The tragedy of the rural poor

Something is happening in the countryside that is forcing a lot of rural folk to flock to the city.  Migration is nothing new, of course.  But what I think is happening is qualitatively different from previous waves of urban migration. In the past, it was the “pull” factor of favorable urban living that drew many people to the cities.  Today, it is mainly the “push” factor of worsening rural conditions that drives people out of their homes and communities.  This is a mirror reflection of the dynamics of Filipino overseas migration in the past three decades. People are leaving not so much because life outside is necessarily brighter; they are leaving because conditions at home give them no hope.

The distinction may seem small, but it is as huge as the difference between ambition and despair.  When people are goaded by ambition and hope, they look far into the future and their horizons are broader. Migration only looms as an option.  When they are completely driven by despair, they tend to accept anything that comes their way, unable to look beyond the exigencies of short-term survival.  Migration is no longer just an option; it is the default mode.

Last week, Julia, my granddaughter who is now seven, was pleasantly surprised to find a 2-year-old girl happily playing in our garden. Though she could barely recognize her, she was even more surprised to see the little girl’s mother, Claire, her first yaya, the one who took care of her from birth until she was two.  Claire had written to Kara, Julia’s mom, asking if there was a chance for her to come back and work for her.  Kara immediately sent her transportation money, and she came bringing with her this child.

Her story is integral to the Filipino narrative of rural collapse.  Claire comes from a family of landless farmers in Abra.  When she finished grade school, she was recruited by one of the well-off families from her town to work as a house help in their home in the outskirts of Metro Manila.  After a few years, she moved to Quezon City, hoping to find a higher paying job that would also give her time to continue her studies. Eventually she found her way into our home in the UP Diliman Campus.  She struck us as a bright and caring person, and we all felt secure about her being Julia’s first nanny. Kara wanted her to enroll for night-time school, but, understandably, with an infant to take care of, she never got to do it.

When Julia was two, Claire said goodbye and went home to Abra to get married.  It was the last time we saw her – until last week.  I could not recognize her.  The hardship of the past five years seems written all over her face.  She has become very old and emaciated.  The ready smile is still there but in her shy gloomy eyes one could read a diary of unrelenting desolation. She had brought us a bottle of wild honey, a gesture of thoughtfulness one hardly expected from someone so poor.

Without land of their own to till, she and her husband were dependent on irregular farm work that was becoming increasingly difficult to find. Many farms had become idle.  Claire decided that she would not watch her two children die slowly from hunger or disease.  That was when she made up her mind to return to Manila.  She took the younger child with her, and left the older one, who is four, with her jobless husband.

It is no longer her own future but that of her children that she seeks. For her and countless others, the quest ends in Manila.  With little formal education, they have no chance of joining the exodus of Filipino domestic helpers to Hong Kong, Singapore, or the Middle East.  Her hope is that someday her two girls may go to school and finish. Her story is not unusual; indeed it is typical.

All over the country, the old farming communities, the backbone of an agrarian economy, are disintegrating in the wake of the unabated conversion of agricultural land.  This development seldom opens new sources of employment; it only closes the old ones, leaving thousands of hectares of farmland untilled, and dislocating millions of rural families in the process.  Ironically, the agrarian reform program has worked against the rural folk. Landowners, seeking to justify conversion, routinely retire fertile land from agricultural use, deliberately making these unproductive overnight. They entice tenants, lessees, and regular farm workers with offers of cash in exchange for giving up their rights over the land they till.

Looking closely at the way it was deviously crafted and half-heartedly implemented, one is stunned to see how the agrarian reform program, the very instrument that was supposed to emancipate the rural poor, has become a mass weapon to decimate them.  This liquidation, however, has been a long-drawn affair, and it is difficult to point to a single triggerman.  It has not disturbed any consciences. For, apart from the rare explosions of outrage exemplified by the long march of the Sumilao farmers, the tragedy of the rural poor has remained largely below the public radar screen.

There is hardly any sustained peasant organizing left in the countryside that could match the energy and presence of the peasant movements of the ‘30s and ‘50s.  The descendants of the Filipino peasantry are mutely withering away in the remaining agricultural lands, while many others who have moved to the uplands, are waging a marginal existence, farming and gathering forest products in logged-over areas.  The rest, like Claire, are coming in great numbers to the city, in a heroic attempt to build a future for their children, away from their loved ones and their communities.


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