By MAO HERMITANIO
MANILA — While sugar planters scored a brief victory with the 20-day temporary restraining order on the importation of 200,000 metric tons (MT) of refined sugar, the government is not backing down on its importation directive — a policy that will definitely hurt the local sugar industry, most especially 69,000 sugar workers in Negros Occidental doing back-breaking work in sugarcane plantations and haciendas.
The TRO issued on Feb 15 was the Sagay City regional tiral court’s response to the appeal raised by sugar planters against the Sugar Regulatory Administration’s Sugar Order No. 3 series of 2022 that authorizes the importation of 200,000 MT of sugar effective on March 1, 2022.
The National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW) is calling for the immediate and outright scrapping of the importation order, saying it will cause irreparable damages to the livelihood of sugar workers and small sugar planters.
NFSW Spokesperson John Milton Lozande belies the claim of SRA Administrator Hermenigildo Serafica that importation is necessary to augment the projected sugar supply gap due to the reported damages and losses caused by typhoon Odette. The sugarcane industry incurred P1.5 billion (US$29.15 million) total damages according to the Department of Agriculture.
Lozande said that sugarcane is more resilient compared to palay and vegetable crops, and during typhoon onsalught, sugarcane is not damaged. He added that based on SRA’s statistics, raw and refined sugar production increased in the same period this year compared to last year.
In a statement, former agrarian reform chief Rafael Mariano said Agriculture Secretary Willian Dar should do more than defend the agency’s importation policies that keep hurting the livelihood of local food producers.
“DA stands for Department of Agriculture, not Department of Importation. The agency’s primary focus should be the strengthening of the domestic agriculture and fisheries sectors,” Mariano said.
“Instead of justifying more importation, the DA must refocus on boosting local production by providing significant aid to farmers and fishers,” Mariano said, adding that the importation of 60,000 metric tons (MT) of small pelagic fishes and 200,000 MT of refined sugar will further plunge small fishers and sugar workers into deeper economic woes.
Despite the mandated daily wage rate of P315 ($6.12)in Region 11, most agricultural workers in haciendas are engaged in pakyaw system where they are paid P1,500 to P2,000 ($29.15 to $39) every fortnight.
Address high cost of fertilizer and fuel
Lozande said NFSW’s sugar workers are uniting with the demand of small sugar planters for the government to curb the incessantly increasing cost of fertilizer and fuel that are both crucial to sugar production.
More than 85 percent of sugar producers in Negros Occidental are small planters, and a majority of them are Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries (ARBs) who are forced to engage in arriendo system with big sugar planters due to lack of support services from the government. The remaining 15 percentare big planters and hacienderos that control 45 percent of Negros’ vast sugar lands.
In Negros, the prices of urea fertilizer have increased more three-fold from its pre-pandemic prices of P800 to P850 ($15.55 to $16.52) per sack to the current prevailing prices of P2,700 to P2,800 ($52.47 to $54.41) per sack. The weekly oil price hikes also impact heavily on the cost of sugar production.
The Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas has called on the Fertilizer and Pesticides Authority (FPA) to regulate the prices of local fertilizer, an essential farm input.
Rally against sugar liberalization
Lozande said that all sectors, especially agricultural workers must oppose sugar importation.
“While there is not law yet on import liberalization of sugar due to the lobbying of the Negros sugar bloc, Duterte’s economic managers are pushing the liberalize the sugar industry just like that they did with the rice industry,” Lozande said.
He said the government must provide utmost support to sugar workers and small sugar planters. “Big planters are capable and can fend for themselves. Sugar workers and small planters rely on their own manpower. They should be the ones to receive substantial aid and protection,” Lozande said.