Negros and Sugarcane

18 Jan 2020

I am planning to join "hybrid" friends to visit the sights of Negros.  I still have a sister living there, as well as nieces and nephews, and it is good to see relations from time to time.  

Further, I am eager to show friends how Negrenses, heretofore seemingly stuck in a time warp, insisting on their monoculture of sugarcane production, are now coping with the long-term changes in the demands of the economy.

Not so long ago when I visited the province, I was impresssed to note the efforts being made towards product diversification, including new developments in industry and services.  Among others, tourism is a promising venture.  

The support systems are now in place, from faster internet connectivity to increased physical infrastructure. There is a modern airport and a brand new, professionally run hotel where I spent comfortable nights. Active call centres service foreign companies. A fully functioning port has been constructed, providing shipping lines not only around the region, but as far as China.  Linking Negros from north to south are new roads.  Those not yet built are being planned.  A theme park, now under construction, promises safe rides, whilst artistically showcasing Negrense culture and cuisine. I was fascinated by the innovations that I saw at Magikland, and look forward to their grand opening soon.

I remember the laid-back culture of Negros, as hacienderos waited for their canes to mature and be harvested, whiling away their time for most of some twelve months it took from planting to harvesting. I remember witnessing the lives of the workers, treading in the footsteps of their parents--generation after generation.

Thus, when adversity struck in the mid-1970s and the 1980s, many were unprepared. Now, the younger Negrenses seem more up to the challenges of the changed environment. More skilled and more enterprising, I see in them great progress ahead. Children of farm workers are leaving the farms in search of more education, or of employment in industry, or even of lucrative opportunities abroad.

Way back in the 1950s and 60s, Negros was the "in" place to be. The hacienderos were among the richest, envied by the rest of the country. Everybody wanted to be invited to the functions of the Kahirup, an elite group of prominent men and women of Iloilo and Negros.

How this came about was the result of two fortuitous events: the Laurel-Langley Agreement between the Philippines and the United States, signed in 1955, gave favourable terms of trade to the sugar and coconut industries. Then, the U.S. embargo of Cuban sugar in 1960 gave the hacienderos a seemingly insatiable market, so much so that America imposed a quota on the export of Philippine sugar. In my memories, the heyday of the industry was thus in the decade of the 1960s.

However, by the mid-1970s, the industry started to decline. There were three main causes. The Laurel-Langley Agreement expired in 1974, forcing the Philippines to compete in the world market. Then, the World Trade Organisation imposed new policies on import liberalisation, removing tariffs on lower-priced sugar produced elsewhere. This was later significantly exacerbated by the Marcos regime's confiscatory actions toward the international trade of the commodity. It monopolised the trading arm of sugar, exploiting for its own purposes the revenues generated by the industry. By the mid-1980s, there was an actual risk of hunger among the farm labourers. On the other hand, the hacienderos did not have the wherewithal to explore other avenues.

A generation has passed. Amidst the use of new technologies and increasing mechanisation of sugar production in more developed countries, both hacienderos and farm workers realise that theirs is a twilight industry.

For the workers, the new government programme of land reform is not succeeding. True, in reformed lands, each worker can now own 1.3 hectares, but the government nonetheless cannot afford to furnish them with their needs if they were to cultivate this land, including the provision of agricultural inputs and skills training. Additionally, efforts towards modernisation are inpeded by a culture that stubornly remains largely feudalistic. As a consequence, most lease their newly-owned land back to big landlords who can manage them more productively. In this manner, the workers catch a windfall, but still as before, remain hired labour. Meantime, their children realise the farms can no longer support them, and they are leaving.

In a feedback loop, as the farm young leave, many hacienderos can no longer find sufficient labour for this labour-intensive industry--I hear the average age of current farm workers is 58 years. In answer to this, the younger, more skilled, and more entrepreneurial landowners are themselves pushed towards exploring other ventures. Unlike their parents, land ownership itself no longer holds a mythological sway, part and parcel of their sense of identity. As the Chinese saying goes: the flip side of a problem is an opportunity.

In conclusion, I would hazard a guess that a new awakening in Negros is starting to bear fruit and the province is gearing for economic take-off.

(For a thorough discussion on the social history of sugar production in Negros, see Sugar and the Origins of Modern Philippine Society by John A. Larkin, 1993.

Going back to earlier histories, it seems that many big Negrense land-owners originally came from nearby Iloilo. To exploit Negros' fertile soil, these hacienderos divided their large families between these two islands.

A friend, Gerry van der Linden, former Vice President of the Asian Development Bank, in his write-up in the succeeding blog, details the life of the man who brought sugarcane production to these two neighbouring provinces).