Quote for the Week..

"Why are the country’s political leaders quick to act on amending the Constitution to change nationalistic provisions for the benefit of foreigners or to extend their terms of office but are allergic to amending the Constitution to address the people’s aspirations for self-determination?" - Marvic Leonen,Dean of the UP College of Law, in a keynote address delivered at the 1st International Solidarity Conference on Mindanao; March 16-18, 2009 in Davao City, Philippines.


Sunday, March 30, 2008

World Food Programme Reaches Out to Remote Villages

Occasional armed conflict aggravates poverty in the countryside

PIKIT, NORTH COTABATO, Philippines -- Hiding under the shade of makeshift stage, 13-year-old Denilda Abdul finishes the last spoonful of her corn-soya porridge and quickly lines up for another serving.

Her traditional Muslim headscarf does not hide her emaciated frame and slightly bulging eyes, signs of early malnutrition common among children in remote villages of Mindanao.

"This is very good," she says between spoonfuls of the brown, sticky mixture distributed by the UN's World Food Program (WFP) in the small farming village of Kalakacan in Pikit, North Cotabato.

"It's not chicken or fish, but it fills me up just the same."

She is just one of more than one million people who rely daily on food from the WFP in Mindanao, the southern Philippine island which has been ravaged for more than 30 years by a Muslim separatist rebellion and inter-clan feuding.

Other students silently eat their porridge, sweat trickling down their faces despite a gentle breeze blowing across from empty corn and rice fields nearby.

Mothers mingle in the background and talk of fighting between the Philippine military and separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) that has wrought havoc on hundreds of farming communities like this and forced thousands of families into squalid refugee camps.

"Hunger is a nagging concern for the people in Mindanao," WFP country chief Valerie Guanieri told Agence France-Presse.

Despite a five-year ceasefire between the government and the MILF, clashes erupt randomly and deadly feuding between rival families and militant Muslim groups remain a problem.

It also disrupts farming and other jobs, and prevents children attending school, Guarnieri said.

The conflict has led to malnutrition levels that are "quite alarming in a country of the economic status of the Philippines," she said.

"Nothing in Mindanao can be divorced from the conflict because there's an area that should be the breadbasket of the Philippines, that should be the economic lifebuoy for the country and yet because of the conflict, it doesn't get the sort of investment, either public or private that would allow it to fulfill its potential," Guarnieri said.

"They are living day to day and they are trying to supplement their farming. These activities are clearly disrupted when they are forced to move to another area. It makes what's already quite a difficult life all the harder," she said.

Various efforts have been made by government and UN agencies to document the exact number of displaced, but because the camps are often temporary and villagers often return to their homes to retrieve belongings no actual figure has been established.

For sure, Guarneri says, the figure runs in the hundreds of thousands, with her agency alone delivering between 2,000 and 3,000 tons of food every month last year to 1.1 million of Mindanao's 16 million residents.

In December 2007 alone, more than 3,000 villagers from this town were displaced by days of fighting before ceasefire monitors stepped in, according to local officials.

These refugees would continue to depend on foreign aid to fend off starvation, Guarneri said.

Guarnieri said millions of dollars are now pouring into Mindanao to support the peace process, "but very little of that assistance goes directly to conflict-affected households".

Jesus Sacdalan, the local governor, says large-scale fighting has stopped, although armed conflict among local political warlords and Muslim clans persists.

"It has become relatively peaceful. And our children are slowly returning to schools and normal life," he said. "We have local problems though about clan fighting."

Clan wars are more pertinent in daily life here, with a recent study by the Asia Foundation recording more than 3,800 deaths in recent years related to what are know here as "rido."

But this number is also likely to fall if the government signs a peace deal with the MILF and subsequently curbs unlicensed gun ownership, Sacdalan said.

"It's critical that the government and the MILF conclude a peace agreement as soon as possible," Guarnerie said.

That is expected to take a few more years, with MILF chief Murad Ebrahim in a recent meeting with his senior commanders in Mindanao saying he doubted a final peace pact would be achieved before the end of President Gloria Arroyo's term in 2010.

"I don't know [until] when the food supplies will last. What I know is that we can't rely on dole-outs forever," says mother of six Merlinda Apostol, 42, as she grasps a bright red food bowl.

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