There’s a degree of romance whenever one talks about Negros. You think of how the island became the nerve center of the Philippine sugar industry. You read about how Europeans travelled there to establish plantations, lured by the promise of fertile soil and unknown riches. You see images of workers harvesting sugar cane, loading them to trucks (or train carriages, as was the case in the 1800s), making sure everything is loaded to the point of overflowing.
You think of how sugar made the island prosperous and rich. You hear the names of prominent families in conversations, particularly in the way everybody in Bacolod and its surrounding towns and cities seem to be related to each other. You see those names in historical markers and on road signs. You taste the island’s food, honed by centuries of exposure to Chinese traders and European trends, mixing both local ingredients and foreign styles—and the ever-ubiquitous sugar—to bring forth treats that are unique and memorable. You remember how much more refined the Negrenses’ tastes are, seemingly. (Or perhaps it’s your Manila-centric viewpoint coloring this.) We are a basketball-crazy country, but here, football is the game to be part of.
But then you recall that not everything has gone well in Negros. The sugar industry came close to collapse due to a series of events: the United States imposing new trade restrictions, the Philippine government responding by establishing a sugar monopoly, and the shift to cheaper high-fructose corn syrup. By the 1980s the country’s sugar sector is struggling, and its impact on its citizens is profound: the incidence of infant malnourishment in the island went to record highs. The Negrenses tried to put on a brave face: the result is the enduring MassKara festival.
As the staging ground for the island’s sugar industry, Bacolod finds itself at a crossroads. It has recovered in part due to agricultural diversification: while you still see a lot of sugar plantations as you travel up and down the coast, you will also see organic vegetable farms and aquaculture facilities, serving a market with a predilection towards the locally-sourced. (The city’s restaurant scene is booming, and that’s besides the chicken inasal and the pastries.) Investments from the still-blossoming BPO industry—and the resulting boom in property development—has begun to change the city’s landscape. Growth is still not as frantic as neighboring Iloilo, but it’ll be there soon. You can’t help but wonder whether Bacolod’s reputation for being the country’s most livable city will hold in a few years’ time.
As for the sugar industry itself, well, romance and reality are two different things. The mills here are going strong. Our visit to the Central Azucarera de La Carlota taught us that the industry is trying its best to keep up with the times: embracing new technologies to increase crop yields and bring more profits to both farmers and millers. It has been, inevitably, a difficult process, but here we’re seeing all stakeholders working together, going past reluctance and resistance, to make sure everybody benefits, everybody earns.
But some farmers have decided to give up their land, selling up to property developers—where else would these new BPO buildings go up? (It’s a sad consequence of the otherwise well-meaning land reform laws; farmers found themselves with little support when left on their own.) Some of the crop has been allotted to the manufacture of bioethanol, particularly after the government has mandated that 10% of all automotive fuels contain it, meaning less resources for the manufacture of sugar itself. Finally, the government’s plans to replace sugar import quotas with tariffs is set to swamp the market with cheap sugar from other countries, posing an existential threat to our sugar industry.
Negros isn’t the only place in the Philippines where sugar is grown: there are plantations in central and southern Luzon, as well as several in Mindanao. Despite its diminished status in recent years, the sugar industry remains one bellwether of how our agricultural sector is faring: we are still the second largest producer of the commodity among ASEAN countries. And, as we’ve seen in Bacolod, sugar has had a profound impact on quality of life across the decades. Times have changed, however, and perhaps it’s not entirely appropriate to yearn back to the early years of sugar barons and unfettered market access. Again, romance and reality are two different things. But we can only hope all stakeholders work together to make sure our sugar stays competitive. We’ve seen what’s at stake.
Thank yous: I’d like to believe that this year’s Supply Chain Immersion—held last weekend in Bacolod—provided our delegates with a full picture not just of how supply chain works, but also its impact on ordinary lives. It would not have been possible without our speakers—Jun Arive, Pio Bernardo, Carlo Curay and Scott Gerrie—as well as the team at 2GO Travel, who hosted us on our first day; Bimsy Mapa and his team at Roxas Holdings; and to Cidni Mapa and Xyrielle Deala.
Henrik Batallones is the marketing and communications executive of SCMAP. A former board director, he is also editor-in-chief of the organization’s official publication, Supply Chain Philippines. More information about SCMAP is available at scmap.org.