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.