ABOUT 6,000 people joined the rally of multi-sectoral groups in front of the Coca-Cola bottling plant at Barangay Mansilingan in Bacolod City Monday morning to call for the boycott of the beverage giant, which reportedly uses high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as sweetener in its products.
As this developed, the Negros Occidental Provincial Government also announced the banning of Coke during the annual Panaad sa Negros Festival next month.
Negros Occidental, known as the Philippines’ sugar capital, produces about 60 percent of the country’s sugar output.
Governor Alfredo Marañon Jr., who had expressed support to the sugar industry leaders, has prohibited the sponsorship and sale of Coke products during the festival, said United Sugar Producers Federation of the Philippines (Unifed) president Manuel Lamata during a press conference at the National Federation of Sugarcane Planters (NFSP) office Monday after the anti-HFCS protest rally.
Marañon, according to Lamata, will recommend the move to the Sangguniang Panlalawigan led by Vice Governor Eugenio Jose Lacson, who also joined the anti-HFCS rally, for swift action.
The vice governor, who echoed the sentiment, assured the stakeholders that he would push for its passage at the Provincial Board.
The protest at the Coke plant Monday, which started 8 a.m. and ended at 11 a.m., caused heavy traffic for more than three hours.
Motorists and commuters traversing the area were stranded for hours as the rallyists occupied the four-lane road.
It also took some time for an ambulance to pass through the thick crowd.
The management of Coke positioned a number of guards to man the plant’s perimeter fence which had flyers with a message: “Company Property.”
"Killing the industry"
Local officials and speakers from planters and labor groups reiterated that the unabated entry of HFCS in the country is killing the sugar industry, and affect the livelihood of farmers and the workers.
During the rally, Pontevedra Mayor Jose Benito Alonso, president of League of Municipalities of the Philippines in Negros Occidental, read the message of Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri.
Zubiri, in a message, said that he, along with Senators Cynthia Villar and Richard Gordon and their other colleagues, promised to fasttrack the proposed Senate inquiry on the impact of HFCS to the sugar industry.
He said more than five million Filipinos are dependent on the industry.
“We will not allow these foreign companies to crush their livelihood. This is the lifeblood of Negros that accounts for more than 60 percent of our sugar produce in this country and the unabated entry of HFCS will lead to the demise of the industry that we have grown to love and vow to protect,” the senator’s message stated.
Zubiri also condemned Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol for his statement that the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) should suspend the implementation of the sugar order regulating the importation of HFCS.
“I would like to remind Secretary Piñol to revisit his mandate and protect the agriculture sector and the small farmers instead of taking the side of foreign interests,” he said.
Jaime Golez, NFSP vice president for Western Visayas and president of the Association of Productive Planters of Negros Occidental, said that a Coke importation of 300,000 metric tons of HFCS already constitutes about 20 percent of domestic sugar, and will cause sugar prices to drop.
“Kon ako gani, indi lang dapat regulation, indi na gid sila pagpasudla kay ginahalitan kita nila (For me, it should not only be regulated. They should be banned because it’s affecting us all),” Golez said, adding that the solution is to boycott the products of the beverage firm.
“I can only speak for myself. Indi na ko ya mag-inom inom Coke. Indi kita magtugot nga ang Coke ibaligya pa sa amon asosasyon. That is the only way nga magdaog kita. (I can only speak for myself, I will not drink Coke anymore. We won’t allow that Coke will be sold in our association. That is the only way we will win),” Golez told the crowd.
To cap the protest, the rallyists torched the 20-foot effigy of a softdrinks bottle with a caricature of Piñol on top.
The rally on Monday coincided with the hearing on the petition for injunction filed by Coca-Cola Femsa Philippines before the Quezon City Regional Trial Court Branch 98. The court had denied the petition of the beverage firm for the issuance of a temporary restraining order (TRO) against the sugar order regulating the importation of HFCS.
SRA chief Anna Rosario Paner confirmed Monday that the hearing has been rescheduled to March 28.
“Coke requested for the resetting due to unavailability of witness,” she said.
All interventions by the four planters groups on the Coke case were denied by the court, said NFSP president Enrique Rojas.
He also said they are seeking a dialogue with Piñol to clarify everything.
Rojas added they will call on restaurant owners to stop using Coke products.
Confederation of Sugar Producers Association Inc. (Confed) president Francis de la Rama said that Negrenses should unite to win the fight against the beverage giant.
“If we work together and boycott them, I don't see any reason that they will win,” he added.
Panay Federation of Sugarcane Farmers Inc. president Danilo Abelita said they will launch an information campaign to educate the public about HFCS and its effects.
“This is also to show that the alliance in the sugar industry is united,” he added.
Lamata said they will bring the fight in Manila, adding that they will hold a rally at the Coke headquarters and at the Department of Agriculture central office soon.
He said the sugar industry will not take this lying down, adding that it will be a long fight, and that they “will not lose the fight.”