issue 205 - March 1990
Photo: Peter Stalker
A pastoral visit to a plantation
Negros is 'sugarland'. This is one of the largest islands in the Philippines, an hour or so by air from Manila. Even from the plane you can see the broad green carpet of cane that covers half its agricultural land.
Sugar was introduced here not by the Spanish or the Americans but by the British Vice-Consul Nicholas Loney. In 1841 he arrived in the Philippines to find a thriving textile industry. Loney sent copies of the local patterns back to Manchester where they could be machine-woven more cheaply. Then he imported them back to the Philippines - dealing a death blow to the textile industry.
So his boats need not return empty he encouraged local capitalists to grow sugar which he could export for them. In Negros this was largely achieved by grabbing from peasant farmers huge tracts of land - many of which are still intact.
An early-morning bus takes me out of Bacolod, the island's humid capital. As we pass through its dilapidated suburbs, white-shirted children stand in dusty schoolyards raising their arms in the daily 'patriotic pledge'. Soon we are out in the countryside and the sugar cane rises to 15 feet on either side. Huge trucks stacked high with yesterday's harvest sway past in the other direction. There are also quite a few trucks immobilized on the roadside with flat tyres.
'Very dangerous if you are drunk and driving at night,' a fellow passenger solemnly points out, as if that were part of his nightly routine.
Sugar was a very profitable crop while the US offered a guaranteed market. The planters lived in great style, though they were among the world's least efficient producers. And their workers lived in harsh and feudal servitude.
But the privileged access to the US ended in 1974. And when the world price of sugar collapsed in the late 1970s the planters were in deep trouble. Philippine sugar was far too expensive. Their response was to mechanize and cut wages still further - or to close the plantations altogether. But while the situation was difficult for the planters it was a disaster
for the workers. By 1986 two-thirds of children in Western Negros were malnourished and Archbishop Antonio Fortich had described the island as a 'social volcano'.
The bus drops me at the dirt track that leads into the Soledad plantation at Binalbagan, about 40 miles south of Bacolod. Tractors churner past and ragged children run in and out of rambling wooden houses.
'Good morning, father,' they say politely. People do keep assuming that I am a priest. I have stopped bothering to contradict them now and am considering trying my hand at the odd blessing or two. I wondered if their mistake was due to my distinguished bearing, but am told that it's because the only white people they see tend to be missionaries.
One of the children leads me to where his father is working. Cutting sugar cane is a nasty job. Swinging the bob (machete) all day and loading the trucks is bad enough but the sharp leaves mean that the workers have to wear thick protective clothes even in the suffocating heat. I have seen cane-cutting all over the world and the heat, the hard labour and the insects are certainly more than I could bear - no maner what I was being paid.
Trying to discover exactly how much the workers earn here is a tricky business. Leonardo Mermal and his friends sit down to explain that they get paid a regular $60 a month - though from this is deducted the food they buy from the owner. 'At the end of the month after buying necessities like soap and salt you might finish up with about 10 pesos (50 cents).'
Then at the end of the season each person's total harvest is reckoned up. 'Most of us ended up about 1,000 pesos ($50) in debt - and that's the way it is most years.
I ask about the land-reform programme which should be distributing some of the plantations to workers. But they say there is nothing happening.
'The owner does let us have small plots of land, but that only grows enough rice for about six weeks. We are supposed to get free medical care but he deducts it from our wages. Six children have died in the last 18 months (out of 80 families) - usually of fevers or diarrhoea. The children usually work along with us when they are not at school and then work full-time from about the age of 13. There's really no future here.'
The few improvements which the workers on the Soledad plantation have achieved have come with the help of their union, the National Federation of Sugar Workers. And later, back in Bacolod, I speak to its General Secretary, Serge Cherniguin. He says it's much more difficult for sugar workers under the Aquino government.
'I'm sad to say things are much worse now. There is a semblance of democracy, in that you are free to speak. But there are so many death squads. During the Marcos era there were at least no bombings and no vigilantes.'
In the first nine months of 1989 six union organizers or activists were murdered - mostly by the Citizens Armed Forces Geographical Units. These 'CAFGUs' have been established all over the country as a sort of citizen support group for the military. In practice they are armed and half-trained paramilitaries who are often a law unto themselves.
'Every union officer has been threatened,' says Cherniguin. 'particularly those working on the plantations. But this cannot keep us from doing our work. The sufferings of the people really touch you. In a situation like this you tend to lose fear for your own safety.'
I ask what the union is trying to achieve for its members now.
'We are pushing,' he says, 'for the national minimum wage to be implemented on the plantations. The Government recently increased it to 73 pesos ($3.50) a day. But less than three per cent of the planters are actually paying it. Instead they give money to the CAFGUs to patrol the plantations and suppress the trade-union activities of the sugar workers.
'Really the only long-term solution to the problems of Negros is the distribution of land. But the Government is deaf to the demands of the people for justice. Their response is really crazy. They have made Negros one of the most militarized provinces in the country.
Some of the landowners argue, however, that workers would not know what to do with the land if they got it.
From sugar workers to farmers
'It is true,' says Cherniguin, 'that the workers have difficulty in becoming farmers. We have to teach them. But we have succeeded. There are 13 sugar plantations with about 2,000 hectares which the workers run as co-operatives.'
The union also encourages the workers to grow food. Some of this is on land offered by plantation owners. But the union also has its own 'farmlots' programme where, often on borrowed land, it gives agricultural training and support to sugar workers.
The sugar planters of course see the problems of Negros in a rather different light. To hear their side of the story I go to the Bacolod offices of the Federation of Sugar Planters.
Their spokesperson is Modesto Sa-Anoy. He is a little suspicious of 'left' journalists but seems convinced that the NI is a respectable publication. I agree to quote him verbatim and promise to check with him the text of the interview opposite.
The sugar planters
Is it true that the planters are not paying the statutory minimum wage?
The majority of wages are paid at piecework rates prescribed by the Government and our planters have been following this religiously. It is in the case of workers paid on a monthly basis where there have been lots of violations.
But there are other things to take into account. For instance workers do not pay rent. They get housing, electricity, free dental and medical help, sometimes free education. They also get free water. Aside from this the Federation has a social amelioration fund. For every picul of sugar that comes out of the mill the planters have to pay two pesos ($18 per ton). This money is distributed to the workers twice a year. So they would really have enough.
The sugar workers' unions say they are not free to organize.
We support the Federation of District Workers Conferences in order to bring about a harmonious relationship between workers and landowners. If you organize to secure better benefits or to raise productivity then there are no reprisals or obstruction.
But I would understand if radical labour unions said they had been restricted. Some planters have opposed the organization of unions because the premise is always class struggle, creating hatred for the planters and disunity among the workers as a tool of organization. We have reports that workers have started leaving radical unions and opting for more moderate ones.
What do the planters feel about the intense military operations on Negros?
Most of the planters support these military operations because hundreds of tons of sugar have been lost through the atrocities of the New People's Army. They have burned cane fields and destroyed trains and tractors. I have friends that have lost tons and tons of fertilizers which the NPA have taken and sold or used in their own farms in the mountains. It is the atrocities and the violence and the terror that the NPA have been committing for the last several years that have brought the planters to the side of the military.
What is your attitude to land reform?
The Federation is in favour of the workers taking over the land. But we have three basic points of opposition to the present land-reform proposals. The first is on the question of compensation. The Government will pay the landowner only 10 per cent in cash and the rest in bonds which they can negotiate after several years. But this is not the best way for the landowner to start a new business.
Our second point is that breaking these lands up would not be in the interests of the workers themselves. The smaller the landholding, the less the productive capacity. If lands have to be taken over by the Government then the workers should be organized into co-operatives.
The third point is that the present plantations should not be touched because there is plenty of land which is non-productive or which has been fore-closed (by the banks because the owner could not pay the interest on loans).
Are the planters financing vigilantes?
The Sugar Development Foundation (SDF) has asked the planters for funding and to a certain extent we know that the Foundation is assisting the military. But it is not vigilantes. As far as I know the SDF has assisted in training and in some logistics, especially uniforms, for CAFGUs - the government paramilitary units. But they are not vigilantes in the sense that we usually understand the term. They are an attachment to the armed forces.
Will there be a military solution here?
Like all guerilla wars, this cannot be resolved purely by military means. We also need economic programs. But nor can it be resolved purely by economic programs. The NPA would definitely take over if there were no troops to guard us.
But there have been human-rights violations by the army.
In the past there were some abuses by the military. But these were soldiers from other regions. They were not getting paid on time so they became abusive, taking the chickens, eggs or a pig here and there. But we insist that the troops are now drawn from this region and there have been no recent reports of abuses by the army.
Some people have complained about CAFGUs but when they were asked to sign a sworn statement they could not pinpoint the people concerned.
Soldiers or non-soldiers make mistakes. The commanders here have been very firm in their discipline: they have removed any men in uniform who have been abusive. This is the kind of military action that will win the hearts of the rural folks.