Ombion: Beyond sugar economy


BECAUSE the monocrop sugar-based system of Negros no longer works normally, no longer sustainable, and much less an important driver to lift the region from the morass of a moribund industry, we need to look and work beyond sugar economy.

This is towards a diversified and modern agricultural economy where basic needs of the people are met without resorting to expensive imports, while local economic surplus is generated for the continuous modernization and development of local agriculture and industries.

Unlike in the 70s and 80s, other Asian countries today are producing highly competitive sugar, Europe is beefing up their own sugar beet production, United States of America (USA) and China are flooding the world market with high fructose corn syrup.

Our annual sugar production is actually enough for our domestic market. Problem is we are importing sugar under Asean free trade agreement, minimum access volume, and illegally imported sugar continue to get through domestic market.

We have now anarchic yet controlled situation where the Philippine government is imposing the imperialist “neoliberal policies” of liberalization, deregulation, and privatization affecting almost all agricultural products including sugar, and on the other hand, the big miller-traders who continue to manipulate the sugar circulation and prices because of their connection with the powers.

All this makes our sugar no longer competitive and beneficial to local growers.

So, Department of Budget and Management chief Benjamin Diokno concluded that sugar is already uncompetitive, and therefore there’s no wisdom in keeping it. Instead, he encouraged the importation of much cheaper and quality sugar and let government earn from such transaction, and the proceeds should help propel our other high value and competitive exports.

Diokno is right on one hand; why insist on an industry which is no longer competitive; transform it into something useful.

More than his argument, the Philippine sugar industry has shown itself time and again to be a parasitic, dilapidated industry. It is born from colonial Philippine-USA trade relations, an industry molded and developed as export-oriented and import-dependent through unfair trade agreements with the USA and other capitalist countries.

Demonstrating the structural weakness of the sugar industry is the two major crisis that struck it. The first was in the mid-1970s to mid-1980s, characterized by its collapse due to the worldwide glut in sugar. The second in the early 1990s and continues to the present, characterized by its struggle to survive the onslaughts of imperialist “neoliberal policies” of liberalization, deregulation, and privatization.

But Diokno is also wrong because sugar industry remains one of the important pillars of our agriculture, and economy in general as it contributes more than $ 1.89 billion to our Gross Domestic Product, and more than 2 million are directly sustained by the industry, growers, sugar farm workers and mill workers, and another 2 to 3 million whose businesses and economic endeavors are also linked to the industry. It can’t just be killed unsparingly.

I reaffirm my analysis and stand that sugar industry stakeholders and the government should no longer stick to sugar economy alone. Current realities demand that it should be fixed to make it competitive and then work beyond it.

As to sugar industry reforms, I think much has already been done since the time of Sugar Regulatory Administration head Regina Martin to put in place the sugar industry road map, a platform that will make it competitive in the face of neoliberal onslaughts.

However, major components are lacking in the road map and should be amended immediately if it would have to work effectively. One, it must amend lots of provisions in the Asian Nations Free Trade Agreement on agriculture and sugar that will not be disadvantageous to Philippine sugar.

Two, it must put forward clear cut legislative, technical, and financial support that the government should give for the industry, including tough measures against illegal sugar smuggling.

Three, there should be more social benefits and welfare program for the farmworkers and mill workers. Wages and benefits must be raised to national standards. The widespread use of piece-rate (pakyaw) and contractual work arrangements must be stopped.

Farm workers who have become agrarian reform beneficiaries, and whether or not they grow sugar, or produce muscovado or other sugar by-products, must be given full support and access to industry services, technical, funds, and social support.

Four, renewable power generated the from mills co-gen program should be extended to electrify farm workers communities who have no access to the grid, and rate must be lower than the one sold by grid or through electric power distributors such as Victorias Rural Electric Service Cooperative, Central Negros Electric Cooperative Inc., and Negros Occidental Electric Cooperative.

As to beyond sugar program, I believe a number of organized sectors have already their own development agenda and models. But for fairness sake and democratic consensus, it would be desirous of us to come together and constructively debate our respective agenda and eventually with open mind and heart come up with a common agenda.

For process sake, I have in mind of getting the two provincial development councils from occidental and oriental to jointly initiate with all the funds and technical support the holding of a development summit, involving representatives from sugarcane growers federations, sugar workers federations, small agricultural producers associations, civil society organizations, green advocates, and the academe.

The summit will be a venue to present all proposals and debate towards the crafting of a comprehensive, holistic, inclusive, and sustainable development agenda. Existing development studies and researches relevant to this could be utilized as reference papers.

Prior to the summit, the two councils can create a Technical Working Group, with representatives from the district board and congressional district, to facilitate the holding of district-level multisectoral consultations. The outputs will be consolidated by the TWG and convenors for presentation to the summit.

Honestly, I am not really optimistic about the practicality of this proposal. I am aware of the odds. But when this is done, despite the hardships inherent in it, it will be a hallmark of a people, a culture, humanity, willing to go beyond selfish agenda, for a common future.

When this is not done in our time, I don’t know when, who, and how the process could ever be initiated.

Still, this is the best opportune time to do it, and make history.

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