Friday, January 20, 2023

Onion suicides

 / 05:11 AM January 20, 2023

I have in my head a story scenario—dystopian, fictional—where poor Filipino onion farmers who are heavily in debt rise up in revolt because of the neglect and shabby treatment they get from government officials who choose to hobnob with the world’s wealthiest and wallow in food porn, instead of addressing problems of starvation on the ground. I have it all written out in my mind, except for the details on how it would end—perhaps a bloody denouement for the protagonists and the antagonists that would spark a national revolt worthy of world attention. Think Basi Revolt of 1807 or something like that, but with media coverage.

But before I could finish the story in my cinematic imagination, here comes this newspaper’s headline story where cases of suicide by distressed onion farmers are cited, because of their desperation over their debts, loss of joy and purpose in life, the dark scenario ahead, the burden that is too heavy to bear.

I assume that the farmers’ despair and hopelessness are unlike those of the differently situated suicidals who are also experiencing extreme emotional pain and hopelessness—results of many factors—that are nevertheless just as legit. In comparison, farmers who till the soil are a hardy breed physically and emotionally, or so we think.

Many of our farmers are still into so-called subsistence agriculture for their own survival, lucky if they have surplus to sell. But I think of them as so much better situated than those who had moved to the cities and live under bridges and beside garbage-filled creeks. Alas, farmers who stay and endeavor to produce cash crops later realize that the big world out there is one sinister, dog-eat-dog world where predators hold sway.

Whenever farmers raise an outcry (as in the case of the rice tariffication law that was detrimental to them), I think of French artist Jean-François Millet’s painting that inspired American poet Edwin Markham’s “The Man with the Hoe” that we had to memorize and recite in class. It is an ekphrasis or poem that describes a piece of art, a protest poem that deals with social injustice.

Straight from memory, here goes: “Down by the centuries he leans/ Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,/ The emptiness of ages in his face,/ And on his back the burden of the world./ Who made him dead to rapture and despair,/ A thing that grieves not and that never hopes,/ Stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox?”

Google the entire poem and the painting which is not, by any standard, Amorsolo-esque.

Last Tuesdays’ banner story (“Losses driving onion farmers to desperation,” by Melvin Gascon, Jordeene B. Lagare, and Marlon Ramos) said: “Merlita Gallardo of Bayambang, Pangasinan, the widow of an onion farmer who killed himself in January 2021, recounted to the Senate committee hearing on agriculture how their sustained losses beginning with the pandemic year worsened their anxieties.

“‘He went far away from the farm to kill himself. Because our debts were piling up, and he didn’t want to borrow [money] anymore.’” Her husband, Roger, was 49.

“Elvin Jerome Laceda, president of nongovernmental organization Young Farmers’ Challenge Club of the Philippines, said his group has learned about four other farmers in Bayambang who were also driven to suicide because of debt.”

That, while the President of this republic and himself as (his self-appointed) secretary of agriculture and his coterie of 70 or so (as reported) how-do-you-call-them are in snowy Switzerland for the World Economic Forum. While airline personnel who bring home a few kilos of onions as tacky pasalubong are threatened with smuggling charges, and the big-time onion smugglers are smug and happy.

From Leonardo Montemayor, chair of the Federation of Free Farmers: “If there had to be importation, it could have been done earlier. It should not coincide with the harvest period. It is painful for farmers who toiled in the face of typhoons, pests, high prices of fertilizers and pesticides, and then at harvest time, when they expect to recoup their expenses, imported onions would arrive.” (A translation from Tagalog.)

In some parts of the world, India among them, the farming sector has some of the highest number of suicides. Even the US farming sector has a noticeable high rate of suicide.

In this country, farming as a livelihood—not as a hobby or pastime—could drain the life out of those who till the land, an irony because it is the farming sector that nourishes us to life. How is it that the life-giving land has become a curse, a graveyard for their dreams?