My first encounter with death by starvation in the Philippines 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 in a cardboard box covered with a 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 the lives of poor people and to understand better the causes of poverty. Ultimately, it 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 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 population goes landless and hungry. For example, 7 out of 10 peasants still do not own land while less than 1/3 of landowners own more than 80% of agricultural land.
There are a billion hungry people in the world today. Asia has 642 million hungry people followed by sub-Saharan Africa with 265 million, Latin America and the Caribbean with 53 million, Near East and North Africa with 42 million and developed countries with 15 million. Children suffer the most from this global malnutrition. If their basic nutrition needs are not met between the ages of one and three, they can become brain damaged. If they survive, they 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.
The death of an estimated 5.4 million children every year is attributed to undernourishment. Another 5 million children die because of preventable diseases like 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. In 2005, 10.8 percent of the country’s population survived on just $1 a day, and another 41.2 percent made do with less than $2 daily. Those numbers are higher now.
This is the greatest challenge that faces the Aquino administration. It also challenges all people of good will and non-governmental agencies to continue to work helping the poor to grow food and develop livelihoods.
Fr. Shay Cullen lives and works in the Philippines. For more information, please visit www.preda.org.