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Sugar industry’s cemented approach

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“Be not like the sugarcane – do not hold your sweetness inside.” – Jonathan Lockwood Huie

The evolution of the sugar industry is as rapid as it can get. And “evolution” is loaded with interpretations in various facets to the level it is opt for, especially at the present times. Globally, its evolution is very promising and responsive, especially in countries where sugar plays a pivotal role in their economies.

For the Philippines it is a different story. Flashback, the momentum of sugar industry in the country gained prominence during the post World War II but close to a century this remains a big debate whether it advanced and modernized or is not attuned to the times. This, despite its significant contribution to the country’s social and economic realms and whether the majority who depend on the industry have benefitted – their economic condition, improved or not. They are the sugar farm workers, mill workers, and sectors directly dependent on the industry, estimated at one million.

MAJOR CULPRITS

I see three major factors that sugar industry is beset with. One, the inevitability of the influx of imported sugar borne out of the deregulation – a commitment the government – the previous administrations continued by the successors without clear and impactful safety nets. The Philippine Senate in 1994 committed to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade reflected on various economic aggrupation such as APEC, ASEAN and even the WTO. We also had bilateral agreements particularly the United States instituted as early as the post World War II in relation to trade, which included sugar in the Laurel-Langley Treaty.

In absence of the safety nets which require budget and clear policies, these major concerns were never realized mainly for the protection of the entire sugar industry as the Philippine’s major crop. From the 1990’s to the early 2000s, the Philippines remained one of the top sugar producers in the world. However, this prominence never protected the marginalized sectors, rather, widened the gap between and among sugar barons and the sugar workers.

Secondly, not surprisingly, is the lack of political will by the government to regulate or address sugar importation challenges and the howls against sugar smuggling effected by corruption allegations. Not far from the rice industry, the Philippines, despite being one of the world’s top producers of sugar, is also one of the top importers. Others exclaimed that sugar importation alone will not flood the domestic market with imported sugar, but it is “smuggling.”

Last year, there was even an allegation of “legal smuggling” because the order came from the top that caused the seat of the previous SRA administrator as the “scapegoat.” This is a no brainer – it just takes political will yet, the most difficult one to do.

While the plot thickens on the issue of sugar importation – whether the government through the SRA issues a memorandum, I can arguably say sugar smuggling still finds its way to Philippine ports.

Finally, since September last year the grueling impact of drought brought about by the El Niño phenomenon is worsening. Those who have the capacity to ensure good quality and increased production are big planters, not the marginal sugar farmers and agrarian reform beneficiaries who are in the tens of thousands, consequently sacrificing government’s program of block farming under SIDA law.

The El Niño phenomenon is forecast to last until April which is going to be extreme as we approach summer. Talking to some government agencies’ employees directly involved in the sugar industry, they too, are quite at a loss on how to approach the problem for the sugar industry alone.

The international council on climate change has identified the Philippines as one of the “un-cooperative” states in mitigating the impacts of climate change, particularly the reduction of carbon emissions. This simply means that the Philippines has no synergized policies on how to be resilient and undertake mitigating measures against climate change – rising and extreme temperatures such as drought and floods we experience today.

The factors I have enumerated and explained redounds to the government’s role in significantly mitigating, if not, addressing the challenges of the sugar industry. This is not a blame game I’m putting on, but a call, especially to the government as the biggest stakeholder in this widening, worsening, and deepening challenges.

And whether these major challenges are handled and managed as they escalate and possibly put in peril even more requires a strategic approach ultimately coming from the government itself.*

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