Sunday, June 23, 2013

Calling government to task

The typical tobacco farming family (husband and wife with two kids) has a half-hectare of land. They produce 800 kilos a year which they are able to sell, through the government, for an average of 3 euro per kilo. That translates to a little over $3000 in annual income, netting each family member just over $2 a day; but they are also subsistence farmers, growing vegetables and livestock for their kitchen.” [Wikipedia: The World Bank defines extreme poverty as living on less than US$1.25 (PPP) per day, and moderate poverty as less than $2 or $5 a day. But note that a person or family with access to subsistence resources, e.g. subsistence farmers, may have a low cash income without a correspondingly low standard of living – they are not living "on" their cash income but using it as a top up.]

Driving around the Balkans recently, I again noted the wide expanse of farmland which has always intrigued me, beyond Greece and into Bulgaria. The area was known as “no-man’s land” during the Cold War which literally meant “you will be shot," if you set foot. The region is also known for grapes and tobacco. And today they have a popular wine: “No Man's Land” – and in the back label they explain its origin. But apparently we were in tobacco land; and just outside one restaurant, there were people (farmers, we would learn) indulging in 'rakia' while kids were romping around the solitary fountain in the village square. [Wikipedia: Rakia – it is a popular beverage throughout the Balkans; its alcohol content is normally 40% ABV, but home-produced rakia can be stronger, typically 50% to 60%.]

As we approached the restaurant we greeted the folks in their language and straightaway they invited us to join them. I could throw around a dozen words in their language and that was enough to be the center of attention. And in no time there was a young American Peace Corps volunteer who arrived. [In a small village of 3000 the presence of new comers spreads like wildfire which would explain how the young American heard about our group and came over.] He hails from Ohio and was completing his two-year assignment and was looking forward to get to Washington State to pursue his graduate degree. He spoke the language fluently: “Four months of intense language training, five hours a day.”

When the American was describing how a typical farmer’s home looks like, I realized these farmers did not exactly have a low standard of living, recalling how the World Bank defines poverty. “The typical kitchen is no different from what we have in the US. They are prudent so they make their own bread but using a modern-day bread-maker. They have microwave ovens; they have running hot and cold water, washing machines and even western-style bathrooms. They make their own ‘rakia,’ yogurt and strawberry juice. They make heavy breakfasts from corn, understandably because of the long hours they spend in the farm. And from experience, they can tell when rain is coming.”

They have no expectations from government. These are generational farmers and whether it was the Ottoman or Communist rule or their current democratic system, life to them is the same. And like everywhere else, some kids would decide to pursue higher education or migrate to the West. But it still is a small village. And so everyone would know where all the kids have gone: those who earned graduate degrees or worked for MNCs, etc. I did not hear about religion although the couple of villages we saw had mosques. “They date back to the Ottoman rule, but religion is not top of mind.” And since it was springtime, the days were longer and as we walked around the village everyone was waving and making us feel welcomed.

There were a couple of schools and the paved roads were limited to the area around the center. And beyond were dirt roads. (They would remind me of the days when my neighborhood in Manila was largely “looban” before the roads were laid out.) Do they need government? Admittedly, this is an old country and 20 kilometers from the village is a town that seemed to have everything, including chic boutique shops for women – Europeans would be Europeans! But in fact they forced the government to resign and call an election following protests against corruption. Is there an assurance that they would get a better one? No. But these people have demonstrated resolve – with seven of them committing self-immolation. They’re a tough bunch! They don’t take things sitting down! I would tell them about Rizal, who didn't take things sitting down too!

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