On democratization of relations in the context of Philippine agriculture: the case of Negros

The Negros Island Region (NIR) has among the highest incidence of poverty in the country. Negros Oriental has the higher rate at 50.1% of it’s population. How is this?

Negros Island Region

Majority of the population rely on agricultural activities. Sugarcane, particularly. And therein lies the contrariness: while NIR is among the top exporters of sugarcane in South East Asia, the US market at the top of the demand list, the laborers in the plantations are among the worst paid, and as a result with less than decent lives.

What’s happening in the plantations is that: Through a system known locally as ‘pakyawan‘ (rough translation: contractualization), tenant-laborers agree to their landlord’s offer to, say, weed a given hectare for, say, a total of PHP1,500.00 a day. In turn, these laborers call on their neighbors who are also piece-meal workers to join them. With so many more persons working the field, the task is completed in a day. The landlord gives then PHP1,500.00 as agreed. This amount is distributed among, say, a total of 70 laborers. Each receives more or less PHP20.00 for the work.

Another: Tenants cannot use any part of the land e.g. to put up vegetable gardens on which they could grow food for their families without the consent of their landlords. This also applies to sanitation facilities such as toilets.

The Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR), under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP), has awarded lands, ranging from 2 to 5 hectares, to families. Hooray, right? But, no. The first thing the families did with the properties dumped onto their hands was to pawn them. It’s common sense, really. How would families who have been living on PHP20.00/day make profitable use of 2 to 5 hectares of land? Without financial capital, ownership of land becomes an encumbrance.

The Reds i.e. New People’s Army (NPA) have significant presence in the region because of the situation. But, scaring people off has not also made significant change to the landscape. In fact, it has added to the stresses of living in that region. Locals may appear accepting and nonchalant about it but such is more a manifestation of helplessness, anger, and frustration imploding inside them which over time impacts on their psyches.

Depressing, not because of the poverty per se but rather (1) landlords (hacienderos since the Spanish time and newer owners, the corporations) have not progressed in the way they manage labor and capital, (2) other stakeholders e.g. civil society, the private sector, the Church especially the Catholic Church also appear to be accepting of the situation like it’s normal, and (3) macro and micro socioeconomic policies have not made significant dents in pulling peasant families out of poverty.

On (1), how do ISO-compliant corporations or a haciendero with an MBA from a prestigious university abroad manage labor like theyr’re dealing with a colony of rats? How do you reconcile this inconsistency?

On (2), the Catholic Church dedicated 2015 as the Year of the Poor. But, and I wonder, to what extent have prayers brought the poor out of poverty? I don’t pray for the poor i.e. kneeling in church asking God to have mercy on the poor. To ask God to have mercy on the poor is to be redundant. God has always been merciful especially to the poor. To ask that heaven does something for the poor is again tempting God to turn stone into bread. I don’t dare ask God ‘why’ there’s massive and continuing poverty. It leads to finger-pointing which leads to discouragement and then hatred which is where I don’t want to go. I’m not also sure of the reasoning behind dedicating the poor to God. This is like making fun of God. Every one is dedicated to God to begin with. Besides the answer is already a given.

We are the answer. What we need to do is do. Do the right thing. Do things right. Go the extra mile. Integrate the poor in our plans. Especially for the Church administrators, to be on fire for the poor. This is the effective prayer for the poor.

As to civil society, the challenge is similar. Organizations i.e. I/NGOs avoid rocking the boat (well, sometimes this is the best) because such will pose a bad image on their donors. Hence in the end organized civil society is not actually accountable to third world beneficiaries and their issues but rather to first world donors and their demands. Just recently, with a couple of colleagues we asked ourselves whether or not what we each personally give up and gain  individually are worth it- acquiring semi-permanent sunburn going around godforsaken places, getting more ill as a result of trying to make both worlds meet i.e. policies and processes of the organization vis-a-vis politics and needs in the communities, developing anxiety over personal security (e.g. a colleague told me about his staff being traumatized after he was literally caught in the crossfire between MNLF and the army and needed to be pulled out of the field for some time. To ease the tension surrounding the situation, the other staff humored him that he wouldn’t have died because he’s masamang damo (a badass)), etcetera.

Are development workers also making a dent somehow? This class of workers are among the most frustrated but are also the most adaptable and optimistic. There are more times when nothing turns out to expectation because many times communities act out of self interest (another lesson learned) which disrupts the collective or communal spirit of programs. We talked about self interest and one shared that this happens even between married couples who’ve professed eternal love and who are not poor. True. Poverty is just among the many struggles of humanity.

Still with civil society, local volunteerism is not that developed, both with the demand and supply side. In NIR, there are I/NGO programs to expand families’ incomes via livelihoods, savings programs, and of course basic education. CSR trend of late has been tree planting – those Instagrammable smiles after planting a seedling – but perhaps corporations could do more than that. The I/NGOs need all the hands they can get to keep programs going: teachers, trainers, animators, etc. Like with travel, a few days living and relating with their kababayan in “another world” will do Filipinos so much good. I/NGOs in turn need to step up their standards and policies in volunteer management.

Finally, on (3), the micro and macro socioeconomic policies. Among the 8-point economic agenda of President Duterte’s administration,

Provide support services to small farmers to increase productivity and improve market access. Provide irrigation and better support services to farmers. Promote tourism in the rural areas.

Accelerate spending on infrastructure by addressing major bottlenecks, and maintain the target of setting aside 5% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) to infrastructure spending.

For so long, poverty reduction strategies have been targeting the poor directly e.g. skill training after skill training (soap making, candle making, jewelry making, sari-sari (neighborhood) store management, etcetera) in the belief that everyone who’s trained will make it. The lesson is, for significant change to happen rules need to be put in place to support capacity building. It is good that in the current national agenda, this is articulated: support to creation of/investors in new markets, integration of the poor into value chains which should include, among others, access of financial capital especially by the entrepreneurial poor, young and old alike, and infrastructure development.

Equally critical is the reform of policies in land and labor management especially that which impact on peasant farmers. The Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) has plans to review and address unfair contractualization practices of corporations. This needs to include the agricultural sector which has long utilized the scheme. The younger hacienderos with MBAs abroad should introduce and employ management styles and practices worthy of their degrees.

Others: reforms to introduce competition in monopolistic markets; protection of local agriculture from corporations and the impact of international trade; regional investments in innovation, creativity and technology; adult education that deliver learning starting at where they are (versus taking them out of their farms into classrooms and there spew theories and such at them).

The goal is to re-configure relations within Philippine agriculture into a more democratic, egalitarian, and inclusive relationship between employer and worker, producer and consumer, donor and recipient, farmer and capitalist. Impossible one might argue. Therein lies the answer too. Poverty won’t go away as long as we continue to refuse a more democratic, equal, and inclusive relationship with the poor.


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