Not All Sugar Tastes So Sweet

8 March 2009

Two Perspectives on Cane Growing in the Philippines

SUGARCANE, by who.log.why, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution 2.0 Generic)Difference need not end all conversation. Allow me to offer a rather personal example. My wife and I were raised in difference countries, subjected to different environments and shaped by very different experiences, but there is one thing we each know something about. Sugar. My understanding, such that it is, comes from a proximity to the industry in northern Australia, knowing people who worked in the mills during the season, tramping through the fields as a kid and watching the fires and the harvesters as an adult after I moved away. My wife, in important contrast, was born into the sugar-growing areas of Negros Occidental in the Philippines, saw the suffering of the tenant farmers and their labourers, and joined the revolution against Ferdinand Macros as a teenager to right those wrongs. Worlds apart, you might think, but sometimes different perspectives on a common theme draw minds together.

I’ve long thought that mechanisation could break the vicious poverty associated with sugarcane growing in my wife’s home province. Most landholders keep tenant farmers in a kind of feudal grip, paying very little for the crop they produce six months of the year and extending loans with high interest rates for the other six months, tying whole families to indenture. If these families, spread out across five or six haciendas, could hire cane harvesters they could massively decrease the time it takes to get sticks to the mill and likewise decrease the delay between planting and payment for their crops. This obviously wouldn’t solve the problem of six months’ employment in every twelve but it would reduce labour costs and thus the size of loans, and the associated favouritism, handed out by the hacienda owners.

There are numerous flaws to this argument, as my wife is quick to point out, even though the premise of mechanisation is sound. I mentioned a reduction in labour costs, but the cane cutters, known as Sakadas, are also very poor people relying on seasonal work. Mechanisation would be the death of their meagre hope, pure and simple. The provincial economy couldn’t absorb them in other roles – step off a plane at the provincial airport in Bacolod and you’ll immediately see the prevalence of unemployment. The city has a permanent air of Depression about it, as though better days never really managed to come. There’s certainly no future there for out-of-work Sakadas.

Perhaps more significantly, if the hacidenda owners didn’t try to sabotage mechanisation – and their political clout relies on the control of people, not machinery – they could very well take up the idea themselves, doing away with tenant farmers and Sakadas in one fell swoop. As my wife argues in equal measures from experience and conviction, the situation is delicately poised, with small changes likely to have large repercussions. The only certainty is that the levels of poverty induced by these feudal relations are not sustainable; as the sugar land shrinks and gives was to urban subdivisions, as the remaining land yields less each year and the soil becomes increasingly salted, something will have to change.

When nature speaks, by My DrEaM SHOTZz, with Creative Commons Licence (Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic)We agree that mechanised harvesting is the only humane way to get a sugar cane crop to the mill, and the sort of collective action that it would entail is the great hope that pushed my wife into action against Marcos and his cane-growing cronies all those years ago. But the ensuing dislocations would be horrendous. Greater minds than ours, and more committed political actors, have tried and failed to break the grip of the hacienda owners – people, not incidentally, who rarely hold all of their estates legally, and who bankroll their own militias. Opposition often means death.

But maybe mechanisation is somehow the key, perhaps combined with diversification into other crops. For now, it’s certainly something to think about.

The Social Language of Ideas

8 May 2008

On Communicating Notions of Change

Edinburgh on the hill 1... by Today is a good day, with Creative Commons licenceBig ideas are tough going. They don’t occur to most people because abstracts are often unwelcome intrusions into practical, steady lives. The best ideas tend to flow into situations where rapid change is necessary, like business or medical science. Commerce is a hotbed of new ideas because profitability is never permanent – forcing change quite simply helps a company outpace the market. And medicine, tied closely to the business of drugs, patents and health management, also has the added burden of ethical concerns. Change must happen because it ensures profitability, saves lives, improves lives. That’s enough to get a lot of people thinking. But what about social problems that don’t seem as urgent? After the age of ideologies, how can big ideas make people think again?

Despite its promise to rectify social ills, Marxism failed because it couldn’t find a suitable form of government. Karl Marx’s profound insights into political economy became ruthless dogma in the hands of state communism, a beast that he and Friedrich Engels failed to envision when describing post-revolutionary governance in their Communist Manifesto. So we have capitalism, which is less an ideology than an assumption – a belief that the market works and everything in it will find a good and proper place, as long as governments don’t overly interfere.

Morning Meeting at the Fish Market, by Lucas Jans, with Creative Commons licenceThat might sound naïve, but we should never forget that the market isn’t a thing, much less a thing manipulated by all-powerful corporations or scheming individuals. Sure, there’s manipulation, but it’s of people. The market is a self-regulating social framework – a network of people interacting with other people. Paul Seabright describes it as the meeting place of strangers in pursuit of self-interest, which is not all that different from how I described the importance of familiar strangers to communities in a recent post. And even in its most negative manifestations, this market – our mega-community – can tell us something about the social language of ideas.

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Do You See What I See?

6 May 2008

On Myopic Perceptions of Poverty

Everything You See Is Not True, by Sinsong, with Creative Commons licenceDespite a presence so devastating that it makes war seem trivial, poverty is often ignored in our supposedly connected world. Global Issues estimates that half of the world’s population, or around 3 billion people, live in dire poverty. In other words, half of humanity can barely survive. But how often do you think about that? Probably not much if you live in a developed country. Daniel Little recently wrote about the middle class ignorance of poverty in America, something I often observed when living in Australia. It seems like a case of narrow experience over-riding a wider understanding of the world and how it works.

Little offers an important set of questions that we should be asking, all designed to tease out what we really know about poverty. He also asks how people who are not poor can gain experience of poverty, and suggests that portrayals in poetry and fiction are important in providing a sense of what less fortunate people might be thinking and feeling. But, ultimately, a “cognitive version of myopia” prevents many people from extrapolating that vicarious experience into their own social circumstances, stops them from seeing what is happening around them.

This problem has been worrying me lately as I’ve worked with and talked to Filipino migrant workers in Hong Kong, seeking justice for Vicenta Flores’ family following her disappearance and death. There is often a somewhat narrow perception amongst those with more money and better lifestyles that because a domestic helper earns more money in Hong Kong than she could in the Philippines, she should be happy because she is no longer in poverty.

the real philippines, by ron ron, with Creative Commons licenceThat might sound reasonable, but it leaves aside any confounding factors such as how many people a small Hong Kong dollar wage can support in the Philippines – or Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand or Nepal for that matter. It also ignores how much money is owed to an employment agency for illegally gathered placement fees and the sheer amount of hours per day that the woman is expected to work. And how do these critics, so ready to pronounce happiness, bother to define poverty?

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