04/20/2016, 17.19
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Drought forcing farmers to eat rats, Caritas slams government

Fr Peter Geremia, a PIME missionary Arakan Valley, describes the tragic situation farmers face as a result of El Niño. For him, “Rice distribution is proceeding too slowly”. On 1 April, police killed two protesters demanding rice. Caritas blames the authorities for not handing out financial aid to the agricultural sector.

Davao (AsiaNews) – The situation of farmers affected by drought in southern Philippines "remains tragic,” said Peter Geremia, a PIME missionary in Kidapawan Diocese. “Rice distribution is proceeding too slowly, tensions are building up, and rain is still not coming. There seems to be no end to the drought.”

“In many areas in the Arakan Valley, poor farmers, especially tribal Lumad, have run out of food supplies and have been forced to eat rats,” the PIME missionary said, who recently went to Kidapawan prison to visit some 80 people arrested during violent protests at the start of the month.

On 1 April, after days of protest by some 6,000 farmers demanding government action to deal with a persistent drought caused by El Niño, riot police opened fire. Two people were shot dead, and scores were wounded.

"Police detained those who could not escape,” said Fr Geremia, “including pregnant women, seniors, bystanders, and even those helping the medical teams. The wounded who did not escape were taken to the hospital, then prison.”

Provincial authorities later threatened to sue Kidapawan’s Methodist bishop for hiding farmers in his church. In court, defence lawyers asked the charges be dropped, stating that the arrests were illegal and carried out without evidence.

"The court is expected to rule next week,” the missionary said. “In the meantime, all the prisoners were released on bail, thanks to funds raised in the community."

The deaths on 1 April have left their mark on the public debate. “The [Filipino] Senate is currently looking into who is responsible for the drought emergency, since the crisis had been forecast last year.” Senators “also want to know who gave the order to fire into the crowd, which is something that has never happened before.”

Farmers’ already precarious situation has been compounded by the slow pace of government aid. The Department of Social Welfare and Development earlier said that eight billion pesos (US$ 170 million) were available for drought relief in favour of families affected by El Niño. But local governments are still waiting for them.

For its part, Caritas Philippines has blamed the government for the situation. Weeks after the bloody dispersal of a farmers’ protest in Kidapawan City, National Secretariat for Social Action (NASSA)/Caritas Philippines executive secretary Fr. Edwin Gariguez expressed his dismay over the government’s failure to help the agricultural sector cope with the El Niño drought.

“What is taking them long from releasing these available funds?” he wonders. “We have already seen enough bloodshed in Kidapawan which is rooted in the government’s inaction vis-à-vis this national emergency,” the clergyman said.

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