The secretary of the Department of Agriculture on Monday said concerns of farmers in North Cotabato about going hungry because of El Niño was overblown, noting there was ample food supply in the area with the government having done enough to mitigate the effect of the drought.
DA chief Proceso Alcala made this pronouncement in an interview on "State of the Nation," days after a violent dispersal of protesting farmers in Kidapawan City ended with three dead and more than a hundred injured.
"Hindi po ganoon ka-grabe ang hirap doon sa lugar nila," said Alcala. "Nagkakamali po sila."
Alcala said that there was 120 percent food sufficiency level in the province, while the National Food Authority had more than 14 days supply of rice.
He noted that if there really were food shortage in the area, prices would have shot up.
Alcala said he was at a loss why farmers were protesting, given that he held forums in February and March and got no complaints about government efforts.
He said that the government had begun preparing farmers for the drought as early as 2015, encouraging those who would be affected to plant crops that were not as water-intensive. He claimed that the DA had also begun steps to make sure that farmlands would get enough water for those crops.
Prior to the bloody dispersal last week, Pedro Arnado, chairman of Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP)-North Cotabato province, said most of the protesters were farmers that were directly affected by drought in the towns of Arakan, Antipas, President Roxas, Magpet and Kidapawan City.
“We bring our sentiments on streets in order that the provincial government will notice our demands,” Arnado said.
The protesters demanded that the provincial government release 15,000 sacks of rice allegedly promised to them by Governor Emmylou Talino-Mendoza following the declaration of the provincial board putting the entire province under state of calamity.
Arnado said that aside from rice assistance, they also demanded for the immediate pullout of the military presence in their villages; action on the dwindling prices of agricultural crops; and a stop to the alleged arming of indigenous people in the town of Magpet.
The demonstrators also demanded the presence of Mendoza to hear their demands and save hungry people in the countryside.
On Sunday, two days after the clash, a new group of protesters arrived in Kidapawan City hailing from Makilala town.
Antonio Flores, the National Secretary General of KMP, said the group wanted their share of rice donated by action star Robin Padilla and the people of Davao City that were temporarily stocked inside the compound of the Spotswood Methodist Center, where protesters fled after the clash.
Flores said they were farmers that failed to receive rice assistance from the LGU of Makilala.
"There is no truth to the statement of Mayor Rudy Caoagdan. Not a single grain landed to their hands," Flores said.
But Alcala said some of the farmers may have been tricked into joining the protest rallies with misinformation that they would be given rice by the government.
"Ako po ay naaawa sa ibang kababayan natin na napagsamantalahan," said Alcala, who noted that some of the protesters were carrying banners against Oplan Bayanihan, the Armed Forces of the Philippines' campaign against forces of the New People's Army in the countryside.
"It shows na yung mga taong nandoon sa kalsada ... hinakot po ito, iba ang motibo," he said.
Kabataan Party-List Rep. Terry Ridon, who was in Kidapawan on Sunday, earlier twitted the administration for blaming progressive groups for the issue.
"Lumang tugtugin na ‘yan. Ginamit na rin ang ganyang palusot sa Mendiola massacre at sa Hacienda Luisita massacre. Ang pulisya at ang mga ahensya ng gobyerno, mas concerned pa sa backlash sa kanila. Sa halip na atupagin ang immediate release of food and crop aid sa mga magsasaka, puro palusot lang ang ginawa ng Palasyo sa nakaraang mga araw," Ridon said.
He belied Alcala's earlier claims that the administration of President Benigno Aquino III had done enough to mitigate the effects of El Niño on farmers.
"President Aquino and Sec. Alcala, go down from your ivory tower and see for yourselves how government inaction and the criminal negligence of your administration have exacerbated the plight of our poor and hungry farmers. Instead of pinning the blame on progressive groups who have come to support them, the president himself must come here and see his people’s unending suffering," Ridon said.
Rice cartel links
Meanwhile, host Pia Arcangel took the opportunity to ask Alcala directly about his supposed involvement with a rice cartel in Quezon, which he had served as congressman before being appointed to the DA.
Alcala denied the reports, noting that import price for rice went down under his tenure.
"I-trace po natin sa records ... ang pinakamurang bumili ng bigas is my term," he said. —JST, GMA News