OUR Negros Island has been devoted to sugarcane production since the early 18th century.
Sugar industry contributes more than $1.89 billion to our Gross Domestic Product, and more than two million are directly sustained by the industry and another two to three million whose businesses and economic endeavors are also linked to the industry.
Other agricultural productions include rice, corn, vegetables, banana, and other fruits, livestock, and poultry.
Still, these are not enough for domestic consumption as food imports from other regions and countries continue to fill up huge gaps.
Fishing is likewise a big industry in the region as it has 15 cities and 26 municipalities located along the coast. However, only half of the production goes to the domestic market as big local fish traders control the domestic production and market them to big cities and export abroad.
The local mineral deposits also abound with copper deposits estimated at 620 million metric tons and gold reserves estimated at 35 million metric tons. Silver and molybdenum deposits are also abundant as well as non-metallic minerals suitable for agricultural and industrial uses. Yet, we don’t get the substantive and healthy returns to have the foreign investors mine our fields and mountains.
Still, after more than a century, Negros region remains a monocrop sugar-based economy, backward, import-dependent, export-oriented, flooded with supermalls and convenience stores feeding us unsafe (no traceability), genetically modified organism foods; worse, most of its population suffering poverty and hunger.
Conditions are fast changing. Sugar is no longer sustainable, and much less an important driver, to lift the region from the morass of a moribund industry. Unlike in the 1970s and 1980s, other Asian countries today are producing highly competitive sugar. Europe is beefing up their own sugar beet production. USA and China are flooding the world market with high fructose corn syrup.
The Asean economic integration under the neoliberal Free Trade Agreements under the baton of the World Trade Organization are fanning this new tide of peril. Within three years, the Afta will remove all the tariffs and non-tariff barriers on numerous imported industrial and agricultural products including sugar.
Domestic sugar production will be rendered uncompetitive to much cheaper and better quality imported sugar, liquid sweeteners, and beet sugar from neighboring Asian countries and the European Union (EU).
The new EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) strengthens the protectionism of EU member countries that will make it more difficult specifically for Asean countries to enter EU market as the EU strengthen its trade ties with its client countries in Central and South Americas, Africa and the Carribean.
With its well-subsidized beet sugar production, EU will soon flood Asean markets with its own sugar, as it also targets to be the lead sugar exporter into the world market.
Negros is also within the perimeter of the so-called Factory Asia wherein multinational corporations (MNCs) have been exerting greater efforts to expand their production networks.
In their search for new markets and desire to cut operating costs, they have broken down their procurement, production, distribution, and sales processes and relocated these in various Asean countries including the Philippines.
Negros, in particular, is on the top list of regions in the Philippines where MNCs have high preference locations for their labor-intensive and highly polluting resource extraction like mining and geothermal plants; commercial farm plantations and assembly of products because of the cheap labor, abundant natural resources especially sun, water and wind; corporate-friendly environment; loose regulatory sanctions regarding labor and environmental standards; and lesser impact of climate change.
Taking the lead are few known multinational corporations whose plantation farms in Negros are steadily expanding; alongside them are a number of mining and geothermal explorations by big businesses with foreign partners in the remaining frontier ecosystems of the island like in Mt. Kanlaon National Park, North Negros Forest Reserves, and the Damutan Valley and the forest reserve between the southern part of Oriental and Occidental Negros.
Furthering their hold on the Negros economy is their control of the food system. Supermarkets, convenience stores, and seed centers owned by MNCs and Filipino-US corporations are proliferating in cities and district centers, killing small shops and businesses, and worse, slowly transforming our consumers’ food culture and values and fostering consumerism and colonial mindset.
So what do we have? Negros is being groomed into a huge production base and the single market, and in the process, agriculture, trade, and services are being deregulated, liberalized, and privatized to make it competitive and consolidate the corporate power and control.
Land and other resource grabs are projected to increase due to block farm system, liberalization of investments, as most of our national laws and local policies are made to accommodate both domestic big business and foreign investors. Projects in agriculture, mining, energy, and even tourism are designed to attract tourists and investors.
In this context, I see no other better way than to look and work for a paradigm beyond sugar economy towards a diversified and modern agricultural economy where basic needs of the people are met without resorting to expensive imports while the local economic surplus is generated for the continuous modernization and development of local agriculture and industries.
For me, the appropriate platform is the paradigm of food sovereignty, where production and consumption are inclusive and sustainable, our government, the farmers and workers control what need and have to produce, and people have access to cheaper and safe food anytime and anywhere.
It is different from government policy that so long as we can import to ensure food sufficiency, or allow foreigners to control and develop our rich agricultural lands, then it is alright.
Not only that our agriculture is ravaged and plundered, but we also become more indebted to multinationals and multilateral fund institutions, and our trade deficit keep on rising because we pay dollars for imports and peso for exports.
Am I just dreaming about this? Maybe, for now but I see inspiration and hope in seeing growing initiatives towards this paradigm.
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