Tuesday, March 5News That Matters

How the Sugar Industry Continues to Create Poverty in Negros

The province of Negros Occidental is the 6th wealthiest province in terms of gross income in the country only behind Cebu, Batangas, Rizal, Davao de Oro, and Bukidnon. The island of Negros is known for its sugarcane production which accounts for 63% of the country’s sugar output. 

Bacolod, the capital city of Negros Occidental and the largest city in Western Visayas, is a highly-urbanized city, and poverty is hardly seen due to skyscrapers and luxurious subdivisions.  

One might think that the people in the province are living comfortably due to the “riches of sugarcane”, but behind the sugar wealth, the island is also having many of the poorest populations. 

In 2015, the national poverty incidence was 16.5% of families, while it was 38.7% in Negros Oriental and 21.9% in Negros Occidental. Negros Oriental had the second highest hunger incidence of 19.5% of families, next to Northern Samar, and is consistently among the eight poorest provinces. So why this is happening despite the “sugar riches”?

Sugarcane cutting in Negros image credit DAR

Many documentaries and films have been created based on poverty in Negros but no one has really pointed out the main issues. The reason why these filmmakers and documentary writers were not able to decode the problem is probably all of them didn’t experience working in sugarcane fields. This writer was born and raised in Silay City and had worked in sugarcane fields until college. Planting, weeding, cutting and loading (karga-tapas), and carabao plowing – I’ve done all of these.

Why Negros Occidental has a high gross income.

Yes, Negros Occidental, the larger province between the two (the other is Negros Oriental), is a rich province in terms of gross income because the rich clans here are really rich. Rich Hacienderos (sugar barons) here control 85% of sugarcane plantations before the agrarian reform was implemented. As of this writing, there is no accurate data as to what percentage of sugarcane lands have been distributed to agrarian reform beneficiaries. At least in my city (Silay City), around 70% of the rural land have already been transferred to people.

At today’s price of sugar, a Haciendero with at least 100 hectares of sugarcane can earn a net income of at least ₱7M a year. A landlord that has 100 hectares of land can have 30 to 35 permanent employees. These employees earn lower than the minimum (usually ₱250 to ₱280 a day). So, one family earns ₱583,000 a month while 30 other families earn  ₱6,500 to ₱7,200 each per month. The disparity between rich and poor is very obvious and this is why the province is having a big gross income from rich people while also having the poorest of the poor.

The sugarcane slavery by sugar barons

The municipality of Manapla and the cities of Cadiz and Sagay in the North are some of the places where big parts of the land are still owned by rich families. These families employ thousands of poor people working like slaves ever since the Spanish colonial era. Most of these rich families are descendants of Spanish and Portuguese families like the Gamboa, Lacson, Marañon, Severino, Locsin, Ledesma, Fermin, Bantug, Puey, etc. They are paying land workers far below the minimum required by the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE). 

One of my distant relatives who works in a hacienda owned by the Severinos in Sagay City had his house destroyed during a 2021 typhoon. The Severinos owned more than 350 hectares of sugar plantation but when he asked for help, the greedy rich master did not even give a single piece of Nipa. He did get ₱5,000 but as a loan and not a subsidy. He has to work in the field in order to pay that ₱5,000 back through salary deduction.

This practice of slavery has been ongoing for more than a century but the government is not doing anything except for the incomplete agrarian reform.

Many Hacienderos also do not give benefits to their employees like SSS and Philhealth. Their excuse is always the “pakyaw system”. The Sakadas (local migrant cutters and loaders) suffer the most. These people move from one place to another during the cutting and milling season. They don’t have any employee protection and benefits because of the nature of their job. 

During the late 80s to middle 90s when I was working in the field, most Sakada came from the province of Antique, and the local Cebuano-speaking towns of Negros Occidental like Calatrava, Escalante, and even San Carlos City. The poverty rate in the Cebuano-speaking towns of Negros Occidental is higher than in the Hiligaynon-speaking cities and towns. As mentioned above, Negros Oriental even has a higher poverty rate.

When there is a sugar boom, only the big planters (land owners) benefit. The low salary of workers remains the same.

Successful small planters vs sugar barons

People who own half to five hectares of sugarcane land are called “small planters”. These people are agrarian reform beneficiaries (ARB)  and former sugar workers. Most of the places where the majority of the fields are operated by small planters have lower poverty rates than those areas managed by sugar barons because of the following:

  1. Small planters pay far higher than sugar barons. For example, small planters in rural Silay City pay ₱300/ton for cutting and hauling (karga-tapas), while a Hacienda of 20 hectares pays ₱250/ton, and a Hacienda of more than 100 hectares pays ₱260/ton. By the standard of living, the ₱300/ton is still not enough but it is better than the ₱260/ton paid by sugar barons to their slave workers.
  2. Small planters give ₱200 to ₱300 tip to the truck driver who hauled their sugarcane. Sugar barons give zero tip.
  3. Small planters provide merienda to their workers during harvest time, especially during the cutting and loading (karga-tapas). When all work is done and all sugarcane from the 2-3 hectare land are brought to the sugar mill, small planters usually throw a party as thanksgiving. The greedy sugar barons do none of these.

Why small planters can afford all of these despite their limited land, while sugar barons can’t? Many small planters with 2 to 3 hectares of land don’t consider sugarcane farming a full-time job. They consider it an annual investment. Most of them usually have educated children who are working in the city or abroad financing their fields. Others are also working in the fields owned by fellow-small planters while waiting for their own cane to mature. With the current sugar price, the above perks can be afforded and the small planters are still left with a net income of around ₱1,000 per ton or ₱60,000/ha. On the other hand, sugar barons who don’t provide the above perks make ₱10,000 more per hectare.

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Why sugar barons are not doing this? Because they are simply greedy and don’t realize how difficult it is to work on the farm, and if they pay higher and provide extra perks, they think they are going to lose workers in the future when the next generation becomes educated.

Controlling people’s lives is what they mastered for decades that’s why they continue to make millions while their workers are buried in a poverty hole.

Why CARP in Negros must be fully implemented

As of 2019, Negros Island accounts for 21% of the land acquisition and distribution (LAD) balance of 602,306 hectares under the three-decades-old Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP). Negros has the second lowest distribution accomplishment rate in the country, next only to the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

In my hometown, most families who got 2 to 3 hectares of land and manage the sugarcane plantation have a better standard of living compared to those who are still working under the landowners. Although 3 hectares of sugarcane cannot support a family, at least they can apply for a loan for their children’s college education. Sugar workers who don’t own a single hectare don’t have this opportunity and their children will likely inherit their work if they can’t go to college, or can’t even finish senior high school.

How the government should properly implement the CARP

The current CARP system is not effective and is a failure. A Negros Occidental provincial government survey showed in 2008 that 41% of the agrarian reform beneficiaries were no longer in possession of their land, a figure that jumped to 70% by 2013. People are selling their Certificate of Land Ownership (CLOA) mainly because they don’t have start-up capital, or do not have enough experience to manage the farm.  

In order to run a sugarcane plantation, an ARB who just got the land from the landlord must need at least ₱55,000 per hectare to be used until harvest. This does not include money for land preparation, seedpieces, and planting because cane ratoons can still be productive if properly managed. 

The biggest problem with the current CARP system is the lack of government financial support and education. In order for the CARP to be fully-effective, the government must do the following:

  1. For ARBs who want to plant sugarcane, the government must give financial support of at least 50,000 per hectare as a low-interest loan payable in five years.
  2. The government must introduce the planting of high-value crops like rice, corn, peanut, and vegetables as these crops are easier to manage, have less manpower needed, and can provide income in just three months.
  3. The government must educate ARBs on how to farm livestock and poultry and other farm animals. The two to three hectares of sugarcane can’t support a family but is large enough to host an integrated farm with poultry, livestock, fruits, and vegetables which can be ten times more profitable than sugarcane.
  4. The government must build cooperatives and conduct seminars for ARBs before taking over the land. The above options must be explained including the financial support.

Why do sugar barons pay less and what the government should do

The minimum wage in Region VI in the agricultural sector is ₱410.00. A sugar baron who owns 100ha of sugarcane field does not pay a daily rate because most of the jobs are pakyaw system. For example, a Haciendero in Sagay City who owns more than 200ha pays the following rate in pakyaw system.

  • ₱275 – tapas/karga (cutting/loading)
  • ₱160 – 1 sack of fertilizer application
  • ₱1,400 – manual pulling of weed per hectare
  • ₱480 – carabao plowing per line/ha (1 lusot)

On the contrary, many small planters pay a daily rate of ₱250 but the job only takes four hours from 7:00 AM to 10:30-11:00. The heat of the sun is always being considered.

Sugar barons never pay more than ₱350 per day for those jobs that do not fall into pakyaw system. My cousin is working as a bookkeeper in a 320ha Hacienda in Sagay City and is paid just ₱8,500 per month, or around ₱327/day excluding Sundays.

Since the excuse of rich sugar barons to avoid paying the right salary is the pakyaw system, DOLE should impose a separate rate for the pakyaw system exclusive to the sugar industry. The karga-tapas, which is back-breaking and is the most physically-demanding job, should be paid around ₱500/ton. If the sugar baron is making ₱65,000/ha, a ₱13,000 additional payment to the hard workers will not hurt his income. He still earns ₱51,500/ha or ₱5.1M for 100ha. At least everyone is happy and workers can afford to send their children to school.

If DOLE cannot do this then the government should better distribute all of the lands to the people and give financial support to alleviate the poverty in Negros.

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