Rice shortage, chestnut mannikins, & the specter of want


by Totie Mesia

Rice shortage and famine had been worrisome issues, but they made me recall the old days when I was a kid growing up in the 1960s. Food then wasn’t much of a problem in Bikol. The back of our house in Bagumbayan Street, Naga City was a quaint oasis of fish, waterfowls, and birds—a small paradise near the fabled Quiborakland where coconut trees grew tall and rice blossomed in abundance.

Yes, it was a swampy locale not far from the old Ateneo de Naga University campus where rice and grass grew in profusion. The black snakehead (talusog) rested in the mud and their babies formed bubbly gold balls of wiggly fingerlings beneath lush green lilies in the murky marsh. The frogs grew fat and lived satisfied with a steady diet of cicadas and dragonflies.

When the monsoon rains came, the place became greener and livelier. It teemed with jumping tadpoles, miniature crabs, and emerald salamanders which were elating to watch in glass jars I placed on the window sill.

The chestnut-feathered mannikins (aka rignos, maya, munia) flocked on patches of tall cogon grass, thick shrubs and thorny bougainvilleas which flowered in the peak of summer. The birds were awesome builders of nests made of dried zakate leaves when the fields were ripe with fruiting grains. Guarding the rice fields where they raised their young, I was rapt watching the mannikins foraged on grains which were outstandingly bountiful.

The birds were naturally happy in spite of the stern scarecrow’s presence on the rice paddies. They busily plucked food from rice stalks before the onset of harvest. And they sometimes blackened the sky in their amazing group flight each time I chased them. I had the child’s warped fun of trapping a few of them which I kept in a bamboo cage.

The mannikins sounded like thunder in their flight. In huge numbers, they flocked together incessantly chirping in the breeze, reminding us of unity which bound their species through the eons. Ravenously, they fed just like hungry human beings. Whenever they left though, I waited for their return—even if the farmers’ noisy tin cans suspended on a scarecrow’s breast banged incessantly to shoo them away.

In my innocent mind, I thought the plentiful rice grains back then would never run out. I was convinced both men and birds were in no danger of ever starving or dying of hunger.

But of course I was damn wrong. It didn’t take long when hordes of people moved in to live and disrupt the balance of the marsh. The grassy swamp quickly dried up, the vegetation thinned out, and the entire place looked fallow for rice or wildlife to ever thrive.

It appeared nature met extreme “environmental stress” with the encroachment of people in the fields. The green dragonflies with large iridescent eyes vanished with the slimy catfish that I used to hook with my fishing stick. The chestnut mannikins, lesser in number, did pass by as often. The black waterfowls (tikling) which dashed and sang on the mud were gone. Only the dengue-bearing mosquitoes remained.

I lamented thinking why fertile fields could turn so barren so quickly. It could be a reason why rice, our staple food, had suddenly become scarce all over the country. As news climate changed perturbed us, the grains couldn’t be coaxed to fruit generously as before. And the greedy rice hoarders held on for those rounds of price increases which ripped our pockets.

Yet, the national statistics disclosed, among our students, farming had never been as popular a profession as nursing, hotel and restaurant administration, or criminology. Many had been conditioned to believe that if they couldn’t get white-collar jobs, it was the only time to “go home and plant camote,” giving a bad rap to the humble sweet potato that sustained our ancestors. It had been a crooked way of regarding agriculture, a noble profession.

What could all these speak about us in the midst of the specter of want? Taxes had risen and many had been out of work. I heard many planters lost heart with farming and they dreamed of changing careers. With ineffectual agrarian reform program (CARP,) there had been less land to till and agriculture had been expensive for poor farmers without government support.

The cost of food brazenly shot up and the poor folks instantly felt the drag of spending for their families. There had been scary rumors of famine in spite of the move to make rice affordable. Grumblings and spotty protests rocked the streets as many waited for what would be next.

I wondered what these meant for the birds and the men without grains for the coming seasons. With our government’s proclivity to import rice from abroad, I pondered if interventions would ever work when leaders often bickered on issues which augured badly for clear solutions.

Was it wise to rely on rice imports from Vietnam without serious effort to make us rice-sufficient? What could 43 billion pesos do to our flagging agriculture, an industry which we shamefully neglected for a long time? Was unbridled export of brawn and brains the way towards national security and survival? Could we have done too little, too late because greed and corruption robbed us of what was essential for the nation?

I wished the people of the country would live through this uncertainty with sufficient courage. I always believed we still got the will and the energy to rise above our deepest concerns and worst fears.


One Response to “Rice shortage, chestnut mannikins, & the specter of want”

  1. dusktildawn Says:

    The act of buying rice is a daunting task nowadays reminiscent of the early 90’s. If you don’t have the money to buy commercial rice which rose 50% recently, you have to endure the long lines and the sweltering heat to buy a maximum of 3-5 kilos of NFA rice per day. At times you are required to present two ID cards or be marked with indelible ink because they do not trust the buyers not to fall in line again to buy several kilos more of the staple food.

    Note: This article also appeared in the Bicol Mail April 10, 2008 issue (page 1, 14)

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