Hunger, a deadly weapon

Dr. Pio Valenzuela went to Dapitan in June, 1896, accompanied by two men pretending to be patients, to tell Jose Rizal about the Katipunan and convince him to join the anti-colonial revolution against Spain. When asked if they already had enough arms, Valenzuela answered in the negative, but declared that they were willing to start even if they didn’t have enough arms. Alluding to Spain, Rizal warned that no one with insufficient fire power should go against a well-armed country. Then they spoke about winning the sympathy of wealthy Filipinos, of buying arms from Japan, of recruiting Antonio Luna, of studying the Cuban revolution, etc. Strangely enough, neither of the two patriots seemed concerned about food security during wartime. As it turned out later, Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo lost liberated territories in Cavite to Spain because of lack of food, and Gen. Miguel Malvar was constrained to surrender to the Americans because his men were dying of starvation. Who was it who said that an army can’t march on an empty stomach?

Perhaps our revolutionary fighters were so obsessed with the political that they forgot about other basic matters like food, even if they were not strangers to agriculture. Many of the ilustrado families were lessees of friar lands. It seems that they were unaware of ecological disasters that affected their revolutionary plans. Apparently, since 1876, four years after the Cavite Mutiny, up until 1896 (extending to 1902), the Philippines was blighted by successive droughts. Since the colony was already linked to world trade, local and international merchants persisted in cultivating export products like sugar, abaca, coffee, and tobacco, leaving very little land for subsistence agriculture of common folk. In 1877, if not earlier, the Philippines became dependent on rice exports from Indochina which caused a terrible beri beri epidemic.

Meanwhile, in the political arena, a new imperial power, the USA, was determined to grab Spain’s last colonies Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. During the Spanish-American War in the Caribbean, the USA used scorched-earth tactics, hamletting and controlled food passes, making it impossible for the local population to sustain their revolutionary fighters. Hunger became a potent weapon. The very same tactics were used during the Philippine-American war.

In the first decade of its rule, the USA denied that there was hunger and scarcity as a result of the Philippine-American War. In 1905, Commissioner W. Cameron Forbes pointed out that Filipinos suffered from “lack of physique and health” but denied that there was starvation and hunger throughout the archipelago. Instead, he blamed the Filipinos for eating “improper food.” He declared: “While nature provides almost lavishly the necessities for keeping body and soul together, Filipinos were poorly fed because fish and rice alone are poor, and that’s about all they use. They have an emaciated appearance due, I think, largely to insufficient and ill-chosen food.” He also affirmed that the “quality of diet” was more important than the quantity of food.

I highly recommend that you read “Medicalizing gutom, hunger, diet, and beri-beri during the American period,” a riveting study by Therese Ventura, PhD (Philippine Studies, Vol. 63, #1, March 2015). The author ties up famine with American imperialism and environmental history. She has come across Reynaldo Ileto and Ken de Bevoise, two historians who had written about the “politics of hunger” in their analysis of how the Spanish and American forces manipulated, if not exacerbated, wartime food shortages as a potent weapon against Filipino revolutionaries. Dr. Ventura carries this further to show the relationship between famine and colonialism in a regionwide scale.

The El Niño phenomenon I mentioned earlier, scientifically known as the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), is described by Dr. Ventura as the “ecological enabler of European imperialism.” But ENSO had its positive side for it generated research on nutrition, created humanitarian concern for hunger, and exposed imbalances in colonial trade. It also generated studies on the beri-beri epidemic which killed a lot of Filipino babies and was caused by Vitamin B deficiency due to imported over-milled rice. This excellent study also expounds on the school garden project of the Bureau of Education, the nationwide campaign for corn as a substitute for rice which turned out to be a dismal failure in the majority of provinces.

Hunger has always been weaponized by hegemonic powers. That is food for thought during the lockdown period of this COVID-19 pandemic.