Fr Shay Cullen: helping the hungry feed themselves

Child at Preda Centre

Child at Preda Centre

My first encounter with death by starvation was in Olongapo City many years ago when I was called out to bless a dead child. I was led to  the hovel made of cartons and plastic sheet where the three year old  was about to be buried. I found a little girl about five in a cardboard  box covered with dress cut out of paper. It was all the emaciated  mother could afford. The family hadn't eaten in days. It led me to  ask why and what could I do to prevent it.

That quest pulled me out of the comfort of the church rectory into the farms and factories, onto the streets and into the harsh realities of poor people's lives and to understand better the causes of poverty and led to me to start Fair-trade projects all over the Philippines. How could I be content to eat well everyday and enjoy food security when millions went hungry? It led me to look closely at the social teachings of the church and realize that faith in the God's given dignity of the human person is only real when it leads to action for justice that will uplift the downtrodden and lead to a life of dignity for all.

In the Philippines about 200 families own or control 70% of the wealth. They control the congress and the army ensures their survival. Only a handful of rich families, politicians, and tycoons own or control most of the private arable land in The Philippines while the majority goes landless and hungry. For example, seven out of ten peasants still do not own land while less than one third of landowners own more than 80% of agricultural land. Not only has the land reform  project (CARP) failed only a fraction (17%) of the 1.5 million hectares of private lands has been fairly redistributed to the tenants who worked the land. The previous government of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo negotiated a 25 year lease with South Korea for 94,000 hectares of prime arable land in Mindoro for food production
for South Koreans while Filipinos went landless and hungry.

Since the rapid increase in commodity prices world-wide three years ago, rice has remained at an all-time high in the Philippines. Small farmers did not benefit, fertilizer and pesticide costs rose, millions of pesos designated to help subsidize the inputs were  allegedly siphoned off to support the reelection of the president. Besides the government did not offer higher prices to farmers to grow more rice, instead they imported millions of tonnes of rice and allowed traders to manipulate the prices by hoarding. So as usual, the rich are getting richer on the hunger of the poor.

There are a billion hungry people in the world today, most of them in Asia at 642 million, in Sub-Saharan Africa 265 Million, Latin America and the Caribbean 53 Million, Near East and North Africa 42 Million and developed countries 15 million. Children suffer most from this global malnutrition. If they don't get the basic food intake between one to three they are brain damaged and if they survive will join millions of children that are unable to learn and remain uneducated and can never have a decent job and a life of dignity.

Undernourished children are sick 160 days of the year and this leads directly to the death of an estimated 5.4 million children every year. Another 5 million children die because of preventable diseases diarrhea (61%), malaria (57%), pneumonia (52%), and measles (45%) which do their deadly damage because the children are so weak from undernourishment.

Three years ago, almost 33 percent of Filipinos were living below the poverty line. Now it is even worse because of the recession. As of 2005, 10.8 percent of the country's population survive on just $1 a day, and another 41.2 percent make do with less than $2 daily.

This is the greatest challenge that faces the Aquino administration. It also challenges all people of good will and non-government agencies to continue to work helping the poor to grow food and develop livelihoods.

Fr Shay Cullen is a Columban priest working in the Philippines. To read more about his work see:

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