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Sugarland Calling

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Negros is an island shaped—literally and figuratively—by sugar, one of the country’s most economically, historically, and culturally significant crops.

Photography by
Story by
Miguel Nacianceno
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Our early morning ride from the Bacolod-Silay airport to Don Salvador Benedicto was swift, made scenic by long stretches of road flanked by fields planted with sugarcane as far as the eye can see. At this time of the year, the cane has already grown high as a man, and it stands strong and thick. Harvest is still months away, and so there is a stillness in the fields. Not much to be done yet, but once the time arrives, the harvest will feel like it will never end.

The sugarcane, a tall perennial true grass of the genus Saccharum, is quite hardy. It grows on almost any soil—but it thrives particularly on Negros Occidental’s vast tracts of arable land, featuring sandy loam. The soil here does have specific characteristics that pose certain challenges—the drainage is quite poor, for one thing. More importantly, keeping the soil rich is not very easy: Because sugarcane occupies the plots for nearly a year, it precludes the possibility of planting anything else in rotation. “Green manuring”— the use of certain plants to enrich the soil—isn’t possible, so fertilizers are used extensively here, making up about 40 percent of production cost. It’s a sizable dent in small farmers’ pockets, and it certainly makes one wonder about its long-term effects on the soil.

“My father used to tell me planting sugar has a seven-year cycle: You’ll have one year where you’ll have a bad crop year, one year where you’ll get hit by a typhoon, or maybe one year where the prices suddenly dip,” recounts the narrator in Jay Abello’s documentary Pureza: The Story of Negros Sugar. “And the rest of the years... you’ll make money.”

From the mid-19th century to the 1970s, sugar was among the most important agricultural products exported by the country. In the 1950s and ‘60s, it accounted for more than 20 percent of the country’s exports; by 1980, Negros already accounted for two-thirds of the country’s sugar production, and it remains the largest sugar producer in the Philippines, with over half of its land devoted to sugarcane. Out of the 29 sugar mill districts in the country, 13 are found here—two in Negros Oriental and 11 in Negros Occidental.

Negros’ lifeblood is still very much sugar. It runs slow, but the returns remain sweet (in 2017, the wholesale price of a 50 kg sack of refined sugar was posted at Php 2,300 by the Sugar Regulatory Administration, a slight dip from the same time year previous), at least if you’re on the right side of the business.

David and Boyet Uychiat
David and Boyet Uychiat


Because sugar is so much a part of the life of the land and its people, the cycle of planting and harvest still heavily influences the pace of the island, particularly its capital, Bacolod City. There is a slowness to life here, which, coupled with the charming, almost insolent pride of its inhabitants, sets Negros apart. Even as a modern-day outsider, driving through the streets and seeing the splendor of the past still firmly in step with the present, I find it hard to look away. It is, after all, home to a number of the richest, most landed families in the country—hacienderos, whose mansions and sugar mills solidly punctuate the lay of the land, and whose names, to this day, conjure awe and respect.

The haciendas are what distinguish sugar from all the other crops grown in the country. Because most sugar plantations are still large haciendas—25 hectares or larger—there is little room for small, independent farms. For centuries, the profits from sugar has filled the coffers of these hacienderos; their fortunes fed by the vast tracts of land that grow endless rows of sugarcane, generation after generation. Ownership often goes back to Hispanic times, when the Spanish rulers gave over thousands of hectares to families with whom they shared familial or business ties, while the plantation workers tend to the fields. And because nearly all the work is done by hand, the tonnes of sugar produced rely on a large labor contingent. Come during the harvest, and you’ll find migrant laborers, called “sakada,” under the hot sun, swinging their heavy machetes and lifting loads of harvested cane, all while wearing multiple layers of protective clothing in the suffocating heat.

Cutting sugarcane is a nasty job. It would’ve perhaps been bearable with fair compensation, but a quick glance at the history of this industry shows that that has rarely been the case. This is the dark side of the sugar industry in the Philippines. While this cash crop has made fortunes for generations of hacienderos, it has also kept generations of farmers poor. Under the pakyaw system that has been in place for almost as far back as there have been haciendas, groups of sugar workers are given the task to plant, weed, harvest, and haul sugarcane for a price contracted by the land owner.

There is no security in this: no definite schedule, no regulated amount of pay, no benefits. The workers are left to devise their own time and methods, splitting the contracted price among themselves.

Sugar remains the lifeblood of the island, and it probably will for generations more to come.

Essentially, the work is harder and more irregular, and the pay dismal. Workers’ rights organizations and farmworkers’ unions have accused hacienderos and arrendadors of violating minimum wage laws, even as they continue to perpetuate the oppressive pakyaw system. (A 1990 survey by the governor, for example, found that only one-third were paying the minimum wage.)

The extreme poverty of the workers provides a stark contrast against the riches of the landowners—a point that Pureza makes again and again, to great effect, showing vintage photos of lavish parties along with footage of poverty-stricken workers toiling in the fields. “It’s no question that sugar farming is hard work. It’s no question that offloading that sugar under the hot sun is hard work,” says one of the documentary’s interviewees. “But if you pay well, what’s wrong with it? We’re capitalists—there’s no argument. But the problem is, not all pay well.”

Truck with the official Negros Occidental seal
A farmer holds out coffee beans
A raft of ducks feeding
Grains of rice


Furthermore, the fact that the farmers are so dependent on the sugar crop means that they are beholden to its season. During the “tiempo muerto”—the dead season—between planting and harvest, thousands of farm workers and their families are left without any income. “Tiempo muerto... spells extreme hunger and bitter suffering,” warned the Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (UMA) during this year’s protests in Bacolod, where farm workers marched to demand government aid.

This dependency on one crop for income has already proven to be a weak point for the island as a whole. In the early 1980s, the industry found itself in crisis when prices worldwide started to bottom out, leading to a crash by 1985. In the Philippines, sugar production dropped by 30 percent; in Negros, where there were an estimated 440,000 landless farmers working for just around a thousand plantation owners, this meant that 190,000 workers suddenly found themselves out of work and without any source of income. Counting the workers’ dependents, up to 1 million people in Negros—half of its total population—were affected.

This was perhaps the darkest time in the province’s modern history: By 1986, one in every five children under the age of six was found to be seriously malnourished. Photos of famine-stricken families started to appear in the news, along with horror stories of starvation and preventable disease killing off thousands of people in Negros.

Sugar could not be the lone crop that everyone depended on. They didn’t need a way out, but a way through.

One particular photo—a small child grown so thin that he looked like an old man, his eyes full of pain and his mouth pulled back in a grimace, his head lolling back as his thin neck could no longer hold the weight—stood for all the suffering that Negros endured that year. His ghost still haunts the land of sugar; nobody who has lived through that dark chapter will ever forget that face; nobody wants to see the children of Negros suffer in the same way ever again.


THE LAND IS REBORN

The Negros of today seems to have left all that behind, going by the apparent prosperity of the land. But the hard-won lessons have been learned, and so there are individuals who have taken up the cudgels for this single-crop problem, and have been working quietly to diversify. Now, decades after the famine, there is a slow but significant shift in the island: Sugar might still be king, but organic farming has gained solid footing here, breathing new life into the land and encouraging the  next generation to adapt new practices that will be beneficial for all.

Currently, Negros is the only organic province in the Philippines. As of 2015, the province had already exceeded its initial goal of converting 10,000 hectares to organic farming by 50 percent; that means that by now, four percent of its 221,000 sq.m. of land is devoted to organic farming practices. To put those numbers in perspective, the Philippines—ranking fourth in Asia as an organic vegetable producer—has about 108,000 hectares devoted to organic farming. Negros alone makes for 13 percent of that.

Dr. Albert Jo, founder of Rapha Valley
Shrimp and saba banana served on a bamboo plate
Dr. Albert Jo, founder of Rapha Valley;

This doesn’t come as much of a surprise; Negros has been a champion of organic farming for a while now. During the sugar crisis of the ‘80s, NGOs and civic-minded farmers had already been advocating for it, though it was in 2005 that the local government made it an official endeavor: Negros was to be an “organic island.”

Growing healthier produce—that commands a higher price—has proven to be an uphill battle in this food-centric island. This corner of the country is famous for its rich cuisine, and is considered home for some of the country’s greatest chefs. Food is a driving force.

Rapha Valley is a health farm-resort in Brgy. Kumaliskis, Don Salvador Benedicto—known as the summer capital of Negros Occidental—that’s been patiently eking out a curious niche in the Negrense culinary landscape for a few years now. People from all over have found their way to it in their quest for good health. Heading this enterprise is Dr. Albert Jo, a firm believer in the healing power of a natural diet. People from all over have come for a stay, and to eat their dishes, most of which are plant-based.

“No meat, but we serve certain types of fish. Our menu revolves around what’s freshly grown from the garden,” begins Doc Jo. My stomach, which had been looking forward to a crazy, no-holds barred Negrense feast, gave a little lurch. But after a quick scan of their menu, we brightened up considerably. “We cook around what’s available in the farm, so nothing is wasted. This is how our menu was designed.”

Their menu, a mix of Western and Filipino influences, is produce-driven and hearty. Offerings included noodles with kadios, mushrooms, and moringa leaves. Banana heart with vegetables and coconut cream. Black rice flour with tofu cheese. It was local food, with a healthier treatment. I could get behind that. We started our meal with some sticky black rice puto and vegan dinuguan, and never looked back.

Rice meal with meat


Rapha Valley, all 7.5 hectares of it, is devoted to teaching people about a healthier and more conscious way of living. There are plots of fresh herbs, vegetables, different fruit trees, and vines growing wild all over. Doc Jo walked us around the grounds, pausing once in a while to snap off a leaf or a bud, asking us to nibble at it. In the past few weeks, they’ve had Japanese guests, a family from Manila, and were expecting a group from the Philippine Neurological Society in the days to follow.

Decades after the famine, there is a slow but significant shift in the island: Sugar might still be king, but organic farming has gained solid footing here, breathing new life into the land.

Visitors from Bacolod are few and far in between; it’s been a big challenge to change their minds. To be fair, it’s a tough sell: The traditional food is absolutely delicious and the Negrense people’s love for it is fierce. A group who visited called the meals “pagkain ng kambing,” and claimed to want to head for the nearest drive-through after. But there is no giving up. It has been an uphill battle for Doc Jo, and any progress is encouraging.

“The dream would be for people to come while they’re healthy. Detoxification while you’re sick makes your body weaker. But while in good health, and when done gradually, it’s better and more beneficial. Fight while your body is still in good form.”

With his beautiful spot in the mountains, and armed with his evolving menu, Doc Jo hopes that Rapha Valley eventually gets more embraced by locals over time. For now, anyone who’s willing to  take the time to slow down and consume more consciously is very much welcome.

Sugarcane field by Mount Kanlaon
A road flanked by cane crops on the foothills of Mount Kanlaon.


GROWING SHADE

At the foot of Mount Kanlaon, you’ll find Barangay Sag-Ang, part of the rural seaside town that is La Castellana. Here, sixth generation organic coffee farmers are working to get more people to try their coffee, which has been certified organic since 1998. They grow robusta and a little arabica. The robusta trees are starting to bear fruit, but harvest will come into full swing October to December. The coffee here is called rainforest coffee, grown in the shade of dipterocarp trees that thrive on Kanlaon’s volcanic soil.

“The shade has a different taste. The temperature is optimal, more controlled, and slower to ripen. The ripening process is very gradual, as it’s in a cool area,” explains Vic Labrador, chairman of the local coffee growers association, as we sit down to very strong cups of coffee (liberally sugared, of course).

Prior to the 1970s, this area was devoted to coffee. Major buyers pulled out as coffee prices took a tumble worldwide, starting a major conversion of crops to sugar. Some farmers started working at the hacienda as sakadas, so their own coffee trees were left untended and abandoned. A few others stayed put, choosing to keep with their coffee production; it’s been the same families growing coffee ever since.

Today, most of the farmers are on the older side: the eldest is 86 (“Malakas pa siya!” interjects John, one of the coffee farmers); the youngest, about 18. Younger generations are mostly leaving for work elsewhere, and the farms are left behind. “But most eventually come back after marrying. They pick up where they left off,” says Vic hopefully.

These farmers are looking to keep growing coffee, but more than that, with the help of the local government they are working hard to improve their product. Equipment is coming in, Vic reports, which will help them refine their processes and come up with better coffee. “We were advised to plant two more varieties, so we’d have a total of four, and come up with our own blend.”

Black rice from Boyet Uychiat's farm
Manong John and Manong Vic Labrador, organic coffee farmers from La Castellana

Black rice from Boyet Uychiat's farm; Manong John and Manong Vic Labrador, organic coffee farmers from La Castellana.

Since coffee, like sugar, is only harvested once a year, they are also easing into the practice of adding other crops, to supplement their income. “Importante sa amin mag multi-cropping, para dagdag sa kita. Nagpapatubo kami ng organic na bananas, at ginger beside our coffee trees.”

Organic coffee, and today’s growing number of farmers who grow organic produce (besides conventionally grown sugarcane) is the result of years of groundwork by people like Edgard “Boyet” Uychiat, conservationist and president of the Negros Island Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development (NISARD). Since 2005, they have been working to unify the efforts of NGOs and smallholder farmers, working towards more sustainable agricultural systems and rural development. Sugar could not be the lone crop that everyone depended on. They didn’t need a way out, but a way through—and diversifying crops was the answer to surviving the seasons in between harvest.

“Sugar has a season where you have no work, a dead season. There’s no work for three to four months. So people are stuck doing nothing, and they depend on you for rice while they are waiting for the next crop,” Boyet says. His farms, we’d soon find, were dynamic in experimenting with various farming methods. Some land was being readied to grow cacao, which he’s encouraging small farmers to cultivate. “If we transition to cacao. It will keep them working for a whole year. You harvest cacao every month. The cacao will be intercropped with saba bananas, another high-value crop,” he says. “It’s exciting for us, as it’s a new crop. Great for the new farmers.”

Boyet’s farms also produce heirloom varieties of rice indigenous to Negros, like tapol, a black rice variety prized for its texture and consistency, and azucena, said to be one of the most fragrant and aromatic varieties, only harvested once a year. The organic black rice crops are surrounded by conventionally grown crops, but are surrounded by madre de cacao as a buffer. In the center of the fields is a filter pond, filled with aquatic plants that cleanse the water before it reaches the rice fields.

We drive over to another property that belongs to the Uychiats, in Barangay Ma-ao, Bago City. It’s a huge piece of land, around 66 hectares, where the remains of a mansion and sugar plantation lie. David’s maternal great-grandmother, back in the day, had hired Japanese gardeners who turned out to be spies. During the Second World War, the mansion was turned into Japanese headquarters, and once the war ended, eventually burned down. A large part of the property grows wild. A creek runs through it. On the other side, a second regrowth forest that had recovered in the decades after the war. Tall trees, vines thick as a man’s arm wound their way around the pillars and the crumbled remnants of a refinery.

The smaller part that was slightly groomed looked to be allocated for the cultivation of organic ducks, lamb, and chickens for his family’s consumption. We were led to a clearing where lunch was prepared using produce from their farms: roast duck, slices of tender baked lamb, boiled yams and cassava, fresh vegetables in clear broth, and black rice.

Organic farmers and farmhands on the Uychiat farm
Organic farmers and farmhands on the Uychiat farm.


They took the effort to raise their own food because they had found it difficult to find good produce, and the effort looks to have paid off. And he hopes to do the same for other farmers, especially the smaller ones. “It took us ten years of advocacy to get where we are now,” Boyet says. In 2005, the late Joseph Marañon, then governor of Negros Occidental, and George Arnaiz, governor of Negros Oriental, signed a memorandum of agreement for the organic movement. The ultimate goal, says Boyet, is to make the Negros the organic bowl of Southeast Asia. “For Negros to be 100 percent organic is our dream. We’re thinking of achieving 100,000 hectares in the ten years.”

Besides the economic gains for the farmers, organic farming is a way of breathing life back into the soil that’s been pummeled by conventional farming for decades. “With conventional farming, there is low organic matter in the soil, and the ground becomes hard. There isn’t enough time to grow anything on the land to feed it.”

Furthermore, the value it adds to famers’ lives is immeasurable. “The health of the farmers has improved, and they spend less on medical expenses. They are able to send their children to school. You take care of the soil, it takes care of you,” continues Boyet. “Organic farming is really an investment.” Organic farmers are spending a lot of money to earn their organic certifications—it’s one of the reasons NISARD was founded, he adds: “We give out the certifications for the farmers so they can sell their produce to the best markets available for them.”

Boyet still grows sugarcane, of course. “Sugarcane allows me time to do the things that I do. I can do cacao, and go around the farms and fix the value chain. I can help rice farmers as well. It’s why we have more time for our work for Danjugan [Island, devoted to conservation]. It affords us time to do the things we love.”

In Pureza, the narrator—himself from a family of hacienderos—delivers this indictment of the sugar industry: “Good or bad year, most hacienderos refuse to adjust. After all, he was born privileged. For generations, he has led the most comfortable of lifestyles—this is the culture of the haciendero.” It’s true that change remains foreign in many places in Negros; but nowhere is immune to change. Sugar remains the lifeblood of the island, and it probably will for generations more to come. But already things are changing, thanks to the hard-won lessons from the past.

A tractor for breaking cut sugarcane
A tractor for breaking cut sugarcane

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This story was originally published in GRID Issue 15.