SOUTH UPI, Philippines --Arnel Aron looks at the blue sky and the sun beating down on his parched rice field. ``We are waiting for rain,'' he says. At his feet, brown stubs jut out of the cracked soil, the only remains of his meager harvest a month ago.
Much of the Philippines, particularly the impoverished south, has received little rain since last year under a long drought blamed on El Nino -- and the wait already has meant death for some. An estimated 3.7 million Filipinos are suffering food shortages on the main southern island of Mindanao, according to the Red Cross. Many of the approximately 1 million considered ``in dire need'' are subsistence farmers and tribal members living in remote mountain villages with no irrigation.
Aron, a 26-year-old farmer from the village of Looy in South Upi, says he and his neighbors harvested less than a tenth of their normal crop last month. Since then, the ground has been too dry for replanting.
``Some of us were not even able to harvest enough to replant,'' he says. By the time the rainy season comes, perhaps in two or three months, officials fear hungry farmers will have eaten the seeds set aside for the next planting.
The government initially played down reports that the drought had led to widespread food shortages, saying there was enough food but that poor farmers hit by crop failures simply did not have enough money to buy it. In recent weeks, however, the government has begun distributing emergency rice through the Red Cross. So far, only 3.5 million pounds has been released -- less than 1 pound for each affected person.
In South Upi, hundreds of farmers -- the poorest of the poor -- lined up outside the municipal hall as the rice aid reached the town center. Most were members of the Tiruray tribe, which has been tilling remote hillsides in the area for centuries, hardly touched by government services. Some hiked hours to receive 17 pounds of rice.
Cristina Using, a 26-year-old mother of four, said that amount would last her family about four days. Her husband, she said, has been unable to plant since October because of the drought, and her family has consumed the five sacks of corn they saved from the last harvest.
Many families stretch their rice rations by making thin porridge out of it. Others are resorting to eating the pith of banana stalks and wild tubers called ``kayos,'' which are poisonous unless processed carefully for several days. Reports quoting local village personnel say up to 42 people have died after eating improperly prepared kayos. Health officials have confirmed 14 deaths.
So far, only about 265,000 people of the 1 million deemed most at need have received a rice ration, officials say. The process has been slowed by regulations restricting the distribution of government aid during the campaign for national elections, to prevent improper electioneering.
Agriculture officials say they are preparing a plan to distribute new seeds to farmers who were forced to eat their entire stocks. Even after the drought, experts warn, Philippine agricultural production will be at the mercy of swings in the weather given the small amount of irrigated land and the scant attention the government has given agriculture in its drive to industrialize the nation.
Forty percent of Filipinos are employed in agriculture, but the sector accounts for only about 13 percent of the country's economy, even with large sugar and banana plantations. Just 2.9 million acres of the country's 7.4 million acres of rice fields are irrigated, the government says. (AP)
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