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Beyond The Cane Field

Indigenous Peoples
Trade Unions
Development (Aid)

new internationalist
issue 183 - May 1988

Create Alternatives

Beyond the cane field
Filling your stomach and keeping a roof over your head absorbs
most of your time and energy if you are poor. But real change is inspired
by a vision of something better. Filipino sugar worker Serge Cherneguin
reports on his union's efforts to shape the vision into reality.

Negros has some of the Philippines' most fertile land, yet the people cannot use this land to plant their own food. The real tragedy is that most of the land is used to grow sugar. The island is very rich, but the people are starving.

Our union, the National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW), tries to support workers in their struggle to make a decent living. But we know that they need more from us. The NFSW helps farmworkers feed their families by getting them a little piece of land to plant and teaching them how to live independently. This farmlot program, in which we get sympathetic landowners to allow farmworkers to use idle lands, has meant the difference between life and death for the children of our members.

It took a long time for me personally to come to grips with why people were hungry. My background is not as a sugar worker, but as an administrator of a hacienda. I knew that the workers earned miserable wages, but I thought that if I ran the plantation well and made it profitable, then the workers would benefit.

I was wrong. I helped the plantation attain one of the highest yields in the district, but the owner still refused to raise the workers' wages. I became so disgusted that I quit my job and, through my contact with the church, began working with the sugar workers' union.

Mostly we've tried to get better wages and benefits for the workers. We always start out by negotiating - first with the management and then with the big planters themselves. If we can't get anywhere, we try other tactics like petitions, strikes, demonstrations, or taking our grievances to the labour court.

Our tactics changed when the sugar industry collapsed and our workers were left with nothing. Their children were starving. In Negros, the situation was as bad as in Ethiopia, even though the world didn't hear about it. With children dying of hunger, higher wages could not be our first priority. We had to get food on the table. The only way was if the workers were allowed to grow their own food.

So we started to ask the planters for permission to use the vacant land for food crops. Many of them refused to go along with our farmlots program, saying it was a ploy to take away their land for good. They were also afraid when it came time to work in the cane fields, the workers would refuse because they preferred to work in their own fields. One planter said he would rather sell the hacienda to buy bullets to protect his land than give his workers a piece of land to farm.

Sometimes the workers go ahead and plant anyway, and the planters plough down their crops. On one hacienda, the planter waited until the crop was ready and then sent in his goons. They got off with three truckloads of fresh corn, while the police looked the other way.

Other planters are more willing to help. In fact, there were some who offered the workers free use of their tractors, if the workers bought the fuel. In all, by 1986, we were able to borrow 4,000 hectares. A thousand of that is being farmed co-operatively. We also got another 6,000 hectares of land that the banks have taken over that we hope to use in this program.

The farmlot program is really an historic breakthrough for us. It is the first time that planters have given land to the workers, but it is also the first time the workers get a chance to work for themselves. We are the only union to have such a program.

Of the 1,000 hectares of farmlots we planted in 1986, all of them were farmed cooperatively. I've heard it said that cooperative farming is just not part of the Asian psyche. But we're doing it. We haven't forced anyone to work together; they just do it on their own. I suppose that's because as sugar workers they're used to working together. And because they have been so harassed, their instinct is to unite.

On the farmlots the workers grow mostly rice, coin and sweet potatoes. We're also trying to introduce other products. The workers and their families are not used to having a very varied diet, mostly corn and rice, so we are trying to introduce new vegetables and other nutritious foods.

We also stress organic gardening because of the heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides in Negros. In 1950 farmers were using three bags of fertilizer per hectare. By 1980 they used 23 bags. There has been much abuse of dangerous pesticides and many workers have gotten sick from them. So we try to wean them away from the chemical inputs. Not only are they dangerous, but also we can't afford them. The workers are trained to make herbal pesticides and plant rice varieties that don't demand chemical fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation.

In addition to our farmlots program, we have begun to teach animal husbandry, nutrition and sanitation. We are also developing communication skills through our own newspaper and radio program. When we found people could not afford to buy medicines, we started to make our own. We now make aspirins, vitamins, cough syrup, sleeping pills and medicine for diarrhea. We are going back to discover many of the traditional herbal remedies as well. Before we used to laugh at the old people with their herbs, and now we are planting our own herbal gardens.

With the farmlot program, the union has had to help the workers develop a new attitude towards work. When they worked for the planter from sunrise to sundown for a few pesos, they developed a slow-down attitude. I don't want to say they are lazy, but when the benefits of their work didn't go to them, they had little incentive to work hard.

One thing that distinguishes us from other unions is that our organizers really are one with the people. They live with the workers, receive very modest allowances and suffer the same hardships. They are also supposed to be models in their personal lives. They must be looked up to by the other workers for their moral attitudes, commitment to the workers' cause and deep love for the people.

We have a vision of how we would like to see Negros. We would like the rich resources of our island to benefit the poor. We would like to take much of the land out of sugar and grow food crops so we can all eat. We would like to see some industry in Negros - industries that meet the needs of the people first. Now all we have is sugar as far as the eye can see. If there is a good economic reason to continue growing sugar, then it must be to benefit the workers.

That is why the farmlot program is so important to us. It is not only giving us the food we so desperately need, but it is also teaching us to be self-reliant. It is giving our workers a small taste of what it is like to work for themselves. This is our way of practising democracy.

Serge Cherneguin is Secretary General of the National Federation of Sugar Workers.

Clever Kuna

Panama's Kuna Indians try and keep to themselves. Camera-wielding outsiders are not welcome to gaze in wonder at their colourful garb or to wander at will around their idyllic forest communities. But this does not mean that the Kuna are strangers to the modern world. They have developed sophisticated methods of protecting their heritage - by making modern society work for them rather than against them.

The Comarca of San Bias, a thin band of jungle on the Atlantic coast of Panama, has been home to the Kuna for centuries. They lived quite removed from the modern world until 1975 when the Panamanian government began road construction in the area. With the road came new settlers who cleared the forest for farming and livestock grazing. For the Kuna it meant the wholesale destruction of their sacred lands.

'We say that this land is our mother,' Leonidas Valdes, one of the leading chiefs of the Kuna, explains. And the land is also the culture. Here are born all things necessary to our culture: the palm fronds we use for the puberty ceremonies, all the foods gathered for our communal feasts, the materials our artisans use, what goes into construction of our houses. All of it comes from the forest. If we were to lose this land, there would be no culture, no soul.'

The Kuna, a highly organized and politically wise tribe, did not retreat into the forest. Instead, they worked through the legislative system to have their territory declared a natural park and wildlife reserve. To support the park and bring new jobs and skills to the tribe, the Kuna developed a scientific research centre to study the unique local flora and fauna. The entire park and its facilities are staffed by the Kuna.

The park's success adds up to much more than saving 20 square kilometers of virgin rainforest or creating a dozen new jobs for Kuna youth. The Kuna have succeeded in forging a path which has secured the future for their people and which may provide a powerful example to other native peoples defending their way of life.

'Since the appearance of Columbus and Balboa along Panama's coast,' says park consultant Temistocles Arias, 'the Kuna have experienced the necessity to protect their lands and culture from outside threats. Their perspective spans centuries, not the two, five or ten year cycles of aid programs. They have a long range horizon for the project - their cultural survival depends on it.'

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New Internationalist issue 183 magazine cover This article is from the May 1988 issue of New Internationalist.
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