It’s around lunchtime in the countryside of Negros Occidental, a region in western Visayas. In the middle of the sugar fields, sacada seasonal workers are scything weeds under the red hot sun, while humidity is still at ferociously dangerous levels. When the wind wheezes through the grass, workers sing.
Tiempo muerto, ‘dead time’, is a season, between planting and harvesting, when there’s no work in the sugarcane fields.
Tigkiriwi, the pained expression on the farm workers’ faces, as work either slows down or stops in the fields. During this time farmworkers live on loans from their landlords deducted from their salaries when work resumes. Those not regularly employed by haciendero’s, known as sacada workers, either make their way to the coast or cities to try get temporary work, others turn to loan sharks.
This is a critical event in the Filipino sugar industry, allowing landlords to develop a dependable, controlling system of perpetual nearly-free work from the peasants. This is known as the hacienda system; a symptom of a much older, ancient labour control scheme implemented by the Spanish throughout Roman and Medieval times. Further used on a huge scale during the Spanish Crown’s occupation of Latin America.
Over millennia, the encomienda, ‘to entrust’, has been a major part of Spanish colonial life. A legal system where a grant is provided by the crown to a soldier, conquistador of a specific number of indigenous people, for the purpose of extracting tribute from them in gold, or labour. The system was designed for the crown to impose control over the faraway lands and meet the early needs of the mining economy. Instead, it was used by grantees as a tool of power for their personal gains. Things changed with the dramatic decline of the indigenous population from guns, germs and steel, and the switch from mining to an agricultural economy. The encomienda system was lost and gradually replaced by the hacienda system of landed estates.
At first, the Spaniards in the Americas where provided a grant for racketeering, then provided land to legally own on which they were racketeering. Spawning out of the Spanish colonisation and acting as a traditional institution of rural life, the hacienda system exhibits on huge patches of land granted by the crown acting as for-profit enterprises. The land of colonised countries was given to the very people exploiting the encomienda system.
Methods of extracting labour were creative, taking inspiration from the local Inca culture, like the mita and the yanaconazgo. The Andean indigenous peoples had a very rigid hierarchical social division and the bottom of the pyramid was occupied by the yanas, personal slaves chosen from villages and sometimes prisoners of war. The yanas would lose touch with their traditions and knowledge for survival, hence, became dependent on their ‘masters’. This practice was conserved by the Spanish, recognised as the yanaconazgo, submitting workers into perpetual slavery.
Then, there was the mita, an occasional work tribute to the public good used actively during the Incan Empire. Each community was obliged to send a group of workers, provide foods and transport during the time of mita. The caciques, or the leader of an indigenous group, were in charge of organising all related to the mita. The mitayos would travel with their families and receive a “salary”, however, costs along the journey were much higher, putting people in the grips of debt.
Even after the Spanish rule of Filipinos subsided, years were spent as a Japanese prison war camp and decades under the arm of Hollywood. Today the harsh realities of the iron-fisted feudal rule of the Spanish hacienda system still prevail, ingrained over four centuries of entrenchment.
The local term is dumaan, which stands for resident farm hands and sacada, transient seasonal ones, both enduring harsh conditions of work. Normally, dumaans earn about $4 AU a day, less than half of the minimum wage, whereas sacada can earn about $3. Here is where it becomes overwhelmingly complex. A group of workers from the same family group (including children) is hired collectively for farm tasks, responsible for a specific number of hectares in the haciendero’s sugarcane plantation, known as pakyaw translated as ‘to bulk buy’. The pakyaw system earns them each roughly $1 a day, despite the brutal working conditions they are exposed to. The Centre for Investigative Research and Multimedia Service in Bacalod uncovered that over 60% of sugarcane workers in Negros are employed under the pakyao system. Remember to deduct from the salary the loaned rice, vegetables or money asked for during tiempo muerto, and what you find is conditions mirroring slavery.
In 1987, to tilt the scales in favour of the locals, the government passed a law known as the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) involving the redistribution of private and government-owned land to landless farm workers. Lands exceeding 7 hectares, known as haciendas, were bought by the government from the elite and given to beneficiaries. In theory, each dumaan, sacada, and other landless farmers will receive 3 hectares of agricultural land to help them survive as small independent farmers.
The path to redistribution has been hard, violent and incredibly bloody. For the Negros elite, sugar was the stairway to the good life, for this they refused to give up their land and in their resistance to comply, employed violent tactics against workers’ groups. Using thugs to threaten workers to lease back their land in return for lower prices. Hiring private armies to prevent farmers from claiming the land. In such resistance, some workers decided to join the communist group, New People’s Army, in the hinterlands, while others joined worker’s organisations fighting for their rights, many of which have been assassinated.
In defiance of many obstacles to the implementation of the CARP, studies suggest that the agrarian reform has had positive results reducing poverty, increasing income per capita, greater household welfare and increased productivity. Land redistribution cannot be accredited alone for the liberation of small farmers from poverty, support organisations then played a critical role in enhancing food security, infrastructure, community, and income.
Hurdles remain. While planting and harvesting has undergone significant evolution, rural small farmers still grow sugarcane the same way they did centuries ago. WWF and allies are working to maintain the livelihood of farmers and allow for competition with international giants, implementing some ingenious tactics. Instead of planting sugarcane in ordered rows, farmers can use evenly-spaced 40 cm deep holes planting with 4 sugarcane tops as mentioned by the Multi-sectoral Alliance for Development Negros. They are also experimenting with other plant spacing and harvesting techniques.
Magsasaka at Siyentipiko Para sa Pag-unlad ng Agrikultura (MASIPAG) has been teaching small farmers to go organic with their growing techniques. Organically-grown sugarcane is far more resilient to pests and disease, mainly because their stems grow thicker. MASIAC teaches farmers to avoid chemical pesticides and to diversify their crops to tide them to tiempo muerto and to increase soil health. Organic Filipino farmers are growing not just sugarcane, but rice and vegetables. Besides the resilience of the plant, there is a monetary incentive from going organic, with organic muscovado sugar sold for 60 Filipino Pesos while processed white sugar for 40 Pesos.
Others are very optimistic about the future of small farmers. As independent farmers are gaining advice in the use of alternative co-cropping opportunities to reduce the self-reliance in sugarcane. This alternative are mainly to help the workers during tiempo muerto – low season, between April to August – when farmers must either patiently wait for the sugarcane to grow to sizes which are harvestable and/or ask for loans from sharks in order to have funds to sustain their lives and their dependents.
Even though the Negros sugar cane industry been for the past 300 years a wave of controversies, there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel with new ways of farming and financing taking hold. Yet, when looking at Rogue Plastic as the insidious challenge it is. The grips of the hacienda system must be acknowledged. As without such, we have fickle illusory solutions that withstand nothing but making an appearance. One of the grandest barriers in Negros, as a region, to positive environmental behaviour, is the inequality and depravation of fundamental rights perpetually felt by these global citizens.
Author: Erik Sumarkho
Editor-at-large: Charlotte Rose Mellis
Photojournalists: Bang Agustin & Jax Oliver