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Sugar Cane

May, 2003

Loading the cane.
1. Loading the cane
Filling the truck.
2. Filling the truck
Locomotive photo.
3. Steam locomotive
Plowing the field.
4. Plowing the field
Jamie in the cane field.
5. Jamie

Sugar cane is the largest cash crop of Negros Island. It was once grown for export, but the export market dried up in the 1970's as the countries of Europe and the US grew more and more sugar beets to supply their own needs. Today, Negros sugar is sold only within the Philippines. The sugar industry is thus much less prosperous than it was earlier in the 20th century. Many of the large haciendas have been broken up into smaller parcels, and the land owners are making much smaller profits. This has had a negative impact on the workers as well.

Nearly all of the work in the cane fields is done by hand in the Philippines. The cane is harvested by groups of men who cut down the cane with a heavy knife similar to a machete. They cut off the tops of the cane and strip off the leaves, then lay the canes in long rows, separated from the leaves. The next day, the cane will be loaded onto a truck (thumbnail photo #1, at left). The cane is compacted as much as possible, and loaded far above the sides of the truck (photo #2). The harvest must be timed to allow the cane to be processed quickly at the sugar mill, as it will spoil fairly quickly. We saw large parking lots filled with loaded trucks waiting for their turn at the sugar mills.

Most sugar cane was once transported to the mills by light guage railroads. They were powered by steam locomotives (photo #3) that burned bagasse, the fibrous remains of the processed sugar cane. Most of the railroad tracks have now been pulled up, and the old rail cars are left to rust along the roads. (We did see some trains still in operation on the east coast near Bais, but were unable to take pictures from the bus.) Once the harvest begins, local dwellers can bring their animals into the fields to graze on the cane leaves. The cows and caribao love the leaves, but do not eat the cane.

After the field has been harvested, it is burned. This kills insect and disease pests, drives out rodents and snakes, and fertilizes the fields with the ashes. New shoots will grow up from the roots of the old cane plants. If any of the old plants have not survived, new plants will be inserted by planting cuttings, called seed cane, in the bare spaces. This regeneration process is called ratooning. It saves the cost of plowing and replanting the entire field. However, each subsequent crop will produce a smaller yield than the previous one. In Negros, ratooning can only be done once before the yield is too small to be economic. After the second crop, the field must be plowed completely and replanted with fresh seed cane.

As the cane grows, weeds that would compete with the cane plants must be removed. This is done by plowing, usually with caribao (photo #4). The caribao must be muzzled to stop it eating the tender young cane shoots and leaves. Only the richest growers can afford to plow their fields with a tractor. As the canes grow, they become too tall to be plowed, and must be weeded by hand. Whole families will be hired, at a very low fixed rate per hectare, to go through the field manually removing the weeds. The cane can grow to great height, as seen in photo #5.

The economics of sugar farming in the Philippines are quite dreary. Wages for the field workers are appallingly low (about $US 1 per day). The value of the refined sugar is also low, the labor required is immense, and the grower's profits are not as great as they once were. Partly for these reasons, and partly as a result of mismanagement or greed, it is not uncommon for growers to refuse to pay their workers. The workers have little recourse. Although the Philippines has liberal labor laws that greatly favor the workers, the only way for them to enforce their rights is to hire a lawyer and sue. The workers almost never have the money to do this. Even if they did, the lawyer's fees would take most of the money they might receive in a judgement. In addition, the workers live on land owned by their employers. In any dispute, they would be forced out of their homes.

In some cases, disgruntled workers have burned immature cane fields in protest, but this only reduces the growers income and seldom helps the workers. There is a communist revolutionary group in much of the Philippines known as the NPA. They will come to the "aid" of the workers by threatening the growers with death or kidnapping if they don't pay. Usually, the grower simply hides out for a while, and the workers are still not paid. When the NPA does kidnap people, it is unclear who will get the ransom money. The men with the guns seem to keep most of it, and the workers get little or nothing. The system seems to be engineered to keep the workers just healthy enough to work, with nothing extra.

We were very much affected by the difficult conditions under which these people work and live. We felt guilty for our comparative wealth, but realized that we could do nothing to change the reality of their lives. We handed out a bag of t-shirts; people seemed quite pleased with the gifts, and their lives go on unchanged. Almost everyone we met was friendly and smiling — it's hard to imagine how they do it.

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