On Negros, Sugar and Famine, Prawns and Hope

Michael F. Scott was formerly overseas director of Oxfam America.

The most remarkable thing about Ramon Nolan, a sugar planter on the island of Negros in the Philippines, is his willingness to share land with his workers.

There are 440,000 landless sugar workers on Negros; 1,000 sugar-cane planters control half the land. If the restive workers aren’t given access to land, a year-round livelihood and minimum food security, as Nolan puts it with a hearty laugh, “The other planters will hang first and then it will be my turn.”

The Philippines’ sugar industry has been fatally wounded by a worldwide price depression. Today the world price for sugar is around eight cents a pound, held there mainly because of protectionist policies of the United States and the European Community. (The United States restricts sugar imports in order to keep the price high for domestic growers; U.S. sugar quotas maintain the domestic price of raw sugar at more than 21 cents a pound.) As a result, Philippines cane production dropped by 30% and planters’ debt jumped to $225 million, putting 80% of the sugar land in hock. At least 190,000 sugar workers lost their jobs, affecting 1 million dependents--half of Negros’ population of 2 million.

Every fifth child on the island under the age of six in 1986 was found to be seriously malnourished. An effective supplementary feeding program headed by the United Nations Childrens Fund has reached as many as 90,000 underfed youngsters a day. Since its inception in November, 1985, the program has helped 33,000 children back to normal health and greatly reduced the number of second- and third-degree malnourishment victims. But without more fundamental changes, feeding programs will be needed far into the future. In this plantation society, sugar production is itself a constant crisis for the vast majority who teeter on the edge of survival even in the best of times. Year-round employment is rare, wages are low and Negros imports most of its staple food.

Nolan is a maverick among planters. For one thing, he gets along with the union to which his workers belong. For another, he has given up the unsavory practice of indebting workers via company-store rice allotments during the long “dead season” of unemployment. Instead, Nolan adjusts work and compensation, creating year-round work.


But it is Nolan’s decision to share land that really sets him apart. Most planters are against any agrarian reform, preferring instead the “Rambo” approach: digging in against change with their private armies. Political violence grows in this and other provinces of the Philippines, banditry is on the rise and the communist-led insurgency is active again after a national truce failed to produce any agreement between the rebels and the government of President Corazon Aguino.

Seeing bleak prospects ahead, a number of planters have proposed a 60-30-10 land-reform program of enfranchisement and diversification. According to the plan, 60% of the land would remain in sugar in the planters’ hands; 30% would be diversified with high-value export crops such as coffee, cacao and pineapples; 10% would be sold to workers for home gardens and contract growing.

One promising diversification prospect is the production of prawns, which some economists believe could replace sugar cane and coconut as the leading exports, given the insatiable Japanese and American markets for the large crustaceans. Planters have begun to shift their capital into the purchase of acres of brackish shoreline and its conversion into fish tanks to produce the high-value prawns. This is large-scale, plantation-style production, with one planter producing prawns on 170 acres and others on plots from 40 to 60 acres. Though productivity is five times lower than in Taiwan, profits are very high, with a reported 42% first-year return on investment.

In contrast to sugar, prawn production is a “sunrise industry,” with major expansion potential. Although the Philippines now ranks as only the world’s 15th-largest producer, it has 500,000 acres of prospective sites, while Taiwan, the leading producer, has only 12,000 acres.

Although prawns are promising for planters, unless sugar workers get in on the act they will remain paupers. Indeed, one young planter told me that employment opportunities amounted to a need for more night watchmen around the prawn ponds. He was both uninterested and unaware that in nearby Indonesia, there is a successful small-scale prawn production project that could be emulated on Negros and economically enfranchise thousands of landless families.

Negros sugar workers themselves have a more generous agrarian-reform plan. It would distribute unplanted sugar lands--currently 40% of the total--to them and allow free use of an additional 20% of the land. This is a food-first approach that gives the landless a chance to grow their own food without having to give part of it to the landlord. The workers’ plan is more realistic than the planters’ 60-30-10 proposal in terms of land required to produce food and livelihood, and it also calls for implementation of the minimum-wage law, a reorientation of the sugar industry around national--not international--priorities and creation of off-farm employment.

While Aquino’s government grapples with the problem of land-reform nationally, workers in places like Negros must clearly play a major role in planning and implementing reform; no viable plan can be made for them by planters or government officials alone. But any reform proposal faces tough opposition from the immobile mind-set of many planters. They show no sign yet of willingness to change a system that amounts to plantation slavery--a heritage of the sugar-cane industry around the world, which has a long history of human bondage.

Aquino, her mandate validated by the recent national plebiscite, must move with dispatch to change their minds.