Rice and the Rise of the Elite

Remember those amusing claims Imee Marcos made, which Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez shot down one by one. Marcos first stated how the Masagana, an agricultural rice program of her father, showed an effective use of rural banks. To this, Dominguez clarified quickly how the government applied for massive loan programs, with the fund to be lent to farmers. The latter were unable to pay and the pressure was transferred to rural banks, which needed to be rescued. This had a massive impact on the economic well-being of the country. Not giving up, Imee responded how surely, the success of her father’s plans were not in banks but in rice exportation. Unrelenting, Dominguez bluntly cut her talk with the curt, “We never exported rice that time.”

Imee could have avoided the embarrassment if he had a talk earlier with Jun Aguilar, a Bikolano historian of economics and agrarian change. Or, at least wi anyone with a good grasp of the archives. This scholar who is schooled in England and the United States is “Jun” to us. But in international academic circle he is Dr. Filomeno Aguilar. Jr., who once served as President of the International Association of Historians of Asia and is the present editor-in-chief of Philippine Studies. He is also an author of many books where history, sociology, anthropology and economics intersect.

For that dismal conversation Imee engaged in, this is just the right book for her: Peripheries. Histories of Marginality.

There in Chapter 11 of the book, which is titled, “Rice and Magic: A Cultural History from the Precolonial World to the Present” is a good rebuttal that Imee could have used with ease. She could have said, even to the detriment of the claims of the dictatorship, that well, it is good to know at least that in the 19th century, we exported rice to China!”

Historical data when excavated judiciously can yield enlightening results. Rice exportation did not happen overnight as part of a daring policy. It was a confluence of many factors.

Aguilar (let me shift now to a more academic tone) writes about the rise of the Chinese mestizo, clarified as the offspring of native women and Chinese men. This is contrary to our stereotyping of the mix of the Spanish men and native women. Interestingly, in the study of Aguilar, the ascendancy of the Chinese mestizo would be the result of many occurrences, such as the expulsion of ethnic Chinese from the Philippines. What was their crime? These ethnic Chinese sided with the British in the 1760s and the Spanish colonizers – not us Filipinos for we were mere specks in the socio-historical universe – were not amused. This was followed by the “subsequent period that put Chinese immigration to a halt.”

Aguilar would propose that the Chinese mestizo would “eventually form the new class of native elites.”

Significant is the link between a new breed of elites as well as the development of agriculture and economics.

This particular chapter would reinvigorate our discourse about nationalism. In the words of Aguilar, “Chinese mestizos would eventually constitute the core of the nationalist movement in the late nineteenth century and the Filipino elite in the twentieth century.”

The Chinese mestizos would be all over the socioeconomic spheres of the land: he would be a leaseholder of rice lands in the haciendas of the friars. Note the presence of the Church in this equation. The Chinese mestizos would lend money and in the scheme of “sangla-bili,” which is called “prenda” in other places, they acquired lands. They became traders. Chinese mestizos became the capitalists behind rice production and agents of commercialization. The Chinese mestizos began to accumulate wealth.

Many changes came into fruition in the latter part of the eighteenth century. One involved the colonizer’s “systematic approach to development.” The colonizers did not merely introduce icons of faith; they also nurtured economic impetus even to a limited sector.

Aguilar would stress that “by the early nineteenth century, the export of rice, particularly to China would appear to have been commonplace.” The idea that China was getting its rice from us or, at least from the produce of our lands, is a new perspective, a way to move a bit away from – not forget – the more sentimental notions of colonial experience.

Quoting archival sources from 1832 to 1894, Aguilar would state how “Other provinces, such as Camarines Sur on the Bikol Peninsula, also participated in the export of rice.”

From that period, the scholar could always travel forward to 1972, the year Martial Law was declared, and check the manipulation of banks and farmers, the incessant borrowings from outside, the use of fertilizer and the changing landscape of rice production and consumption, and the rise of poverty.

Chapter 11 talks about rice spirits, magic and commodification of the rice. I will talk about this in the next installment as we try to make sense why “Unli Rice” negates the value system we have built around rice production and consumption.

Peripheries. Histories of Anti-Marginality is published by Ateneo de Naga University Press and was shortlisted as finalist in the Best Book in History in the 38th National Book Awards in 2019. The book is available in the Ateneo de Naga University Press Office and the Savage Mind.