Author’s note: October 2012. While a lot of time is spent in training sessions, it is important to me to do the research in advance, practise some basic words in the local language and to spend some time in the markets, the villages, the fields. In those wanderings by car, on foot or motorcycle, we get close up for awhile and the deeper meanings of the trainings become clear.
This is Negros Occidental, the sugar capital of the Philippines. Poverty and ready work keep many a classroom empty of children. That this is the island where the NPA (New People’s Army) concentrated much of its struggle is not surprising. It’s two worlds: the villages of nipa huts, their bamboo fences hung with the brilliant flags of the day’s laundry, are home to the rural poor who tend these vast stretches of agricultural land; behind gates of stone and iron are the baronial homesteads of the hacienderos. When the victors of the Spanish-American war surveyed the feudal landscape, they left untouched the system of Iberian royal land grabs awarded in earlier centuries to loyal Filipinos. The hacienderos are one element in a plutocracy that includes movie stars, cock fighter moghuls, mall magnates, mining tycoons – and the dynastic politicians who have arisen from their ranks to ensure their continued hegemony from Malacañang.
A man is broadcasting seed rice from a bucket next to a paddy bursting for harvesting. With the first scent of rain, day labourers or sharecroppers’ kids run to roll up the roadside tarps of drying rice grains. Itinerant rice threshers roar away in close proximity to the drying tarps, bringing biblical images to mind: the kernels of stripped grain are sifted downward through ever finer sieves as the chaff flies through the air to create a stack that will be used for mulch or brick-making.
In the town of Sipalay, a shirtless man straddles a two-plank cart pulled by a muddy caraboa, its load of bamboo extending many metres out behind. In the fields, those Philippine bovine beasts of burden, prepare a field for the next crop of sugar cane, pulling primitive ploughs, their blades weighed down by the scrawny weight of farmers hatted against the mid-day sun; long graceful herons perch on the massive animals in regal symbiosis.
From the bridge over the Binalbagan River, we can see the shrimp nets stretched in neat rows towards the Gulf of Panay. A group of local men, no doubt tired of waiting for the Department of Works and Highways to arrive, are repairing the road at the end of the bridge, two of them bailing a pothole with popcans in preparation for asphalt, one extending hopefully towards oncoming traffic a plastic pot for donations. Henna rolls down the window and tosses in some peso coins.
Fields upon fields of cane are in various stages of production, from hand planting of stem cuttings to the brutality of harvest. Trucks heavily laden with many tonnes of cane piled precariously metres above the gunwales trundle up the road, meeting others on the return journey from one of the island’s largest sugar centrals in Binalbagan.
Four volunteers have filled the four chairs in the middle of the circle, assuming a posture of ‘power’. One at a time, we travel around the circle, observing what each has done with their body to impart a message of power and then analysing and thinking through possible contexts and scenarios.
Letty sends mixed messages with her crossed legs and back-against-the-chair position and her fists rolled into her waist, her face pinched in what looks like a kind of questioning anger. A school teacher! one suggests. A manager with somebody on the carpet. A field manager on a sugar hacienda, says another. Someone hasn’t pulled their weight today and she’s threatening lost wages or firing!
Power is economic, then; the kind of fear-making power that can take away your livelihood, your life.
Albert has both feet on the ground, back against the chair, his hands, balled into fists, in his pockets, his arm muscles taut. ‘What’s with the hands in the pockets?’ I ask. The response from the group is quick: ‘There’s money in the left and a gun in the right.’ If one method doesn’t work, the other will.
Power is wealth, the capacity to buy what and whom you want. Power is threatened lethality, armed violence.
Lando is leaning back into his chair, his right leg crossing his left at the ankle. He has a mobile phone in one hand, the index and middle fingers open in a V; the thumb and fingers of the other hand encircle something. ‘He has no worries,’ calls out one. ‘He’s a haciendero,’ suggests another. I give him a name: ‘Cojuangco’. The room erupts in laughter at the familiar name. One suggests that’s a ₱5,000 cigar in the one hand, a ₱6,000 glass of brandy in the other. More laughter. ‘No troubles,’ reiterates another. ‘There are others out there to do his dirty work for him. No worries.’
Power is wealth beyond imagining, inaccessible, gated, oblivious power. Power is ‘I have no interest in the rest of you cockroaches’. Power is masculinised, violent, distant, disconnected, a game we can’t win.
Six trucks in various stages of loading are lined up at the side of the road. Some of the sacadas are lunching under the truck, a much needed respite from the sun’s relentless rays; some are collecting a few last stalks before joining the others, carrying armsful of the heavy, sticky grass up the narrow, rickety plank where one remains to stack, hack and pack.
The sacadas (cane-cutters) are contracted by the load: if they can stuff in 30 tonnes of cane without tipping into a ditch on the way to the sugar central, each of the 11-member team will get ₱240 ($5.90). If the load is short of that weight by any measure, their pay is cut in half. In order to eat, they have to ask for an advance on their weekly wages up to ₱25 per day – a meagre sum indeed; impossible if they also have brought family with them.
Meal times are good times for conversations. The long-haired cabo (overseer) is watching, sitting in the shade across the road. Henna approaches the sacadas and asks if we can talk. ‘Why?’ asks one; he eyes the interloper warily. Deli addresses him in Ilonggo, ‘Here is someone who is not a tourist. She wants to know about your living and working conditions from you; enough of experts.’ Wala sing ano man, he agrees. A few remain under the truck, watching.
They are all from Antique, Henna translates. Some are school-aged; some have brought their families with them. Though some hacienderos have bunk houses for their sacadas, not this one. The young man with one arm lives in a corner of a garage on the hacienda. They bring their own blankets. The encargado (field boss) finds the labourers, sets the terms of payment and arranges for their lodgings, no matter how humble. The just want to make sure they show up for work, September to March. They don’t hire locally because the temptation to go home is too great.
We give our first names and, one by one, the men do the same: Sergio, Ezekiel, Marco… I extend my hand, uncertain. The men’s hands are rough and sticky, black with a combination of cane syrup and the soils of the field; their feet are shod only in flip-flops. Henna gestures to some stray stalks and asks them for a bit of cane to chew. One says, ‘Not from here, they’re too hot.’ He digs underneath for a stalk not exposed to the sun. He expertly wields his espading, chopping easily through the hard outer skin or bark of the cane stalk, then slicing off the outer layer and cutting the long pieces into short ones. There aren’t cane fields anywhere near where I live; the Indian bazaar close to my house offers cups of cane syrup squeezed from the pick-your-own pile of stalks. It never tasted like this, succulent, sweet and juicy.
The cane-cutters’ initial suspicions are easing. When the go-ahead for a photo is given, one pulls on a pair of pants and a red polo jacket.
As they return to work, they become visibly more comfortable, slipping into their skills, collecting up heavy shoulder-loads of cane and taking them briskly up the narrow, precarious, wobbly laddered gangway to the growing pile of harvested cane.
As we prepare to leave, heading for the car, Henna returns, careful to keep the truck between her and the gaze of the cabo. She asks for the leader. The man named Sergio waves from the top of the truck: ‘I am.’ ‘You have given us a gift,’ she says; ‘we would like to give all of you a gift. How many on the team?’
Eleven. One hundred pesos each. He points to someone on the ground; give it to him; we’ll divide it later. As we head for the rice fields, the sacadas’ quiet joy adds to the sounds of worlds, two, maybe three, colliding. It’s not justice; not even close. A drop-in-the-bucket, give-a-man-a-fish story that only seems to make clearer the width of the chasm amongst and between these worlds. The silence as the landscape rolls by lingers; and I limp, we limp.
The remarkable women with whom I read the Bible in the lives and peace-making work of Filipinas and Filipinos: Deli Baclagon, Henna Caipang and Feraz Legita.