditional culture, that remembers that witches are dangerous, but that forgets which wild plants are safe to eat.

It's also a modern culture - one that spends its money on hair conditioner and gin, yet allows irrigation systems to crumble while it begs for food.

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