KASAMA Vol. 21 No. 2 / April-May-June 2007 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

Philippines Elections 2007:
Negros Occidental — Sugar and Philippine Politics

Glimpses from a troubled region by Lawrence Surendra

LAWRENCE SURENDRAThe votes from the electorate on the island of Negros, being one of the top three provinces with a large population of voters, has played a crucial swing vote for politicians vying for seats in the Philippines Congress and Senate. This is the reason that historically all the famous political families of the Philippines from Macapagal, to Marcos, the Aquinos, the Cojuangcos and now Macapagal’s daughter Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo have all maintained close electoral ties with the elites of Negros and in some cases even blood ties. It is also the home province of Cojuangco, who by the time he fled the Philippines with his political patron Marcos is said to have acquired over 5,000 hectares on Negros. He returned in 1989 and is reportedly now in possession of over 20,000 hectares of the most productive agricultural lands and has a tight grip on the politics on the island of Negros.

Negros, the fourth largest island amongst the Philippine islands, is a beautiful and picturesque island in the Visayas Region of the Philippines, with lovely beaches, rivers, a mountain range cutting through the middle of the island and bountiful in terms of land, fruits and plant bio-diversity. Two ethno-linguistic groups live on either side of the mountain range, with the region on the western side with Bacolod as the main city, called Negros Occidental and the eastern side of the mountains, Negros Oriental.

Negros means sugar in the Philippines. Considered the nation’s ‘sugar bowl’ Negros grows more than half the sugar produced in the Philippines, employing an estimated 556,000 farm and 25,000 sugar mill workers. About 5 million people depend directly or indirectly on the sugar industry which dates back to the Spanish arrival in the 16th Century. The Americans took over the Philippines from the Spanish and made it their colony because of the sugar plantations and this take over of the Philippines was backed by the American sugar lobby, the Sugar Trust. In December 1898 Spain ceded the Philippines to the U.S.A. but it was not until 1901 after a fierce war against Filipino fighters for Independence followed by massacre and genocide that America took control of the Philippines.

Sugar in the Philippines not only has a bloodied history but, as everybody will tell you, it is a ‘political commodity’, supported by protectionist laws as an important export commodity.

The estates, called haciendas, of the thousands of acres owned by sugar landlords, were mostly lands given to families with whom the Spanish rulers had marriage or business ties. Seventeen families with interlocking relations through marriage and extended clans are said to control most of the vast sugar plantations today with more wealth accumulated in the form of hotels and real estate in the cities all acquired through sugar.

As you travel on the ramshackle roads of the province of Negros Occidental, you constantly see huge loads of sugar cane piled on large lorries heading for the sugar mils. Till the 1970s and the very early 80s, when sugar prices in the world market ruled high and sugar was a major export crop, the sugar plantation owners of Negros were very rich and their wealth was legendary. They would fly up in their private planes to the capital Manila for candlelight dinners over the weekends, while the region itself and the majority of its people were very poor. Given the extremes in wealth, Negros was a social volcano. Negros is also known for the Escalante massacre of poor peasants and sugar workers on September 20, 1985 when the landlords ordered their paramilitary goons to open fire on a mobilization gathered in the town plaza.

In the 1980s when global sugar prices crashed, there was a famine causing hunger and death in Negros with scenes not different from that of the famine in Ethiopia. Today the sugar industry has recovered but the sugar workers remain the poorest of the country’s poor. This has also attracted insurgency to the islands. The sugar landlords have steadfastly blocked land reform measures by not only harassing beneficiaries of Land Reform programmes but also by land owning families in government banding together whenever their political and economic hegemony is challenged. Thus blocking all progressive legislation that can free the Philippines economy and make it more efficient and productive.

It is very clear that extreme conditions of poverty, wide disparity in wealth and income, large-scale unemployment and the existence of powerful land owning groups, provided a very disturbing context for the conduct of free and fair elections in Negros Occidental. In one of the rural areas I visited during the elections, children of land reform beneficiaries were not allowed to attend a government-owned school because it is located on the lands of a landlord who opposes land reforms and uses different forms of harassments of the land reform beneficiaries including preventing their children from attending a school in their vicinity. Soon after the elections, this same village saw two farmers killed by private gunmen of the landlords who oppose this group, since they are also in an organized manner, pressing government to implement the land reform act known as the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Programme.

These are the day-to-day conditions in which rural poor communities live. Landowners still use the “vote or gabut” tactic to solicit votes. Threats of forced evictions of many people described as “squatters” were a clear issue in this election. In addition, in many haciendas, the landowners dictate to the farmer-workers whom they should vote for. Polling centers themselves are located in the private property of landlords and are protected by barricades manned by private security guards barring supporters and poll watchers of political opponents.

In one location on Negros Occidental, that I had visited during the elections, due to the way the Election Commission of the Philippines functions and the ambiguity of electoral laws and procedures, which ironically run contrary to constitutional guarantees, close to a thousand first time eligible voters were not allowed to vote. This in spite of a Court order which citing constitutional guarantees and Supreme court rulings, had ruled in their favour and asked that they be included in the voters list, stating in the court order that it would be “far better to err in favor of popular sovereignty than to be right in complex but little understood legalisms in the application of election law.” However, the elite entrenched political system and the election machinery seemed more keen to restrict the franchise than enlarge it in a country (and in a region) which is fighting an insurgency movement and to which young people, disillusioned by the hypocrisy and machinations of elite politics, are naturally attracted.

— Lawrence Surendra

You can view a very moving video commemorating the Escalante Massacre at this YouTube web site address

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