Agricultural workers under the national federation Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (UMA) today said that nothing much has changed since sugar plantations were exempted from land reform during Marcos time, when the late dictator declared his land reform program on the onset of martial law.
“Today the sugar industry is still in the clutches of landlords. This centuries-old set-up is institutionalized by a new law while growing dependent on importations,” said John Milton Lozande, UMA Acting Chairperson
UMA said that, at the same time, the situation of agricultural workers both in the field and sugar mills is getting worse.
During Marcos’ time, only rice and corn lands were covered by the bogus land reform law Presidential Decree (PD) 27. When Cory Aquino came into power, all agricultural lands including those planted to sugar cane would supposedly be distributed.
However, majority of so-called agrarian reform beneficiaries (ARBs) under Cory’s Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) were forced to lease their lands back to financiers and hacienderos. In Negros Occidental, according to Lozande, 80% of ARBs have been forced to lease their lands and were forced to become agricultural workers again.
The new Sugar Industry Development Act (SIDA) of 2015 institutionalized this reconcentration of lands by encouraging the formation of block farms. ARBs would be made to pool their lands together into 30 to 50 hectares of land because the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) says that planting sugar would only be profitable if you have large farms.
This is necessary according to SRA because the country needs to compete with cheaper sugar from Thailand. The lowering of tariffs of imported sugar to just 5% this year is caused by neoliberal policies and imperialist dictates adopted by the government.
“In effect, the P2 billion yearly budget for block farms would be devoured by financiers and hacienderos because most of the lands had already been leased to them by ARBs,” said Lozande.
The country would still import a lot of sugar despite the SIDA. From 2010 – 2014, according to the Bureau of Agricultural Statistics (BAS), the country imported an average of 414,000 tons of sugar and sugar preparations yearly.
Even bioethanol, which the SRA encourages to produce from sugar cane to develop the sugar industry, remain dependent on imports. According to the International Trade Administration of the US government, U.S. ethanol exports to the Philippines have skyrocketed from 12 million liters in 2012 to 256 million liters in 2014. They control 55% of the market.
Based on projections of the OECD and FAO, the Philippines can only attain a production of 294 million liters of ethanol in 2024 but needs to import 442 million liters by that time. From 2012-2014, the country only averaged producing 191 million liters but imported 328 million liters yearly.
“These figures do not include those for smuggled sugar entering Philippine markets through shameless characters like Virgie Torres. This is allegedly worth P25 billion during the first 5 years of President Aquino’s term,” said Lozande.
However, the situation of the agricultural workers both in the field and mills remain dire. In Negros Occidental where more than 50% of sugar is produced, plantation workers, on the average, receive measly wages of P500 to P750 a week, all year round. On the other hand, most mill workers have become contractual workers.
Lozande stated that “Clearly past land reform laws, starting from Marcos up to the two Aquinos, are all bogus. There should be a genuine agrarian reform law that should be enacted to ensure the true liberation of the farmers from feudal oppression.”
There are agricultural workers and farmers who are already asserting their rights to the lands in Negros and even in Hacienda Luisita through their land cultivation initiative or bungkalan. Agricultural workers continue to assert their right for higher wages and benefits, genuine agrarian reform and national industrialization.
“Agricultural workers will continue to unite, organize and join upcoming people’s protests against the government’s neoliberal policies,” ended Lozande.