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Sugar Wars: Looking Back at the Negros Famine of the 1980s

An untold number of men, women, and children starved and died during this bleak moment in the nation’s history.
IMAGE JOHN SILVA
ILLUSTRATOR WARREN ESPEJO
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Famine isn’t a word you hear a lot these days, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. There are still places in the world where people struggle with putting food on the table, particularly in some developing countries in Africa. 

In the Philippines, hunger is certainly a concern for many people, but there hasn’t been a widespread instance of famine here since the one that struck the island of Negros in the 1980s. It was a tragic moment in the country’s history, and one that we need to look back on and learn from in order to ensure that something like it never happens again.

Sugar in Negros

In order to understand why famine struck Negros, we need to study its history. Most people today think of sugar when they think of Negros island, but that wasn’t always the case. As a commodity, sugar was previously enjoyed only by the wealthy, until technological advances in the late 18th to mid-19th century, particularly in agriculture, led to it becoming more widely available to more people.

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“(B)etween 1750 and 1850 sugar ceased to be a luxury, and became a popular necessity, Violeta Lopez-Gonzaga writes in her paper Landlessness, Insurgency and Food Crisis in Negros Island: A Study of the Social, Political and Economic Determinants of Hunger. “Thus, in the period from the 1850s to the first half of the 20th century, sugar became an important commodity in international trading.”

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When Iloilo was first opened to foreign direct investments in 1855, a British national named Nicholas Loney handled trade in the region between Great Britain and the Philippines. According to historian Michael Billig, Loney occupied the position of vice consul as well as commercial agent for British firms “and an indefatigable purveyor of British goods.” 

There is evidence that, before Negros became the “Sugarlandia” that we now know it today, the province actually had a diversified economy. Lopez-Gonzaga writes of Spanish chroniclers who mentioned rice plantations in the island that was consumed by its people and exported to other islands, as well as other trades and skills of the people of Negros.

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“As a whole, a study of the extant Spanish records yield a picture of a relatively self-sufficient people living in Negros who, though using what in European terms was primitive technology, managed to produce not only staples such as corn and edible root crops, but also textile fibers which they used in the domestic manufacture of clothing, baskets, hats, and slippers,” Lopez Gonzaga says. “In addition, they produced cacao, tobacco, and wax, not only to meet their finer needs but to trade as well.” 

From textiles to sugar 

But with the rising demand for sugar in his home country and the rest of Europe, Loney saw an opportunity. 

“The fledgling sugar industry, unlike the older textile business, was thoroughly dependent on foreign capital,” Billig writes. “Loney lent as much as P75,000 at a time at the low rate of 8 percent (compared to the 30-40 percent of the money lenders) and he provided state-of-the-art milling equipment at cost, under the condition that Loney & Ker company be the sole purchaser of the produce.

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“(He) was…remarkably successful in his mission,” Billig adds. “Iloilo’s textile exports to Manila dwindled from 14,420 piezas (pieces) in 1863, to 30,673 in 1864, to 12,700 in 1869, to 5,100 in 1873.”

For a time, Negros enjoyed the fruits of this pivot toward becoming a monocrop region, devoted solely to the production of sugarcane. But, more accurately, it was the hacienderos or planters and landowners, who profited from the great demand for sugar. Unfortunately, this left the people of Negros—who had transformed from being self-sufficient to wage-dependent plantation workers—highly dependent on the the harvest and vulnerable to external factors that affected their only source of livelihood. 

“The growing commitment of agriculture to sugarcane production made the emerging laboring class vulnerable to hunger, with the onslaught of storm, drought, or a plague of locusts,” Lopez-Gonzaga says. “In fact, from the second half of the 19th century onward, the scourge of hunger frequently struck the people of Negros.”

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The Beatles in Bacolod?

One would think that the lessons from the past would encourage business and provincial leaders to take action to cushion the effects of these unpredictable external conditions on the people of Negros. But for whatever reason, that was not to be.

After the Philippines came under American rule in 1898, the U.S. became yet another sizable market for sugar exports from Negros. Business was booming. 

“When prices were good, the sugar planters prospered and Bacolod flourished,” said a report in The Washington Post from September 1986. “Expensive foreign cars plied the city's streets, nightclubs and restaurants thrived, and, at one point in the 1970s, impresarios tried to book the Beatles for a Bacolod concert date.” 

One other thing that helped was an agreement between the Philippines and the U.S., called the Laurel-Langley Pact. Under the pact, the Philippines was assured of an annual quota of sugar exports to the U.S., and local producers were reimbursed at above-market prices.

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But the good times had to come to an end.

Photo of a malnourished girl during the famine in Negros. According to John Silva, she died several days after this photograph was taken. There were thousands more just like her during the famine in Negros

Photo by John Silva.

Decline of sugar

Events in the mid-1970s and early 1980s all contributed to one of the worst famines in the country’s history. First, the Laurel-Langley Pact expired in 1974 and was not renewed by the US Congress. That led to sugar imports to the U.S. dropping from a high of 1.2 million tons per year to 330,000 tons a year later. At around the same time, European countries became more self-sufficient in sugar thanks to government subsidies to sugar beet farmers. In 1975, the European Economic Community (the precursor of today’s European Union) began selling this subsidized sugar, causing world prices to fall from $0.65 per pound in 1975 to just $0.3 to $0.4 10 years later. (The UCA article says that, at the time, Philippine sugar costs about $0.11 per pound to produce).

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At its height, Negros was producing half of the country’s sugar output, which, as a whole, accounted for about 27 percent of the country’s foreign earnings in 1974. That number was down to just eight percent in 1983.

On the homefront, multiple news accounts pointed to the actions of cronies of former President Ferdinand Marcos that contributed to the decline of the Negros sugar industry, and subsequently to the suffering of its people. After Roberto Benedicto was appointed chief of the National Sugar Trading Corp. (Nasutra) and its parent regulatory body, the Philippine Sugar Commission (Philsucom), a government audit found that Nasutra underreported profits by as much as $430 million from 1978 to 1983. These were the years that the agency was under the control of Benedicto.

How did he do it? Allegedly, Benedicto bet on sugar prices to rise even further from its peak of $0.65 per pound in the mid-1970s.

“Gambling that the price would reach $1 a pound, Benedicto hoarded sugar until warehouses overflowed, then stored it in empty swimming pools, on basketball courts, soccer fields and anywhere else that could be found, planters recall,” according to the Washington Post report. “Then the market crashed, and Benedicto eventually had to dispose of the sugar at 10 cents a pound. But, with Marcos’ Martial-Law backing, he passed on the losses to the planters, saddling them with more than $400 million in debts, plus interest.”

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The hunger starts 

Because Nasutra wasn’t able to pay the planters, the planters, in turn, were unable to pay off loans and their workers. At least 190,000 sugarcane plantation workers lost their jobs. And that’s when the hunger started.

“Since the farmer-tenants of Negros did not own the lands they were tilling, they had no choice in what was to be produced in it,” an entry in the 1987 Journal of the Senate of the Philippines read. “Instead, practically the entire agricultural land of the province was devoted to sugarcane farms primarily in response to the lure of easy money and great profits from sugar which was then enjoying a privileged position in the world market.”

According to the transcript of a hearing on the subcommittee of the Committee on House Appropriations of the US House of Representatives in 1988, there were approximately 2.2 million Filipinos living in Negros Occidental province in 1985. Of that number, an estimated 40 percent (about 350,000) of the children under the age of 14 were suffering from malnutrition, based on a survey by the National Nutrition Council of the Philippines. 

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“The Bacolod City Hospital reported an increase of 67 percent in infant deaths in the first four months of 1985 over the same period in 1984,” the transcript said. “Infant mortality soared to nearly double (the) national rate, and most of the deaths stem from malnutrition.”

Author John Silva, who is now the executive director of the Ortigas Foundation Library, visited Negros with development agency Oxfam in 1986. He witnessed firsthand the image of thousands of starving and malnourished children.

“I drove past the provincial hospital where I first saw hundreds of malnourished children on mats on the floors tended by their mothers, and later, we were in the country through cane fields and small towns remembering the skeletal children being weighed and assessed by our medical team,” he wrote in 2016, 30 years since that fateful visit. “There were over 100,000 children in various degree of malnutrition and we started a feeding program for 90,000 of them, hoping to save the worse cases.”

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The famine in Negros affected an estimated one million people and sparked a worldwide firestorm. International relief agencies flew in to conduct feeding programs, local NGOs mobilized relief drives, and members of the Catholic Church likewise pitched in to help. A consequence of the severe famine was the rise of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), particularly its armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA).

“The NPA has doubled in strength the last year, principally because of the poverty and hunger here,” then-Bishop Antonio Fortich of Bacolod said.

Tempering the sugar addiction 

After Marcos was overthrown during the EDSA People Power Revolution of 1986, it was up to the government of President Corazon Aquino to make things right. The Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program sought to redistribute land and award them to the farmers, but it has been a long and painstaking process that continues to this day. Some planters proposed “a 60-30-10 land-reform program of enfranchisement and diversification—60 percent of the land would remain in sugar in the planters’ hands; 30 percent would be diversified with high-value export crops such as coffee, cacao, and pineapples; 10 percent would be sold to workers for home gardens and contract growing.” There was even a “prawn production” plan to cater to the great demand coming from the U.S. and Japan.

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It took years before the Negros famine could be fully addressed, and with it, the heavy reliance on a crop once thought to be golden and heaven-sent was tempered. Today, industry in the province has since diversified to include other sectors, such as tourism, telecommunications, banking, retail, and business processing outsourcing (BPOs), but, clearly, sugar is still in the Negrenses’ blood. The country produced 2.1 million metric tons of raw sugar in crop year 2018-2019, and, according to the Sugar Regulatory Administration, the Visayas accounted for 73 percent of domestic sugar production in 2018. Negros alone contributed 64 percent of total output. 

We’d like to believe that a famine of such magnitude and scale as the one in the 1980s will never happen again, but it’s up to us to remain vigilant. As Winston Churchill said, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” 

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Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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