Kagutom in Cebu

Kagutom meant different things at different times to Cebuanos. It described a wide range of hunger experiences that ran from scarcity of rice and corn (kanihit) to famine (people going without food leading to death). Cebuanos also used kagutom to denote times when there was a lack of rice and corn although vegetables, fish and meat were abundant. In times of lack, camote {sweet potato} was often used as a substitute or as an extender for rice or corn. We also see throughout Cebuano history, as evidenced in newspaper reports, that kagutom changed according to the historical context. Its meaning was fluid and did not necessarily mean totally “without food.” Though times of kagutom usually meant that there was really nothing to eat, it was also used for times of scarcity (kanihit). Kagutom is also used to describe times when prices of rice and corn increased and the people had to use camote and cassava as extenders.

Hunger in Cebu during the time period of the study (1899-1930) was due to three factors: First, the Philippine-American War which began in Cebu in 1899 interrupted the agricultural activity of the island and caused a decrease in the labor supply. Second, it was caused by ecological factors like droughts, heavy rains and epidemics. Cholera and rinderpest destroyed both the crops and the labor force (people and cattle) in the farms. In 1918, Barili experienced kagutom as the rice crop was destroyed by heavy rains. In the early part of the twentieth century, locust infestations and rinderpest (animal diseases) were also common causes of crop failures. Third, agriculture in Cebu during the later part of the nineteenth century – like most of the areas in the country – was more focused on planting export crops like abaca and sugar. More lands were dedicated to the cultivation of these cash crops instead of rice and corn. Thus, a sudden collapse in crop production severely affected the grains supply in the island province.

While Cebuanos at that time looked at hunger, at one time or another, as caused by supernatural (silot ni Bathala – “wrath of God”) and natural (droughts, heavy rains) factors, the times of hunger in Cebu during the first decades of the twentieth century was exacerbated by the Filipino-American War, the lack of infrastructure like good roads from the center to the suffering barangays and an unequal distribution of resources. Studies today show that the natural phenomenon popularly known as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) may have been an important factor for causing the extreme weather events like the drought in 1902 and the heavy rains in 1918. The ENSO was known for its decadal frequency. It occurred every 10 years and may have been a reason for the periodic droughts and typhoons that caused heavy losses in the farm harvests that led to a dearth in the supply of rice and corn.


1. Reports of the Philippine Commission

2. Newspaper articles from the Bag-ong Kusog and The Freeman newspapers found at the Cebuano Studies Center in the USC Talamban campus library

3.  Resil Mojares.  The War Against the Americans:  Resistance and Collaboration in Cebu

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*Photo mine taken in Obong, Dalaguete, Cebu


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