Our sugar is washed in blood.
It may be crystalline white, but it was processed through the hard labor and sacrifices of our forebears from the years of the Spanish galleons to American warships of old until last Saturday night when nine sakada farmers were gunned down to death by a still unknown band of assailants in Sagay, Negros Occidental.
This rubbernecker will not delve much into the details of that massacre of hapless sugarcane farmers at the Hacienda Nene, where they were strafed to death while having dinner before they were burned with use of gasoline for emphasis of terror.
Government condemned the attack and ordered a probe. The AFP and the PNP quickly pointed at the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army (CPP-NPA) as behind the killings.
Militant, church groups and human rights advocates will conduct parallel investigations on their own. Many of them have blamed government for this and past infractions, the last and equally gory of which was the massacre of protesting plantation workers who marched at Escalante on 20 September 1985.
That was just months before the EDSA revolt of February 1986. But the plantation workers were yet unaware of a grand political change unfolding in Luzon then.
What they knew was that the sakadas would continue living the life they described as “Born in debt. Living in debt. Will die in debt.”
They did not just die in debt. They died through the bullets peppered their way by the private armies of the landlords who had owned the farms they continued to till as their forebears did from the Spanish occupation of the Philippines, the American conquest of the islands and up until now, when their present owners continue to reap the rewards of the sakadas’ hard labor.
The sakadas earn way below the minimum wages set by the law. These laws were crafted by no less than their masters.
Yes, they are right. They will die in debt.
Others have found escape the tough way.
During the US occupation of the Philippines, thousands of sakadas were shipped to Hawaii to man its sugarcane and pineapple feeds.
They were paid measly sums, too. Workers tapped from our Asian neighbor countries were treated and paid better.
But sheer number of transplanted Filipinos gave them strength to form into unions. They demanded better treatment and high wages. They threatened work stoppage when needed. They knew their experience in these fights would give them their chance at upliftment. They did.
Hawaii observes the “Sakada Day” in recognition of these early Filipino to set foot in their land and made Hawaii one of the top producers of sugar for the mainland when the US deemed the Philippines too volatile and unreliable a source.
It did not help the Philippines, too, when US farmers discovered corn as a main source of ingredient to satisfy the American’s sweet tooth.
But the Hawaii experience gave other “enterprising” local businessmen the idea of tapping cheap labor for their own farms.
Even the Hacienda Luisita, owned by the family of former Presidents Cory and Noynoy Aquino, has used the backs of the sakadas to keep the fields.
They were promised decent wages, an easy magnet for the sakadas to move where money could be had like their grandparents did in moving to Hawaii two or three generations back.
But these were not delivered.
And then everything erupted as if on cue. Thirteen members of the protesting group were killed by bullets from Hacienda security staff and supposedly from government authorities.
Nothing happened in the investigations that followed.
As nothing is to be expected of the Sagay probes.
The next time you take that spoonful of sugar for your coffee, offer a prayer for these lost sakadas. If you do, pray like they did to salve their sufferings.
Landlords and tillers
What happened in Sagay City, Negros Occidental brings us back to a time when the plight of farmers in sugarcane plantations was the stuff of headlines.
The slain victims, in our here and now, were all members of the National Federation of Sugar Workers.
They were shot dead by armed men while they were having dinner in their tents. Among them were four women and two minors. Then they were burned. Yes, burned.
The story has taken a life of its own — the conjectures around it becoming their own segments in a mini-series.
But we are not trying to downplay or make light of what happened by saying it is like a teleserye that never ends. If only to bring attention to the plight of our farmers, then we should look at the story as one that is not much different from the stories our parents and possibly our grandparents heard, too, in their time.
The “plight of farmers” has been around for a long, long time, yet few are willing to wade through the convoluted mess that it has become, with agrarian reform issues being as immense (or immensely boring) as they are now.
Sugar workers, in particular, are paid measly wages (P500 to P750 weekly wages, according to the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas) and they endure the worst work conditions.
“Minimum wage is pegged at only P245 per day for farm workers who do backbreaking work to keep Negros haciendas and sugar mills in operation. In many haciendas, the prevailing daily wages range from P80 to P120,” the KMP revealed in a social media post about the Sagay killings.
With the agriculture sector getting intense scrutiny in the past few months — its own set of problems uncovered by the raging winds of typhoon “Ompong” — the farmers’ situation was not too far off in the discussion.
This time, the shots that rang out in the night blew the cover off so many ugly truths we hesitate to face.
One is the violence that surrounds life in the fields – a paradox that has existed for generations. There is nothing simple about the lives of Filipino farmers. Maybe their routines are simple, their environment free from the trappings we expect in our urban jungle. But their lives are not comfortable; they are often struggling, not just to make ends meet but also to keep themselves safe.
If it isn’t the New People’s Army, it’s the violence that erupts when land issues crop up. Farmers have died for their cause, and farmers have been killed for their cause.
What happened last Saturday night was another one of those killings that people will talk about for days, weeks or months, but will people remember what it was really about? Was it really about land-grabbing in a private hacienda that reportedly already gave its due under the agrarian reform program?
In any case, the leftists are condemning this “eighth recorded massacre of farmers under the Duterte administration.” The police are investigating possible angles. Yet even if it were a land grab or a rebel attack, murder is unjustified, and something clearly must be done — for that specific case, and for the sugar workers and farmers around the Philippines.
It is a challenge as massive as the drug problem for any administration to tackle.
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