The Multinational Monitor



The Roots of Hunger

Power and Politics in the Philippines

An Interview with Joseph Collins

Joseph Collins is the co-founder, with Frances Moore-Lappe, of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, widely known as Food First. From 1970 to 1975 he directed research at the Institute for Policy Studies that culminated in the publication of the pathbreaking Global Reach: The Power of the Multinational Corporation. In 1978, Collins and Lappe authored their flagship publication, Food First: Beyond the Myth of Scarcity, which rejected the idea that world hunger is inevitable. He has since written or co-authored five books, most recently The Philippines: Fire on the Rim.

The Reality is that many of the world's hungry people are engaged in the production of food for the world's well-off. MULTINATIONAL MONITOR: What is Food First and why did you start it?

JOSEPH COLLINS: Food First is the Institute for Food and Development Policy. It does research on the causes of hunger, solutions to hunger, the values and structures in society that are involved in generating hunger, and the values and structures necessary to end hunger.

We started it in 1975, at a time when, as in the mid-1980s,the media was devoting a lot of attention to hunger, in this case in Western Africa. At the time we founded Food First, the message that the cause of world hunger was the exploding world population was very strong. The Green Revolution was being celebrated as the solution.

When groups on campuses and in churches were talking about hunger, they wanted to know why this was happening and what they could do, but there was very little out there.

Many turned to Lester Brown, who later started something called Worldwatch Institute. He has not changed really. Most fundamentally, Lester Brown always focuses on how much food is being produced. He always comes back to the supply side, the number of tons of grain produced. He is a big proponent of Green Revolution type models of development.

We look at the demand side. Yes, people go hungry because they are poor, but why are they poor? People are poor because they do not have control of the land, because they do not have control of resources. Supply is not the problem. In virtually every country where people go hungry, enough food is being produced. People having the power to lay claim to it is the problem.

I was doing research in West Africa at the time the media was focusing on hunger there. Three times a week a DC-10 cargo jet would fly out of the Dakar airport [in Senegal] loaded ... with fresh vegetables for Stockholm, for Brussels, for Paris. This was during the drought, and at the same time the evening news was showing pictures of starving people and dead cattle lying in the desert. Who were the actors? The U.S. Agency for International Development (U.S. AID), the World Bank, [and] the firm that was buying the food, [which] became a subsidiary of Del Monte at about that time. So it's just a kind of dramatization. What has really been happening is that food--and other resources--are being channelled to the global high bidders.

MM: Aren't the supply side and demand side perspectives really complementary?

COLLINS: People like Lester Brown feel comfortable with the type of analysis which says the solution to hunger is getting more produced through new technologies, more chemical fertilizers, more pesticides. They do not want to hear about redistribution of land or purchasing power, and they are certainly not doing research about how the introduction of technology into societies structured against the majority can lead to greater concentration of land.

We find that serious research shows rapid population growth and hunger often associate with each other, not because rapid population growth causes hunger, but because the two originate out of common roots.

The concern with population growth also involves a world view that people are a liability, that people have to be fed and taken care of. The reality is that many of the world's hungry people are engaged in the production of food for the world's well-off.

We view our work around food issues as a way to get people to look at structural and political issues, and [at] the values that are implied in those structures and power relationships. When confronted with hunger and how widespread it is, you can get people involved in areas or questions which they otherwise wouldn't get into.

MM: What is the audience of Food First? Is your aim to affect government policy, or are you more interested in being a source for grassroots organizations?

COLLINS: Certainly we are not government oriented. We want to work with others to change people's basic world view. We want to help affect real changes in perspective which in the longer run could change the nature of national and international structures.

This is a reason we decided not to locate the Institute in Washington, D.C. The danger in Washington is that you get very... fixated on a bill, or this or that piece of legislation. There are 10 or 12 good people in Congress and you become sort of a back-up force for them, in speeches or legislation.

Ours is a very long-term view, but it is also the case that if you look at the supposed achievements of legislation, agencies established in the seventies out of the efforts of Washington- based groups, where has it got us? How much of it even exists now?

I don't want to be too cynical. But we do feel the difference from the sort of work we do. I can tell you that things are different in this country compared to the mid-seventies in terms of how people understand the nature of society, the type of questions they ask and so forth. I think we are moving potentially to a much more broad-based radicalism than we have had since way back, maybe around the turn of the century.

MM: How successful do you think the traditional U.S. government response to the problem of hunger has been?

COLLINS: Aid is just one of the ways the United States helps keep in place the status quo, the type of anti-democratic structures that exist in the world which do not allow [for popular] participation in the social decisions about who should have land and so forth. Government aid goes government to government, with most of the aid devoted to the military--often the very military which works to keep in place the structures which generate hunger. U.S. aid goes to governments which are actually organized against land reform. In a society where there might be land reform possibilities or where there might be a movement against U.S. bases, then you see hostility in all aspects of U.S. policy, and aid will be cut off.

MM: Do you expect Japanese aid, as it increases, to follow the same sort of patterns that U.S. aid has followed?

COLLINS: It already follows the basic pattern. It serves commercial interests which means not only that it directly benefits Japanese corporations, but also creates the infrastructure, such as roads and ports, needed by companies to transport resources within recipient countries.

What we see now happening with aid--bilateral and multilateral aid really are being used in the same way--is that the donors are using it as a method to influence Third World countries' macro-policies and force them to adopt open door policies. If the debt crisis didn't exist, they would almost have to invent it as a way to dictate market-based policies.

MM: At the World Bank's recent annual meeting, much attention was devoted to the environment and the impact World Bank decisions have on the environment. How sincere is the World Bank's newly professed concern with the environment and does it represent a genuine shift in priorities?

COLLINS: I do not think it is a genuine shift. In the reorganization of the Bank in 1987, the number of people dealing with the environment increased, but the environment people are in the part of the organization that really has very little to do with the reality of lending. The Bank is structured in such a way that the real action is with the loans--it is a bank, after all. People's careers on that side of the Bank prosper from getting more loans out. And environmental questions, or any sort of social questions, are disruptive to that activity. Of course it is not just the people sitting at the Bank headquarters. The careers of their counterparts in the borrowing countries are advanced. And their opportunities for corruption advance as well.

The environmental people are churning out papers, some of which sound fairly reasonable, but it is blowing in the wind. In fact, it is great for an organization like the World Bank to have a few departments of some--to use the popular media term-- "liberal" type people, because they can talk to labor or consumer or environmental organizations, and these organizations will think, "Well this is kind of reasonable." Several environmental organizations have certainly felt this way; they have been used, perhaps in some cases consciously, on committees, participating in feedback to policy papers and so forth--and nothing has changed in terms of the practice of the Bank.

[World Bank chairman Barber] Conable's speech at the annual meeting was absolutely peppered with movement-type phrases. He actually twice exhorted bankers to "think global, act local." He talks about sustainable agriculture. And he says how those economic figures don't make a bit of difference unless we are helping the poor and hungry. But when he talks about the problem of world hunger, he says we have to recognize the productivity problem. Not a word about control over resources, democratizing control over land. In his speech he did not touch on any of the structures that underlie environmental issues or hunger and poverty issues.

MM: You mentioned that the debt functions as an anchor keeping Third World countries in line. Is there any way for these countries to extricate themselves from this situation? If they stop payment on the debt and try to devote resources to internal solutions and work toward genuine development and self- sufficiency, they need capital. And the countries that are not making their debt payments on time are immediately cut off from the world capital market.

COLLINS: That is why it is so crucial that it not be done alone. President Aquino [of the Philippines] had the opportunity to be a leader and form a coalition. She had enormous prestige internationally at the time of Marcos' ouster in February 1986. Also, the debt in the case of the Philippines is unique in that it is widely understood to be a "rotten debt," to have been contracted by Marcos and his cronies. If she refused to pay the debt, the sentiment would have been widespread that the banks got what they deserved [for loaning to Marcos in the first place]. Instead, she really fell quite in line. The United States couldn't have come up with anyone better who looked so clean but basically went along with everything the United States wanted.

Basically the banks have succeeded in playing countries off against one another. Each thinks it is getting special treatment.

Two things about the debt are going to exacerbate suffering in the Third World even further. One, very often the multilateral agencies' advice to any number of countries at the same time is to grow the same crop--and you know where that leads. Secondly, it is just a matter of time before a recession in world markets occurs. It is not going to be easy in the Third World to reestablish the food production that is [now] being eroded due largely to pressure from the multilateral agencies to focus on exports and reduce tariffs. Countries are being made more vulnerable and increasing percentages of the people in [these] countries are being made vulnerable.

MM: It seems incredible that Aquino agreed to payback all of the Marcos-incurred debt. She could have at least asked for a grace period to examine the issue. Were there any behind-the-scenes efforts to influence her?

COLLINS: She has no interest in renouncing the debt. Her class interests are in preserving the status quo. Based on her speeches, many here and in the Philippines were hoping she would effect real change. But the reality is [that] those speeches were written by left-wing lawyers. She had no progressive background of any type; she wasn't even a do-gooder who worked, say, for the Red Cross once a week. When her husband was assassinated, all of the sudden she was in regular daily, nightly contact with the human rights crowd. These people became her campaign staff and wrote speeches for her. She was smart enough to know that talking about land reform was politically astute in a country where the majority of workers live in the countryside and have no land. Because of her low-key charisma, there was a lot of hope. She does have this ability of not seeming boastful, of not seeming greedy. The reality is that her brother is one of the most corrupt [individuals] in the Philippines. But she can personally not be corrupt because her brother is stealing for the family.

I talked to her once about land reform. It was a very brief conversation--she doesn't have much to say about it. It was a year and a half into her presidency. She still had a couple months left before there was a Congress and she could have decreed land reform because she was the only lawmaking institution in the country. I asked her a number of questions, including what she thought should be done about the multinationals. She replied to that sort of question, "Oh, it is under study." She replied to about seven of my questions, "it is under study." And then she volunteered something. She said, "You know I think it is very inefficient, this land reform, because the land owners who have had the land in the family for generations know how to use that land best." She also claimed that sugar required large farms to achieve economies of scale.

The fact, as I pointed out to her, is that the Philippine sugar industry's productivity is one of the lowest in the world. Countries such as Taiwan, which have had extensive land reform, have small farms growing sugar, at a rate on average two and a half times more productively. She didn't have any answer to that.

MM: What has been the nature of the Philippine land reform?

COLLINS: The land reform is just a sham, which is not surprising since 90 percent of the members of the Congress which crafted the law are significant landowners.

If you are a landowner who wants to get out of agriculture, the law is very helpful. The compensation formula is based on the average of three things. First, past assessment of the land, adjusted for inflation. Second, the market value of the land based on comparable sales of similar land. The third thing is the real kicker: whatever the owner declares the value to be. So if you take the average with the third thing in there, it makes no difference what the other two are.

In terms of multinational corporate involvement, there are Del Monte and Dole plantations in Mindanao. Technically these companies have not owned the land because the Philippine constitution excludes ownership of land by foreign corporations. This is a reaction to the years of U.S. colonialism; during colonial rule U.S. citizens and U.S. corporations were on equal footing with Filipinos. Multinationals have always been able to evade the restriction on foreign ownership of land by leasing the land from a government agency.

Business has gone as usual with the land reform. It calls for farms to be incorporated and for some of the shares to be sold to permanent workers. But they [the worker-shareholders] are prohibited from altering contracts that are in existence, i.e. marketing contracts. In other words, they are given the privilege of buying shares and owning the land together with other workers, but in fact nothing changes because they must, by law, grow pineapples for Del Monte. It's a sham. Now this also applies to domestically owned farms, such as Aquino's plantation.

When she talked about land reform, Marcos publicly ridiculed her, saying "how do you believe this lady when she is such a big landlord?" It is very important to keep in mind that Marcos was a middle class upstart who used the military in a mafia way to get on top, but remained an outsider in the eyes of Filipino elites. And he ripped them off. Aquino is the owner of the biggest sugar plantation in the country. She said that she would make her own hacienda the model, but nothing has changed at her plantation.

Land reform has to do most fundamentally with a real shift in power. In this case no power has been shifted.

MM: Given the failure of the land reform and the overall lack of serious reform efforts under the Aquino government, what are the prospects for a victory by the rebels, the New Peoples Army/National Democratic Front (NPA/NDF)?

COLLINS: I can't answer your question because I do not have a crystal ball, but I am certain there is no military victory over the NPA. It is the structures in society and underlying conditions which fuel the insurgency. But none of the nation's problems are being addressed. Services are being cut back. The only area that is not being cut back is debt service. What is needed is some kind of change in the basic power structure and some kind of negotiated solution. The NPA is very much looking for some sort of negotiated settlement. In the last few months they have made several efforts to negotiate. But Aquino is committed to the total war concept.

MM: What are the Alsa Masa forces? In Fire on the Rim there is a reference to the U.S. government's role, or the role of rogue elements such as John Singlaub, in setting these groups up. What is the basis for these claims?

COLLINS: The Alsa Masa are just one of the vigilante groups that have been institutionalized by the Aquino government as a civilian military force. Under Marcos, there was something called the Civilian Home Defense Force (CHDF). They violated rights to such an extent that in the constitution, which was written early in the Aquino period, it was constitutionally prohibited for such forces to be established. Yet only months after Marcos was deposed, the military, undoubtedly with advice from other elements--including maybe Singlaub types, it does not really make any difference--was getting unemployed youths, rousing them up about "the communists," giving them guns, and organizing them into vigilante groups.

The NPA is an armed front, a coalition which includes the Communist Party. [P]recisely because they are armed, they are not an inviting target for the vigilantes. The reality is that a much larger number of targets of the vigilante groups have been teachers, social workers, church people and so forth. They know about the country's tremendous injustices, have experienced them, want change and are trying to organize for it, even about very concrete things, like improving sanitation and getting better care for children with diarrhea. These people are labelled as subversive. These people, who are unarmed, have become the available targets of these anticommunist vigilante-type organizations.

MM: In this context, does armed struggle become the only viable option for those who want to bring about change in the Philippines?

COLLINS: I do not favor armed struggle, but I fully understand how people in the Philippines have come to the conclusion that it is really necessary. In many areas in the last year, such as southern Negros, the NPA has more people wanting to join the armed struggle than they have guns--they have actually turned down people.

What I have also seen in the last years in the Philippines is the rebels working not only to bring about a revolution, but operating as guardian angels vis a vis the people's interests. When a landlord wants to expel all the people from his plantation because they tried to form a union, unconcerned that people will die [as a result], the NPA meets with that owner and says, "You don't want to do that." And you cannot help but feel damned good that there is this group that has put together a few guns--maybe they call themselves communists or not--and say this isn't going to happen.

But again, the NPA/NDF is really looking for some kind of negotiated solution. In a ceasefire they would negotiate for land reform, some dealings with the abuses of the military, elimination of the landlord goon squads, and then the removal of the U.S. bases. On the issue of the bases, I fully concur with the National Democratic Front; as long as there are bases, U.S. policy makers will, in a sense, be compelled to intervene in Philippine affairs. With those changes, I think then the NDF would definitely be partial to parliamentary elections on the British model.

I think we are moving potentially to a much more broad-based radicalism than we have had since way back...
[L]and reform has to do most fundamentally with a real shift in power. In this case no power [has been] shifted.

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