Sunday, May 04, 2003


When I went to visit those four last Saturday, they had been spending the last 12 days and nights under a very congested makeshift tent in front of the office of the Department of Agriculture (DA) on Elliptical Road, Quezon City. Sleep had been coming to them by fits, as the street never runs out of passing vehicles even at the most unholy hours. During the days they had been putting up with punishment not only from both the sun and smog; at one time they had to fight it out with a sudden rain.

And for the last 12 days their menu had not included any solid food; all they had been having were water and juice, by turns.

The Hunger Strikers

Among the four, 50-year-old Roberto "Obet" Verzola is the one who has very obviously had to deal with the heaviest physical toll. When I went to visit them, he could not walk beyond four feet. His hand was shaking as he laid down a glass he had been drinking from. His eyes and cheekbones were bulging out of his face. As he talked, his voice was audible enough - but there was a noticeable crack in it. When Agriculture Secretary Luis Lorenzo, Jr. called them for a dialogue, he had to be carried in a wheelchair.

Mang Obet has been many things. He took a degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of the Philippines (UP) in Diliman. He has been involved in environmental issues since the 1970s. He used to work for the National Environmental Protection Bureau (now the Environmental Management Bureau) as a writer and researcher. Despite his condition, he could still muster enough pride to describe himself as quite an expert at computers: in 1992, he pioneered the setting up of e-mail services for non-government organizations (NGOs), and at one time he even received an award for being the "Father of Philippine E-Mail." It was also he who set up Ibon Foundation's retrieval system, he said.

Now married with one 26-year-old daughter and one 24-year-old son, he is with the Philippine Greens. And he is one of four people who had been staging a hunger strike in front of the DA to protest the commercialization of Bt corn in the Philippines, which is expected to take effect either this month or in June.

His fellow hunger strikers are lucky enough to be blessed with more physical strength.

Luisita "Sita" Esmao, 46, a daughter of peasants and herself a peasant from Tayabas, Quezon who worked her way through school and went as far as the second year of Commerce at Adamson University, originally committed only three days to the hunger strike, but saw the need to go on after the first three days. With a smile, she says her husband and her three children (the eldest is turning 23, another is turning 21, and the youngest is turning 19) have not worried that much about her decision to take part in the hunger strike.

"They know the extent I'd go through," Sita said. "In 1995 I had all my hair shaved off as a protest against the implementation of the Mining Act." She can still move about and has the strength to sweep her surroundings, but her face has begun to show signs of gauntness. The worst she has experienced physically in the hunger strike are a severe headache and a one-time bout with loose bowel movement.

Sita ended the interview with the following words: "I don't want to let the Bt corn nightmare happen without me having done anything." Her voice inevitably soft but evidently defiant, she could very well say of herself what the persona in the poem "Invictus" by William Ernest Henley said of himself: "My head is bloody, but unbowed."

Mang Obet and Sita are joined by Arma Bertuso and Mark Cervantes of the South East Asia Regional Initiative for Community Empowerment (SEARICE).

Mark, 26, shows a few remaining signs of an athletic physique 12 days into their hunger strike. A policy officer for SEARICE, he took a degree in Political Science from the University of Negros Occidental-Recoletos, and was once a high school teacher. "I'm married but with no kids yet," he says, "but right now I have no wife because of the hunger strike." And then he laughs. Yes, he can still laugh, and once in a while he plays around with his cellphone. But there is a noticeable slowness in his movements.

Arma and Mark both have had to put up with moments of light-headedness.

In the beginning there had been nine of them: aside from the four there were Antonio Claparols (Ecological Society of the Philippines/International Union for the Conservation of Nature), Gigie Cruz (Greenpeace), Ramon Fernando (Earth First!), Rei Panaligan, and Anne Larracas (both of the Philippine Greens). But only the four have been able to stay on; the others have either been rushed to the hospital or had to discontinue their participation in the hunger strike for some pressing reasons.

The hunger strikers are calling for at least a moratorium on the commercial distribution of Bt corn in the Philippines to allow for sufficient scientific research on the issue.

A second batch of hunger strikers is preparing to take their place, although the four intend to go on for as long as they find it necessary-even as they are unsure how long they can carry on.

Bt Corn

It was the American multinational corporation Monsanto which introduced Bt corn into the Philippines in 1997. Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) corn is a genetically modified organism (GMO) that contains the potent form of the Bt toxin, supposedly intended to kill the corn borer.

Amidst broad protest actions, Monsanto field-tested Bt corn for five years in the Philippines. In December last year, the DA finally allowed its commercial distribution in the Philippines.

The government is promoting Bt corn as a solution to the shortage of corn yield due to pest infestation.

Opposition to Bt corn has focused on the potential health and environmental risks it poses, as well as issues regarding patent problems.

The militant Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) is one of the many groups that opposed the testing of Bt corn from the beginning. It protested Bt corn testing on the ground that it had negative effects on the environment, the people's health, and livelihood. The group also argued that Bt corn was a threat to the country's food security and self-sufficiency.

Most dramatic among the forms of protests carried out by KMP-affiliated peasants against Bt corn testing was the uprooting of Bt corn crops in South Cotabato in 2001.

A position paper signed by 18 physicians and professors from the UP College of Medicine (UPCM), the Philippine General Hospital, and UP Los BaƱos enumerates the health hazards posed by Bt corn. The position paper was initiated by Dr. Romeo Quijano of the Health Alliance for Democracy and the Health Action for Human Rights. Dr. Quijano is also a Professor at the UPCM Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology.

The paper points out that the Bt toxin is non-selective and thus may also affect non-target species. It may also adversely affect the blood and the immune, gastro-intestinal, and other organ systems in mammalian species, the paper states. It criticizes Monsanto for not having provided any credible data which could assure the public that ingestion of Bt corn is safe.

The paper goes on to explain that Monsanto's Bt corn possesses allergenic characteristics.

Finally, the paper states: "The forced insertion of a foreign gene randomly into the genome of another species is by itself inherently dangerous. The effects are unpredictable and largely unknown." It explains that genetic engineering could cause disturbances in the gene ecology and disruptions in important functions of organisms-which could cause abnormalities or diseases, including cancer.

A statement by the hunger strikers, aside from enumerating health risks posed by Bt corn-particularly stomach and colon cancer, the hastening of the growth of malignant tumors, and false pregnancies-also points out that Bt corn could contaminate other corn fields and result in crop mutation. According to the statement, since Monsanto owns the patent to Bt corn, the mutation of corn crops which could result from contamination would make the unwilling corn farmer guilty of infringement and therefore expose her or him to legal action, which would cost her or him a fine ranging from P100,000 to P250,000.

Broad Support

The hunger strikers have won broad support for their efforts.

People from such prominent cause-oriented groups as the Kalikasan-People's Network for the Environment, Agham, the National Network of Agrarian Reform Advocates, and the College Editors Guild of the Philippines have visited them to express solidarity. Non-government organizations such as Balik Kalikasan, Lingkod Tao-Kalikasan, Saniblakas, Balay Davao Sur, and the Foundation for Nationalist Studies have also given support, as well as school-based organizations like Miriam Peace.

From the religious sector, support has come through the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines and the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines. "Running Priest" Fr. Robert Reyes is a frequent visitor.

There have also been expressions of solidarity from the artistic community. The hunger strikers have had the pleasure of a visit from folk-ethnic singer Joey Ayala. Expressions of support have come from the Artists for the Environment, as well as from folk musicians Jess Santiago, Heber Bartolome, and Noel Cabangon-who have been collaborating on a song entitled "Ang Taghoy ng Ginahasang Mais".

They have also been visited by Rep. Del de Guzman of the lone district of Marikina City. They also have the support of ten barangay councils in Davao del Sur.

Support has also come from the international scientific, peasant, and NGO communities.

"We in the US are becoming aware of the threats posed by GMO crops and medicines and have found our food security threatened," wrote Stephen Bartlett, a farmer from Kentucky, to Secretary Lorenzo. "GMO crops are more difficult to market, they have not been proven to yield better, and their ecological impacts have not been studied sufficiently."

Dr. Mae Wan Ho of the Institute of Science in Society, from the United Kingdom, wrote to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo on the possible negative effects of Bt corn to nearby crops and other organisms close to GMO plantations.

Devinder Sherma, an NGO worker leading anti-GMO campaigns in India, has expressed support for the hunger strikers.


As of last Saturday, the hunger strikers had met with Sec. Lorenzo twice. The DA secretary appears open to alternatives to Bt corn, they say, but has not made any commitment on their petition.

And so for Mang Obet, Sita, Arma, and Mark, the fight goes on-indefinitely.

(, May 4-10, 2003)

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