It is in the heaving slums of Asia, amid sagging tin shacks and streets afloat with waste, that the soaring global price for rice hits hardest.
Until last week, Imelda Torreras had been able to count on peddling small bags of rice to her neighbors in the putrid streets of Manila’s Tondo district, a way to supplement her family’s meager income as garbage brokers.
Now, the rocketing price of rice has pushed her out of the food business.
Customers used to paying 65 cents for a kilo of rice, or 2.2 pounds, have balked at increases that have pushed the price as high as 90 cents, a swift and devastating rise for the desperately poor.
“The price I was paying the wholesalers was rising so fast I couldn’t increase my own prices fast enough to keep up,” she said, sitting in the entrance to her home as neighborhood children tumbled in the mud around her. “People around here won’t pay that kind of money for rice.”
The Philippines, a country of more than 90 million people, is the world’s largest rice importer. And the United Nations World Food Program warned Monday that rising food prices mean Asia’s poorest risk a “silent famine.”
Indeed, rice prices on commodity futures markets have more than doubled in the last year. As with surging global wheat prices, the increase has been blamed on several factors, from rising transportation and fertilizer costs stemming from record oil prices, to hoarding by wholesalers who smell even bigger profits to be made down the road.
The result, economists and aid workers warn, is that millions of poor people may go hungry if the staple of their diet is priced beyond reach. The most vulnerable are those earning less than $2 a day, for whom even a small price increase means the loss of a crippling chunk of disposable income.
Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s government says it has enough rice to meet domestic needs for the next two months and dismisses warnings from some that higher rice prices could lead to riots. But the government acknowledges that it must secure 2.1 million tons of new orders by July.
Last week, Philippine officials scoured global markets in a futile search to fill an order of 500,000 tons. Such ominous signs are behind the price jumps that are only beginning to touch places like Tondo, which includes some of the capital’s harshest slums.
The problem in Tondo is not a rice shortage. Rice is visible in shops. And it is still boiled and sold by food vendors to the ragged tribe of children and adults who spend their days tearing apart garbage heaps in search of anything of value. The problem is higher prices.
Many people have turned to subsidized rice, which is sold from public offices or from the backs of government trucks that have begun showing up, without notice, in poor neighborhoods. Government rice is sold at 37 cents a kilo, though some Filipinos complain that the quality is poor.
“My littlest one complains about the smell,” Torreras said.
Torreras, her husband and the rest of their family know they eat better than many in the neighborhood.
As brokers in the garbage business, she and others like her get first crack at a slum staple known as pagpag: the bits of meat shaken from chicken bones found in the waste that is dumped in the neighborhood by fast-food restaurants. Pagpag can be repackaged or grilled again for resale.
This making of a meal out of something so meager speaks to the survival instincts of those who live in Manila’s slums.
Under a searing sun, Jonathan Baupol breaks from sifting garbage to buy lunch: a softball-sized bag of boiled rice that has gone from 10 cents to 12 in the last few weeks.
Baupol has no desire to follow government suggestions that he substitute root vegetables or a bit of bread for a rice meal. He expresses the widespread sentiment that rice is as indispensable to a Filipino as oxygen.
“It makes us feel weak when we don’t have it,” he said. “I’m still eating the same amount.”
Potential for unrest
That cultural attachment hints at the potential for unrest should Filipinos have to slash their rice consumption.
Arroyo’s government, already stained by allegations of endemic corruption, didn’t endear itself to anyone with suggestions that roadside food vendors and restaurants halve the size of their rice portions as a way to reduce demand.
Eager to show she is on top of the crisis, Arroyo has instituted a moratorium on commercial property developments such as malls and golf courses that would encroach on farmland. And she has pledged that authorities will arrest and punish anyone caught hoarding rice.
There was widespread publicity given to a police raid in Manila this month that uncovered a massive stockpile of rice and resulted in the arrest of 13 suspects caught guarding the bags.
Critics contend that hoarding remains endemic, carried out with the complicity of corrupt government officials and police.
“They publicize a few cases here and there, but we know people are hoarding in the field,” said Wurie Alghassim, interim country director for the World Food Program, which is helping feed 1.6 million people on the southern island of Mindanao, where the government is fighting a separatist movement and Islamic extremists.
“It is very clear in Mindanao there is no way they can arrest the big hoarders,” Alghassim said. “The big guys are very well connected.”
Arroyo is also battling a deep well of skepticism in Manila. Many residents blame her, not global markets, for the rice crisis, insisting that only a lack of will prevents the government from lowering prices. But as a mass importer, the government is largely at the mercy of an international market where supplies are tight and prices keep rising.
Suspicions about plan
Filipinos are also suspicious of Arroyo’s plan to introduce ration cards for the poor next week. The cards are to be distributed through local politicians, who the government says are best placed to identify those in need. But many people see this as an invitation to further corruption.
“Ration cards might be a solution, but I don’t trust the barangay officials to be fair and honest about it,” Marlon Santos said, referring to neighborhood politicians.
The 32-year-old says he eats bread for breakfast to help stretch his extended family’s limited money. Adjustments have been manageable for now, he says. Fewer snacks. No new T-shirts. But he doesn’t rule out the possibility of unrest, or violence, if things get worse.
“Rice is something you need every day,” Santos said. “When it gets to the point that families can’t afford to buy 2 kilos a day, that’s when people will get really mad.”
Special correspondent Sol Vanzi contributed to this report.