The Failed Philippine Sugar Industry Where Small Sugar Farmers are the First and Most to Suffer

January 17, 2023

by MASIPAG National Office

The already worse state of the sugar farmers and workers, who are the backbone of the Philippine sugar industry, have now turned to worst as they have once again been left out in the discussion with regards to the on-going sugar crisis. All eyes are instead on big industry players of the local industry seeking stability in profit and retention of the current sugar system production while continuously neglecting its workforce and small sugarcane farmers.

Whether the so-called sugar crisis is a technocratic issue or a political one, the current steps identified by the Marcos Jr. administration and his Department of Agriculture to address it is but a band-aid solution for the poor and the most affected and a reiteration of the exploitative sugar production system bound to encounter much harsher and unrecoverable crises sooner or later.

Importation is never the answer, transforming the current sugar production system and strengthening of local production anchored in genuine rural development is.

In a focus group discussion with small and organic sugar farmers from MASIPAG people’s organization Asosasyon sang Mamumugon kag Mangunguma Sa Lupni (AMMLU) of Negros Occidental, small and organic sugar farmers worry that the on-going sugar crisis would undermine their efforts to forward sustainable and organic production in sugar as the solution is always a band-aid one like importation rather than strengthening local and organic production.

“We see that these big sugar industry players and hacienda owners want to convince us that for us small and organic farmers, the only sensible step now is to either shift to unsustainable corporate mega-farming or give up our lands and sugar farming and convert it outside of agricultural production. They want us to discard the sustainable, organic, and safe way of producing high quality sugar and instead fixate on finding ‘cheaper sugar’ through conventional and chemical sugar farming and/or importation” said one of the farmers during the focus group discussion.

Citing inadequate social and subsidy relief due to the devastating effect of Typhoon Odette, small and organic sugar farmers have yet to fully recover with regards to their immediate needs (food and shelter security) to fully focus on sugar cultivation. For conventional sugar farmers, the consistent increase in prices of fertilizers and inputs, as well as opportunistic middle men who capitalize the crisis, make the sugar farmers desperate to sell their produce under unfair prices.

According to the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA), one of the top issues besetting the sugar industry are fragmented land ownership, lack of improved cane varieties, poor soil quality, inadequate irrigation, labor shortages, low farm mechanization, and inadequate financial capital.

While at surface level, these factors are indeed the incontestable reasons for the sugar-crisis, one can say that these factors are also the necessary prerequisites of what an ideal hacienda and industrial mega farm must look like. Also the necessary prerequisites of what an ideal sugar production under the framework of profit-maximizing yet unsustainable economy at the service of the few.

On the other hand, small organic farmers conducting communal farming fear that their collective sugar farms under Collective Land Ownership (CLOA) might disintegrate should the importation and liberalization of the sugar industry continue.

“Just as what we observed with the Rice Liberalization Law, liberalizing sugar would make the price of the local production plummet. It has been proven that the Rice liberalization law is only for the benefit of the big industry players and not for us small farmers. With this, our organic sugar farms under CLOA might encounter labor force problems as their livelihood from sugar farming will now become unlivable, in return, they might sell or rent it to the landlords who would either convert their agricultural land into real estate or reverse it back to the already costly and unsustainable chemical-based sugar farming” shared by another farmer during the discussion.

Sugar importation, which is the entry point for fully liberalizing the sugar trade, would result in a 6.8% decrease in domestic output according to the recent NEDA simulations. On the other hand, prices will decline up to 11% which will be beneficial to the consumers as prices of sugar in the local market are now as high as Php 100 per kilo.

But there is an inconsistency with the premise for sugar importation in line with the promise of a decline in prices of sugar in the local market in exchange for the “necessary” sacrifice of our local sugar farmers.

According to Manuel Lamata, president of United Sugar Producers Federation (UNIFED), the Philippines had already imported 200,000 metric tons of sugar earlier this year. The imports were distributed to industrial companies instead of being given to local traders as written in Sugar Order No. 3. Hence the impotency of the 200,000 metric tons of imported sugar to at least help the consumers- nevermind the local sugar farmers and its traders.

With this, Sugar Order No. 4 that calls for a further and urgent importation of 300,000 metric ton of sugar are now mired with a manifold of speculations which will all boil down to the question of the sugar importation is “for whom exactly?”. Who is benefitting from the so-called “aid”? Why are the industrial companies who have scored a number of labor violations both to the sugar farmers and workers in the past are benefitting the most in this “urgent” solution?

For the small and local sugar farmers of Negros, the sugar capital of the Philippines, if the 300,000 metric ton of imported sugar is once again largely for the industrial companies, then they are indeed in another typhoon Odette-like disaster. Only this time, it is state sanctioned.

Whether it is a technocratic issue or a political one, the steps identified by the Marcos Jr. administration and his Department of Agriculture to mitigate the sugar crisis is but a band-aid solution for the poor and the most affected and a reiteration of the exploitative sugar production system. While there are immediate problems that indeed need to be addressed, the Marcos Jr. administration must gear itself in crafting pro-farmer and pro-people long-term and sustainable solutions.

If the crisis is indeed an issue of technocracy, then it is most urgent to transform the present sugar industry, which is dominated by the hacienda system and backward technological system, into a farmer-led sugar industry. And if it is indeed a political issue, then it is most urgent for the Philippines to withdraw and withheld from unfair global trade policies such our participation in World Trade Organization (WTO) and the government’s plan to ratify Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) that both strengthens the country’s import-dependent and export-oriented economic nature such as what is happening in our sugar industry- a supposedly thriving industry that should be at the benefit of the Filipino people yet only big foregn companies are benefiting from.

Despite almost virtually no institutional support, sustainable and organic sugar farming being practiced by small sugar farmers all across the country has already proven its holistic resiliency both in the economic and political aspect. Organic sugar farming allows farmers to practice crop diversification that act as their safety net during the dead season or tiempo muerto. In the case of Kauswagan sang Mangunguma kag Mamumugon sang Bino o KASMMABI, another MASIPAG people’s organization in Negros Occidental practicing organic sugar farming, whenever it is tiempo muerto, many of their members who practice crop diversification, many of which are rice farming, offer food support to their fellow farmers who solely work in sugar haciendas and plantations.

In many people’s organizations that practice organic sugar production such as AMMLU and KASMMABI, organic sugar production offers them and their community a fertile ground to once again organize and practice bayanihan especially in their other agricultural practices such as communal rice and vegetable farming. Here, sustainable organic sugar farming demarcates itself from the export oriented, import dependent nature of the current sugar production system, while also demystifying the myths that enforce the need to sustain it in the first place- by proving its economic resiliency backed by meaningful social solidarity.

Moreover, sustainable and organic sugar farming, when institutionally supported and implemented effectively, acts as a catalyst to re-localize our food system and therefore pave the way for a pro-people sugar industry, no longer bowing to the demands of the foreign market that always give us the short end of the stick.

Institutionally supporting the sustainable and organic sugar production being spearheaded by small farmers gives us a shot to reclaim both our land and our food and our overall outlook on how to make our steps in solving this sugar “crisis” inclusive and people-led. If the sugar crisis is indeed a true crisis, let the solution be for the betterment of the masses, specifically our local farmers and consumers- a solution that is a lasting meaningful answer for socioeconomic resiliency and sustainability.

Magsasaka at Siyentipiko para sa Pag-unlad ng Agrikultura or MASIPAG challenges President Marcos Jr. and his Department of Agriculture to implement sustainable long-term solutions to the on-going sugar crisis. We urge the Marcos Jr. administration to heed the call of the Filipino farmers, especially small and resource poor farmers, and not the big sugar industry players, in asserting their right to shape the country’s food and agriculture. The Philippine government must be at the forefront in protecting and supporting our very own agricultural production in order to achieve genuine sustainable development for all.