By Nickky Faustine P. de Guzman

New boom in Negros Occidental

Posted on May 15, 2015

IT WAS in the 1980s -- a time of financial crisis and political upheaval throughout the Philippines -- that the story of Sugarlandia, the province of Negros Occidental, turned sour. To be sure, class divide was always an inherent part of this province’s history. But by that time, not only poverty but starvation among the working class of Negros Occidental’s sugar farmers -- as documented by the media -- became indelible images in this milieu.

APEC participants at The Ruins in Talisay. -- Department of Finance
Who would have thought that the province would, after the vicissitudes of time, finally leave behind that chapter in this present era of globalization and integration?

Fast forward to today, and things are taking on a different landscape. Negros Occidental and its capital, Bacolod, are booming again, thanks to the growing social services, tourism, and international investments that are restoring the dynamism that had been depleted by the once-sweet sugar industry.

Once upon a time, the hacenderos ruled over acres of sugar land while the peasants in their employ worked hard, practically to death, under the scorching sun. This could have been a scene straight from the movie 12 Years a Slave, but it wasn’t. “The class society cultivated by the Negrense elite leaves workers removed from slavery by only a few degrees,” said author and journalist Alan Berlow in his book, Dead Season: A Story of Murder and Revenge. In America’s context, the sugar workers resembled that of a “black sharecropper during [the] Reconstruction” era, Mr. Berlow wrote in his book.

Life in this milieu wasn’t always sweet, but the sugar bowl of the Philippines used to enjoy such a sugar high as far back as the 19th century when it was the principal engine of the Philippine economy. As Negros caught up with the coming industrial development in this and the next century, “sugar not only created capital, but class,” Mr. Berlow wrote.

Dead Season was also fair enough to point out how the elite would also regard their workers as part of the family, assisting them in hard times. But then came the critical three-month dead season, or tiempo muerto, that Negrenses also darkly referred to as tiempo tinggulutom or “starvation time.” The sugar workers with little or no money at all weren’t able to feed their kids. In the ’70s and the ’80s -- also the dark years of martial law -- when the economics and culture of sugar began to turn sour, the tiempo tinggulutom would last as long as six months. Bacolod’s sugar industry would be further dampened by global economic developments. By 1978, the number of malnourished infants in Bacolod rose to 78%, Mr. Berlow said. Time magazine soon ran a cover of a malnourished Negrense boy that was also widely circulated in the local media, particularly the anti-Marcos press.

“Negros has always been Sugar Country. People here like to believe that sugar will never die, will never become sour, will always be sweet. Boy, were they wrong,” said Daniel “Bitay” Lacson in the article “At Play in the Fields of the Lords” published in Rogue magazine’s April 2009 issue. Mr. Lacson was among the last public servants in his family. He soon founded Negros Business Forum, a group that helped the province diversify its economy.

Bacolod today is a multi-sectoral city in the true sense of the word.

“The sugar industry now only places second after the social service sectors, which include tourism, telecommunications, banking, hotel, retail, and business process outsourcing (BPOs),” Metro Bacolod Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Frank Carbon said in an interview via phone and e-mail. He attended an APEC summit hosted by this city on April 28-30 for talks about business investment opportunities.

“Supplementing the wealth generated by the sugar industry are the billion pesos monthly remittances of Ilonggo overseas Filipino workers and seafarers, and the million pesos that BPO agents are bringing home monthly. The billion pesos circulating in Bacolod and Negros attracted billion pesos investments in retail stores and housing, creating thousands of good paying jobs and enlarging the middle class,” Mr. Carbon added.

Negros Occidental is experiencing a socioeconomic cultural shift, said award-winning novelist and Bacolod native Vicente Garcia Groyon. His family moved in the city after the declaration of martial law. He grew up and lived in Bacolod until he graduated from high school. He moved to Manila in 1995, visiting Bacolod during the summer and Christmas breaks. He has personally witnessed the changes that have happened in Sugarlandia.

“Bacolod has gone the way of most cities in the Philippines -- it’s become more homogenized. Most provincial capitals in the Philippines tend to look the same, thanks to national and international business franchises, and Bacolod is no exception,” Mr. Groyon said via e-mail.

Mr. Groyon, who authored the Palanca-winning The Sky Over Dimas, a novel taking off from the grandeur and folly of the Negros elite, said he has noticed many other things -- notably the sugar industry’s being eclipsed by other sectors. “The last 20 to 30 years have seen the rise of a new elite that acquired their wealth from business[es] other than sugar. Many of the old sugar families have shifted into other businesses, or have lost their wealth. These days, there are now alternative sources of income and wealth. People are able to make a living and become wealthy in Negros Occidental without having to go into sugar,” he said.

According to Mr. Berlow, the wealthy sugar barons were able to move out of the capital and send their children to better schools. He said the last of the elites were driven out in the ’80s by the communist insurgency which was at its peak during that decade. Many relocated outside Bacolod; the wealthiest among them moved to Manila.

But then again, the feudal system in Negros Occidental is deeply rooted. While some of the upper crust members still rely on sugar businesses, among their other ventures, Mr. Groyon said the lowest members in the totem pole might find fewer opportunities for growth.

“While the middle class has grown larger, the majority of the population still belongs to the lower classes, and it’s become more difficult for this demographic because they can no longer rely on the sugar industry for employment, and their upward mobility remains extremely limited,” he said, adding that their feudal roles may now be situated in a different context. For instance, instead of working in the fields, “they could be making handicrafts or serving in the lower rungs of the ecotourism industries.” The newer generations of the working class, he added, usually leave the province for bigger cities like Cebu or Manila or go abroad to become nurses and seamen.

Meanwhile, according to Mr. Carbon, some of the sugar farmlands are being distributed to small-time farmers, who, unfortunately, find a hard time growing their lands. The government, however, remains supportive of the sugar industry, for what it is today. Sixty percent of sugar supply in the country still come from Negros Occidental, Mr. Carbon said.

“[With] the signing of the Sugarcane Bill of Cong[ressman] Albee B. Benitez into law, ...the sugar industry is strengthened. The law provides P2 billion annually to further develop the industry. It creates two more revenue streams: sugarcane juice and molasses to fuel Ethanol and sugarcane waste to biomass power plant. Moreover, the biomass power plant will bring into existence another agri-business, the tree and grass farming to supplement the biomass waste from sugarcane and other agricultural waste,” Mr. Carbon said.

The law also provides protection against the economic impact of imported sugar with lower tariffs. The two new revenue streams, Mr. Carbon said, are looking for local and international investors to strengthen the industry.

While the sugar industry is being overhauled to keep up with the times, more farmlands are also being converted to accommodate other real estate developments, including the widening base of Bacolod’s social service sectors. Corporate giants like Robinsons Land, Ayala Land, and Megaworld -- complete strangers in this milieu, in the past -- are investing on properties to convert into hotels, malls, BPO headquarters, and houses. Megaworld, for instance, is investing P35 billion in the next 10 years to build two townships in Negros Occidental that are estimated to generate 250,000 jobs. “Just as what we have done with our other developments, we will transform the sugarcane fields into a bustling new district. Within five to 10 years, we envision this area to be the most sought-after business and lifestyle address for Negrenses,” Megaworld senior vice president Jericho Go said in a statement that is evidently informed by the rich, glorious, sad, and ultimately fascinating narrative of Negros history. The townships will be built in the east of Bacolod, which is the city’s booming BPO and commercial area.

Amid the crisis of the 1980s, the Negrenses came up with the Masskara Festival and sought to reenvision Bacolod as a City of Smiles -- not in denial but in defiance of adversity. In a sense, this attitude reflects the broader optimism of the Filipino but with a distinctly Negros spirit. The annual festival, attended by foreign and local tourists, has helped Negros sustain its tourism and, in turn, its economy. Other perennial tourist come-ons in Negros include the Ruins in Talisay, the centuries-old houses, and chicken inasal. Mr. Carbon also points out Bacolod’s leisure farms where tourists can plant vegetables and make their own salads.

The City of Smiles is the second top tourist destination in Region 6, after Aklan, province of Boracay. Of the total tourist arrivals in the province in 2012, 70,782 were foreigners, 6,991 were overseas Filipino workers, and the rest were local travelers, according to a BusinessWorld report. Koreans count as the top visitors, followed by Americans, Japanese, Germans, Australians, Chinese, Canadians, British, Russians, and Swiss.

Thanks to tourism, Bacolod has found a broader market for its homemade products, most especially food items that are perfect for pasalubong (gift). While Metro Manila serves Bacolod specialties, nothing tops it best when you are actually in the province.

“The local food may be harder to find and in different places, but they’re still there. They have done a good job of setting themselves apart, and making an asset of their uniqueness, but the same can’t be said for other kinds of businesses, which have struggled and/or gone under. The other route for these businesses is to go national, which also works against the ‘local’ identity, for instance, now that one can buy Bong Bong’s piaya anywhere in the Philippines, it no longer feels special. While it’s great that Bong Bong’s has expanded its business, it has lost the edge that made it unique. On the other hand, the pastry shop Calea has resisted national franchising, which makes its cakes a coveted pasalubong (gift) for non-Negrenses,” Mr. Groyon said.

While tourism brings in money, generates jobs, and promotes what the province has to offer, Bacolod is also starting to experience the curse of modernity. The problems of traffic and trash are now felt in Bacolod’s streets. But then, one of the major and easiest solutions begins with the people’s discipline. There are other solutions too.

“There’s a plan to create a Metro Bacolod Development Authority (MBDA), which will help Bacolod and its neighbors to achieve long- term goals and boost the business. The MBDA will coordinate and assist one another in traffic, garbage collection, and disposal,” Mr. Carbon said. The MBDA will include Bacolod, Talisay, Silay, Bago, and the municipality of Murcia.

With Bacolod as the host of the recent APEC meeting, Mr. Carbon was hoping to call the attention of local and international investors. He said the whole province has a huge potential. “Its diversity, wealth of resources, and geographical location are ideal. Help fuel the growth of Bacolod and Negros and not only will the business grow, but the (poor) families will be uplifted as well,” he said.

He added that among the many needs of Bacolod, sustainable water and electricity supplies are the most important. Bacolod sources its water supply underground, and the city has been digging faster than replenishing it. Mr. Carbon said there is a great need for investment in coal-fired power plants because it can run 24/7 and can keep up with the demands of BPOs and other industries that work day and night. Cheap and reliable coal power, however, is also the dirtiest fuel source in the world, which aggravates climate change. To be sure, the Philippines is not a huge carbon emitter, as Climate Change Commission Secretary Mary Ann Lucille L. Sering pointed out in an interview last week with BusinessWorld editors. But she also noted that coal plants use a lot of water, which could only worsen the water situation in the province. Although the government wants to adopt a sustainable energy source that is environment-friendly, Ms. Sering said, the technology remains expensive and the data on the country’s power requirements remain insufficient. She also said, however, that solar energy technology reduces the price tag over time, and expressed optimism that the country is on its way to greener, cleaner energy.

Mr. Carbon said other sustainable investment opportunities in the province still bank on the organic: fuel ethanol plants, biomass power plants, waste to power, tree and grass farms, high value crops like banana, pineapple, coffee, and cacao, aquaculture like bangus, tilapia, prawns, and white shrimps, and organic farming.

Amid this modernity, farming is still a way of life for many Negrenses. Perhaps, what they need is balance. Becoming a “mixed city,” modern yet still old-fashioned, is both a boon and a bane. While idealists say it’s possible to create equilibrium, the scale can always tip toward the latter. But to wish Negros to remain as it was before is like a death sentence, in the words of Mr. Groyon: “Given the prevailing economic models in the Philippines, and the preference for ‘globalization,’ it would appear that homogenization is inevitable. Bacolod needs to change with the times. It’s the same story in other parts of the country and the world. What can you do?”

There, in the streets of Bacolod City, the sugar barons and the BPO agents are welcome.