EMERGENCE: The Health of the Filipino Farmers

(Dr. Jean Lindo delivered this speech at the “Kumusta Ka Tano?” webinar on Peasants’ Health Programme on 31 October 2020,  organized by the Philippine Medical Students Association).

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 02 November) — Good afternoon! I feel honored to be invited to speak on the Health Situation of the Peasant Farmers sector here in Mindanao. October is Philippine Peasant Month. I am so proud of this organization, Philippine Medical Students Association. And even prouder that this organization is community-engaged and in solidarity with the peasant sector.

You have asked me to discuss the health situation of the peasants and, the socioeconomic factors related to the health problems. During our first year of medical school we are taught that health is basic human right. The health problems that we have, are a reflection, of the social, economic, political. and cultural structures of the society. We are taught the Hippocratic Oath. We are also taught the Primary Health Care which is embodied in the Declaration of Alma Ata. Your intended engagement with the peasant farmers is consistent with these principles.

What are the health problems of the peasant farmers of the Philippines? The mortality and morbidity data represent the cross section of the Philippine society. Over decades the top 10 causes of mortality and morbidity have not changed. They are poverty-related, preventable, curable diseases. The top causes of death include Ischemic Heart Disease, Cerebrovascular Disease, Neoplasm, Pneumonia, Chronic Lower Respiratory Infection. The top causes of illness, on the other hand, Acute Respiratory Infection, Acute Lower Respiratory Tract Infection and Pneumonia, Bronchitis, Bronchiolitis, Hypertension, Diarrhea, Influenza, Urinary Tract Infection, TB, Injuries, Heart Diseases. But always remember that forty percent of the population belong to the agricultural sector. Always remember that until now, six out of 10 Filipinos die without seeing a doctor.

But then there are other illnesses that affect the peasant sector which are related to their occupation and their environment. Because of their work, they are affected by various kinds of parasitism, namely intestinal parasitism, schistosomiasis, malaria, filariasis, heterophyiasis, and others. This reminds me of our community engagement in New Corella, Davao del Norte. Our rotating COMMED 4 clerks discovered the endemicity of heterophyiasis. The students presented their findings to the municipal LGU whose officials in turn, acted on the problem through the Municipal Health Officer, my classmate in medical school. There you can see that even students can actually make a dent on the people’s health.

Those working in the plantation are exposed to pesticides and herbicides which are not really safe. Some of the chemicals used in the plantations have been banned in other countries, like the paraquat, an herbicide used in the oil palm plantation. The corporate agriculture practice has put the peasants’ health at risk. Some conditions like aplastic anemia, thyroid cancer, cleft lip and palate and other fetal abnormalities, spontaneous abortions, and other conditions can be linked to the toxic pollutants of corporate agriculture.

In the mining areas, like the coal mining, communities have been exposed to health hazards like Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, Lung Cancer, neurologic disorders and other conditions. Coal is used for the coal fired power plants and the whole process of coal from mining to hauling to burning to produce the electric power put the people’s health at risk. The post-combustion wastes, effluents and gas emissions are toxic to the environment and human and animal health. The community that established ALCADEV Lumad school in Lianga, Surigao del Sur where the paramilitary elements killed its executive director Emerico Samarca and two Lumad leaders, Dionel Campos and Aurelio Sinzo in 2015 actually resisted coal mining. The said Lumad school taught sustainable agriculture and they had demo farm.

The peasant sector has been vulnerable during typhoons and heavy rains.  Aside from deaths during the disasters, you have heard of stories of farmers committing suicide especially after typhoons or during El Niño or dry spells. Mental health also takes heavy toll on our peasant sector aside from deaths during climate change. The mobilization of the farmers in Kidapawan City was related to the dry spell which our government failed to respond properly. Food is survival need but the farmers from Compostela Valley and Davao Oriental who survived Typhoon Pablo in 2013 had to demand for the rice promised by the Department of Social Welfare and Development.

You have seen that violence is also among the causes of death. And let us not forget, most of the killings are on the peasant sector. A village councilor from Baganga, Davao Oriental, Cristina Jose, was killed. She intended to complain about the alleged blacklisting of the farmers who participated in the said protest. I also remember Bello Tindasan, chair of Compostela Farmers Association (CFA) who was attacked in 2015. Earlier, I was able to have him as guest in my radio program “One with Nature,” which ran for about two years with fellow environmentalists. He told us about the farm already planted to root crops, corn and other products. It was bulldozed. CFA also protested against the  AGPET or Agusan Petroleum and Minerals Corporation , a large scale mining owned by the Cojuangcos. The arrests, torture, and imprisonment for trumped up charges, are mostly against peasant farmers. In 2016, the violent dispersal of farmers in Kidapawan ended with three deaths and 116 injured.

Neoliberalism’s assault against the Peasant Sector

You have asked me to discuss how the socioeconomic factors have affected the health of the peasant sector. You have asked me how the laws created add to the health woes of the farmers. I will be direct to the point in answering this. Neoliberalism is the dominant economic system that causes inequalities and social injustices against this sector. Even some of those who work for the International Monetary Fund admit this. Agnes Callamard, the UN special rapporteur, also observed that the neoliberal policies have caused massive human rights violations (specifically, extrajudicial killings). It is not surprising to see that aside from systematic physical violence, the peasant farmers are deprived of the most basic of their rights, such as, access to water, food, and land.

Neoliberalism is the dominant economic system globally. This system is characterized by war and militarism, environmental racism and classism, and unsustainable and unjust system of production, distribution, and consumption. These, as the activists of Hampshire College would assert, are also the same pushing factors for climate change.

All the wars, for example, the so-called All Out War in Mindanao, are about resource control. The governments will not stop these wars until they are able to take control of the territories that has the oil, gases, minerals. These wars take place where the peasant farmers, including both Moro and indigenous peasants are living peacefully when left by themselves. Scenarios are orchestrated. Naomi Klein, in her book ‘The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism,’ described how the businesses behaved after a disaster like Hurricane Katrina. But with the wars, it is the same behavior for the businesses. People who survive may be forced to leave their territories or sell their properties at a cheap price just to survive. Shock and awe would force people to give up everything important to them.

I mentioned environmental racism. An example of this is the garbage from Canada taken to the Philippines. Environmental classism means that the garbage is dumped in the low-income communities. But, of course, there are also other examples of this form of inequality.  If you look at the system of dumping of effluents from a typical factory, you see them in the low-income communities, mostly farming communities.

Then there is the unsustainable and unjust system of production, distribution, and consumption.  Sustainable Development means meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the capacity of future generations to meet their own needs. Look at the corporate food system. Corporations enjoy hundreds of thousands of hectares of land and their production utilize polluting technologies that harm not only the plantation workers, but even other individuals who are not involved in the production system. When you use resources without considering the capacity of future generations to meet their needs, this is unsustainable. When people not involved in the production are also harmed, like babies coming out with abnormalities because of the pesticides, this is not sustainable.

Sustainable distribution is typically seen as optimizing the distribution system and transport infrastructure, reusable packaging, and reduced package waste. But how about those workers in the plantations, how is their safety ensured? Should people working in the production and distribution not be part of the equation? Most plantations and factories have distribution system that also harm not only the workers but also the surrounding communities.

Sustainable consumption is the use of a service or a product to address basic need to bring better quality of life while minimizing the use or natural resources and toxic materials, as well as, emissions of wastes and pollutants in order that the future generations are not harmed. Does this really happen?

The big deal with this is that the peasant sector is always a sacrificial population for this unjust system of production, distribution, and consumption.

Yet, kaingin, which is, really, scientific, and sustainable farming, is being restricted through various laws and vilification as well. If you ask which entities are responsible for deforestation and flooding, they blame at once, “kaingeros.” The truth is, 60% of deforestation is caused by legal logging and not by the kaingin system. When kaingin system is restricted, these farmers are not able to meet their basic food needs, which our government has failed to address.

The neoliberal system translates into laws that favor corporations because it is, really, a corporate rule. And the partnership between corporations and politicians is obvious. Most of the politicians are owners or partners of big businesses. It is not surprising that genuine land reform will not happen in the Philippines, until people choose to be enlightened and critically engaged citizens. Agroecology, which is sustainable, people-led, does not receive support from the government. Sadly, it is the government that has the economies of scale to push agroecology. At its best, all the laws and programs intended to benefit the peasant sector is mere tokenism. Some farmers from North Cotabato told me that the corn seedlings provided by the Department of Agrarian Reform did not grow.

Kung si Tano ay malusog, ibig sabihin, nakamit ng ating bansa ang totoong sustainable development dahil may pagbabago sa buong sistema. Ibig sabihin, nakamit din ang inclusive development kasi kasama sa decision-making si Tano. Ang may-konsyensyang gobyerno kung gumagawa ng mga batas at mga programa tinitingnan din ang kapakanan ni Tano. Hindi magdidikta ang gobyerno kay Tano na dapat P14.00 lang ang kilo ng bigas samantalang wala naman silang input sa produksyon.

Cuba has a very good narrative in restorative agriculture. The government suffered economic embargo by the US. They really exerted effort to address food need of the population by turning to restorative agriculture. The soccer stadium was converted into a farm. Their restorative agriculture was able to create jobs for about some 200,000 farmers in the process (this is equivalent to the number employed by the mining sector in the whole of Philippines to plunder the environment). Restorative Agriculture was not easy for Cuba but they succeeded. And you can see that in all health and development indicators, Cuba is much better than Philippines despite meager natural resources and periodic hurricane.

As the expression goes, marami pa tayong bigas na kakainin para maging malusog si Tano. CEME or Community Engaged Medical Education gives us tremendous opportunity to learn from the so-called invisible people or the traditionally excluded communities. Let us be in solidarity with them. Let us take the cudgel for the poor and the oppressed communities. Our generation of doctors were taught social responsibility, but we found out responsibility was not enough, we had to be socially responsive. Then we found out that social responsiveness was not enough, we were challenged towards social accountability. Your generation of doctors should continue  this meaningful, solidarity action. Thank you very much and more power to the Philippine Medical Students Association. Mabuhay ang mga magbubukid ng Pilipinas at ng buong mundo!

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Dr. Jean Lindo is an anesthesiologist practicing in Davao City. She is into Health and Human Rights work. She is also involved in the women’s movement in Davao City).