(This article was originally published in the January-March 2019 issue of the Karapatan Monitor at the heels of a spate of killings of farmers and rights defenders in Negros)
All over the Philippines, 207 peasants have already been killed as of March 31 since the start of the Duterte administration – 50 of the killings occurred in Negros. Three of the 15 peasant massacres nationwide happened in the island, claiming 29 out of 31 precious farmers’ lives.
People have come to ask, why kill the hands that feed the nation? But another resounding question is why Negros?
In May 2015, the Aquino administration declared the entire island to be governed as one administrative region, called Negros Island Region (NIR). But President Duterte issued an executive order dissolving the NIR in August 2017. The new dispensation does not have the budget for a combined region, Duterte reasoned. What it does have apparently are the resources for increased military deployment in the island which Duterte ordered through Memorandum Order (MO) 32 issued on November 23, 2018. Since then, a total of 220 additional troops of the Philippine Army from Panay island have been dispersed to several battalions in Negros island.
Negros is the country’s sugar bowl. In 2017, the island accounted for 59% of the country’s total sugarcane production and 48% of the total area harvested. Of the 27 operational mills in the country, 12 are in Negros, which produced 63% of the country’s total raw sugar in 2018. But life in the island is bitter – poverty incidence is consistently higher than the national figure. In 2015, national poverty incidence was 16.5% of families, while it was 38.7% in Negros Oriental and 21.9% in Negros Occidental. Negros Oriental had the second highest hunger incidence of 19.5% of families, next to Northern Samar, and is consistently among the eight poorest provinces.
The Duterte government has recently come up with the latest 2018 first semester poverty statistics using ridiculously low poverty lines, but it has failed just the same to sugar-coat the acute poverty situation of Negros.
The dimension of Negros’ poverty is classic – a colonial legacy of relegating a resource-rich island to produce a single crop for export. This has entrenched what may be considered as the most obstinate landlordism in the country as well as the longest running mono cropping – both have caused chronic economic, ecological, and social hardship for the Negrenses.
Almost half (42%) of the island’s total agricultural land is planted to sugarcane. Negros Occidental alone has 62% of its agricultural area devoted solely to sugarcane. Mono cropping is the worst farming system – where only one crop is grown in a tiempo (season) in a large parcel of land. It requires the loss of natural habitats and intensive use of large amounts of water and agro-chemicals, posing severe loss of soil nutrients and other environmental pollution, and in the case of sugarcane, only to cater to the global market. This is why there are tiempos muertos (dead season) when the harvested land, parched and idle, awaits the next export orders, the next cropping season.
Majority, or 85% of the sugar farmers are small farmers cultivating five hectares or less, which comprise three fourths of the farms in the island. But in terms of area, 64% is covered by farms of sizes 10% to above 50 hectares. In terms of ownership, only 14% of landowners own 61% of the sugarlands.
The island accounts for 21% of the land acquisition and distribution (LAD) balance of 602,306 hectares under the three-decades-old Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP). Negros has the second lowest distribution accomplishment rate in the country, next only to the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) land inventory shows that certificate of land ownership awards (CLOAs) both for individual and collective agrarian reform beneficiaries (ARBs) cover 59% of the island’s agricultural land. It doesn’t indicate, however, whether the ARBs have indeed been installed. A Negros Occidental provincial government survey showed in 2008 that 41% of the ARBs were no longer in possession of their land, a figure that jumped to 70% by 2013.
What is clear is that the government has introduced various schemes – corporative, contract growing, leaseback arrangements, stock distribution option (SDO), and block farming – to consolidate the farms to 30-50 hectares and maintain the ‘economy of scale’ for sugarcane production. These schemes have effectively re-concentrated the land to the landlords and dispossessed farmers not only of the resource but also of the decision on what to produce. Eleven of the 13 SDOs are in Negros. As of 2018, 21 of the 26 accredited block farms are in Negros.
Sugar farmers and farm workers including mill workers are among the poorest sections of the Philippine peasantry. Aside from having been dispossessed of land, they receive the lowest wage rates and no benefits while doing back-breaking and hazardous work. Their agrarian struggles are intense, especially in the backdrop of massive landlessness and tiempos muertos, which have culminated in direct actions of land occupation and cultivation for their very survival – called bungkalan by the organized peasantry. Negros farmers have waged the most number of bungkalan in the country. And for the government, the land-owning elite, sugar barons, and the military – bungkalan and the Negros farmers’ struggles are the source of conflict that need to be decimated.