Monday, April 21, 2008

Tina's Children

The severe rice shortage that may yet result in food riots in the Philippine has forced the staunchly “Pro-Life” government of Pres. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to concede the need to raise public awareness of population control. After years of rejecting United Nations and USAID funding for family planning programs, the government has finally realized that maintaining current levels of rice production is not nearly enough when the Philippine population is growing by at least 2 million a year. In 1945, there were 20-M Filipinos. By 2000, the population had risen to 76.5-M. Less than 8 years later, it is now pegged at 88.57-M and is expected to break the 100-M mark in just 5 years.

According to former Health Secretary Alberto Romualdez, “the worst part of it all is that the people who are growing at a faster rate are Filipinos who could not afford it. And the rich who have the money, are actually not growing at all, with a growth rate of zero percent,” he said.

With less arable land available for rice production and higher fuel costs and expenses for seeds and fertilizers, the government is straining to retain previous levels of productivity that, if successful, will still yield little or no rice for 2-M people.

According to a study just released by the European Union (2008 Philippine Development Forum), "Continued rapid population growth in the Philippines is draining health and economic resources and slowing down economic growth. It also threatens the sustainability of rural livelihoods and is inexorably destroying the remaining natural forest and marine habitats. The poor are paying the highest price, both individually and collectively. The European Union therefore calls for the effective implementation of a comprehensive national family planning policy, promoting access to family planning methods."

But raising public awareness of population control is not enough if the only kind of birth control endorsed by the government is the “natural family planning method” where couples are encouraged to have sex only during certain “safe” periods in a woman’s menstrual cycle, a method otherwise known as “the Vatican roulette”.

Alas, even this wholly unreliable method cannot be effectively promoted because, according to Malacanang Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye, the national government is “no longer involved in implementing the birth control program since this has been devolved to local government units (LGUs)” where the local chief executives are in charge of implementing birth control policies in their jurisdictions.

What compounds the problem is that even discussing the need for population control has drawn the opposition of the Catholic Church and pro-lifers in the Arroyo Administration led by former Manila Mayor Lito Atienza, currently Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources. Atienza believes that the solution to the present food crisis is a strong agricultural production program and not birth control.

When Atienza was mayor of Manila from 2000 to 2006, he issued Executive Order 003 (EO 003) banning the use of artificial contraceptives in all of Manila’s public health facilities. This order was even extended to private pharmacies and drug stores in Manila which were prohibited from selling any artificial method of birth control, even condoms.

Although Atienza is no longer mayor, his ban still remains in effect. So in January of this year, 20 directly affected women filed suit to invalidate EO 003. One of the female plaintiffs, Tina Montiel, age 36, wanted to have only two children, according to her affidavit. Before Atienza was elected mayor, Manila had a health policy which allowed her to get contraceptive supplies from the Manila health system. When Atienza abolished the program, Tina gave birth to two more children. After 4 children, Tina asked to have her tubes tied (tubal ligation) so that she could no longer have babies, but this was not allowed because of EO 003. Tina now has eight children.

In her affidavit, Tina stated:

"Our daily income is 150 pesos from scavenging. My family’s breakfast includes three sachets of coffee and a few pieces of pandesal [bread rolls]. One kilo of rice is insufficient for lunch and dinner. We make do with soy sauce or salt if we can’t afford to buy ten pesos’ worth of cooked vegetable for lunch or dried fish for dinner. If our daily earnings only amount to below 70 pesos, we only have bread for dinner.

"My children are malnourished. Oftentimes, they miss a meal. My sixth child, who was underweight at birth, hasn’t recovered yet. I give each of my children five pesos for school allowance. I feel sorry for them because I can’t buy them school shoes. They miss lunch if they have to pay something in school. One of my children had to stop going to school.

"My eldest son died of rheumatic heart disease. Most of our earnings went to his medication. My husband lost his job as security guard, after he was unable to pay more than 3,000 pesos needed to renew his license.”

What kind of life has Tina and her children been condemned to live? Is being pro-life being pro-miserable life?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

English-deprived Abyss

Russ Sandlin, an American businessman in the Philippines, recently closed his call center in Manila because he said he could not find enough English proficient workers. “Not even 3 percent of the students who graduate college here are employable in call centers,” he complained.

Sandlin cited a Philippine Department of Education report disclosing that 80 percent of secondary school teachers in the Philippines failed an English proficiency test last year. “English is the only thing that can save the country,” he wrote, “and no one here cares or even understands that the Filipinos have a crisis.”

Sandlin’s discouraging comments came in the form of an an email blasting the Philippine Daily Inquirer for publishing the op-ed article of Ateneo English Prof. Isabel Pefianco Martin, president of the Linguistic Society of the Philippines, who criticized the “persistent efforts of lawmakers to institutionalize English as the sole language of learning in basic education.”

“Good luck to the Inquirer. It needs to reevaluate its writers,” Sandlin wrote, “unless it supports such a misguided set of ideas. God save the Philippines. I hate to see the country falling ever deeper into an English-deprived abyss.”

Prof. Martin’s op-ed piece, which was published on April 8, 2008 (“Myths about languages in the Philippines”), criticized the narrow thinking behind a bill in the Philippine Congress (House Bill 305) that would mandate the use of English as the medium of instruction in all academic subjects from Grade 3 onwards and encouraging the use of English as the medium of interaction outside the classrooms. It also proposes English as the language of assessment in all government examinations and entrance tests in all public schools and state universities and colleges.

The bill which was sponsored by Cebu Rep. Eduardo R. Gullas and co-sponsored by 207 other legislators (more than 2/3rds of the House membership) was approved on its third and final reading in the Lower House late last year. The Senate is slated to take up the bill in June.

If enacted into law, the bill will repeal a 33-year old policy of bilingual teaching in Philippine schools which encouraged the use of English and Pilipino (Tagalog) as mediums of instruction.

“Targeting the learning of two languages is too much for the Filipino learners, especially in the lower grades. And if the child happens to be a non-Tagalog speaker, this task actually means learning two foreign languages at the same time, an almost impossible task,” Gullas said.

Prof. Martin criticized the bill for its underlying premise that “if you don’t know English, you simply don’t know”. She explained that the link between intelligence and English language proficiency is very flimsy. “In this world, you will find intelligent people who cannot speak a word of English, as well as not-so-smart ones who are native speakers of the language,” she asserted.

It would be narrow-minded simply “to produce English-proficient graduates for contact centers, hospitals and medical transcription offices, never mind if these graduates are unthinking products of the schools.”

“The ability to speak like an American will certainly not ensure excellent performance in the contact center jobs,” she wrote, if the students lack “the ability to manage culture-diverse environments,” she wrote. The ability to effectively manage one's environment is the goal of education.

Even if there was universal agreement that Filipinos should aspire to English proficiency, there is still the question of how best to reach that goal. According to Prof. Martin, “research studies prove that learning a language becomes more effective when emotional barriers are eliminated.” She cited Linguist Stephen Krashen who taught that the formula for success in learning a language is painfully simple: the lower the feelings of fear (low affective filter), the higher the chances of learning

California adopted a policy of bilingual education in public elementary schools to help non-English speaking students transition to regular classes that were taught in English. The Filipino Education Center (FEC) on Harrison Street in San Francisco, for example, was set up by the San Francisco Unified School District in 1976 to offer bi-lingual classes to newly-arrived Filipino immigrant students in aprogram where Tagalog-speaking teachers would teach the traditional elementary courses in both Tagalog and English so that the students would not fear English and not be traumatized by native American students ridiculing their accents.

My friend, Marivic Bamba, immigrated to the US with her family when she was 5 and couldn’t speak English. Her parents enrolled her in the FEC and she then transitioned into the regular school curriculum after three years of bilingual education. Marivic went on to graduate from college and obtain a master’s degree and be appointed by San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown to be a department head (Director of the SF Human Rights Commission).

Studies showed that immigrant students (Latinos, Chinese, etc.) who went through bi-lingual education learned English more effectively than students who were enrolled directly into regular American English-speaking classes without the benefit of a bi-lingual transition program.

Prof. Martin points out that most Filipinos speak at least three different languages and English might not even be one of them. “So when English is first introduced to them, it should be introduced slowly and gently, with much respect for their first languages,” she urged.

“Teaching and learning English in the Philippines may be a difficult task, but it need not be a frightening experience,” Prof. Martin wrote. “So much has already been spent on testing the proficiency of teachers and then training these teachers to become more proficient in the language. But simply focusing on testing and training, without recognizing the multilingual context of teaching and learning English in the Philippines, only reinforces fear of the language.”

English proficiency should not be viewed as the measure of a nation’s success. How can we explain the economic ascendancies of Japan, China, and Korea where English is hardly spoken? Those countries educated their populations in their native languages using their languages as tools of communication. English should be similarly seen as a tool of communication, not as the goal of education.

Contrary to Sandlin's impression, Prof. Martin was not opposed to the use of English as a medium of instruction in Philippine schools (after all, she's an English professor at the Ateneo) but to the lack of thought given as to how best teach English to the population. The goal is the same (an educated English-speaking population), it is the path (bilingual or monolingual) to the goal that is in dispute.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Imaginary Rice

I asked a friend in Manila what he was doing nowadays and he replied that he wasn’t doing much, just waiting for GMA (Pres. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo) to fall. I asked him if he was at all concerned about the rice crisis we had been hearing so much about. He said that he thought it was just a ploy used by GMA to divert attention from the many scandals facing her government.

The irony is that GMA just announced that there is no rice shortage in the country and that talk about such a shortage is “imaginary”.

The reality is that talk about the crisis has pushed the Philippine Senate hearings on government corruption out of the front pages of Manila’s dailies which are now filled with stories about the “imaginary” crisis.

The other reality is that there is a real rice crisis that has been brought about by external and internal factors within and without the control of the government. The world-wide skyrocketing of food and fuel costs has been exacerbated by the government’s actions and inactions.

In 2003, the world price of rice was $200 per metric ton. Four years later, in 2007, it jumped to $300. In less than a year since then, the price has doubled to $600 per metric ton, and it is expected to rise to as much as $1,000 per metric ton within a year.

The Philippines consumes approximately 18-M metric tons of rice a year to feed its growing 90-M population. But the country only produces about 90% of the rice it needs requiring it to import about 1.8-M metric tons, making it the world’s largest importer of rice.

Less than a month ago, the Philippines signed an agreement with Vietnam to purchase 1.5-M metric tons of rice for the year. But the agreement has an escape clause that would allow Vietnam to back off from the deal in “circumstances of natural disaster and harvest loss.” One major storm in Vietnam could easily precipitate a major rice crisis in the Philippines.

According to Sen. Mar Roxas, president of the Liberal Party, the Philippines is facing a metaphorical “perfect storm" with the steep rise in the price of rice being compounded by skyrocketing fuel costs (oil at $110 a barrel) and a recession in the US economy. The latter is certain to dramatically reduce the remittances of overseas Filipinos which the country has relied on to stabilize the economy.

To avert the impending rice shortage, the Philippine government has asked fast food chains like Jolibee and MacDonald’s to lessen the rice served with their meals in order to conserve.

One serious solution is to improve the country’s post-harvest facilities. According to Rep. Abraham Mitra, “post-harvest losses in rice hovers around 14 to 25 percent.” If the country invested in more modern post-harvest facilities, there would be no need to import rice. At a cost of $600 per metric ton of rice for a total of 1.8 million metric tons, which the Philippines will be purchasing in the open market, the government will spend about $1 billion (P40 billion pesos), more than 100 times the Philippines annual post-harvest budget.

An official of the Philippine Department of Agriculture told the Manila Times that the country spends only 1,000 pesos per farmer, which is low compared to the equivalent of 3,000 to 4,000 pesos per farmer spent by countries like Thailand, Japan and other developed countries.

Former President Fidel Ramos blamed part of the problem on the conversion of farmlands into subdivisions and industrial zones. He said the government should change its land-use policy and prohibit the conversion of arable lands to commercial and industrial use.

But even where the land remains agricultural, much of the rice land has been converted into banana plantations, notably in Mindanao, because the price for banana exports is higher than the price of rice on the domestic market.

The Comprehensive Agricultural Reform Program (CARP) has also caused problems as millions of hectares of land have been divided up into small parcels of land where farmers can’t afford to buy and use tractors and machineries to improve production because of the economies of scale so they use carabaos instead, producing the average current yield of 2.5 tons of rice per hectare, the lowest in Asia.

Of the 8.5 million hectares of arable land in the Philippines, about 6.5 million hectares have been distributed under CARP to 4 million farmer-beneficiaries, about half of the area devoted to rice and corn. More than 3 million of the farmer beneficiaries have not received the support services and access to the credit they were promised and which they need to maximize the production of their land. The government spent 157 billion pesos to purchase the lands but has precious little to help the farmers once they own the land.

Former Pres. Ramos pointed out another problem exacerbating the rice crisis - too many mouths to feed. “The population issues, of course,” he said, “must also be revisited because the government has prohibited artificial family planning methods to be supported by the budget and therefore this is a very big withdrawal of support to the poorest families especially those in the countryside.”

As a concession to the powerful Catholic Church, the Arroyo government has refused to accept millions of dollars in aid from the United Nations and the USAID in support for population and family planning programs. Ramos denounced the rejection of UN family planning assistance “because we are going contrary to what is being practiced in the most Catholic countries in the world, like Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, Austria, Ireland, which is enjoying a population growth rate of less than one percent,” he said.

Ramos said the country’s birthrate is three times of those countries mentioned, “so that this infringes on all of these new problems that we are now encountering including rice, and potable water.”

A growing Filipino population cannot be fed with imaginary rice.