No sweet life but sugarcane industry perseveres

By Perla Lena, Nanette Guadalquiver and Annabel Consuelo Petinglay 

ILOILO CITY – Life in the sugarcane industry is not always sweet but small players and stakeholders in Iloilo persevere as it has been “the most favorable crop” that has sustained the province even through this pandemic.

Sugarcane production is an almost P10-billion industry in Iloilo taking into account the fuel, fertilizer, truck parts, equipment, and labor, among others that are involved in the production chain, according to Iloilo Board Member Matt Palabrica, who has been taking the cudgels for farmers and sugarcane planters.

During the pandemic, the money that circulated in Iloilo under the sugarcane industry alone reached almost P10 billion, according to information Palabrica gathered from previous big planters.

“It could even be more now because it is the only industry together with rice that survived the pandemic,” he noted.

Sugarcane plantations in the third, fourth, and fifth districts of Iloilo province cover about 20,875 hectares. “On average, a hectare can produce 60 metric tons (MT) or if the plantation is good, production could reach 80 to 100 MT (of sugarcane stalks),” he said.

As of 2021, there were 4,890 planters and around 10,000 farm laborers in the three districts.

“For our family, it is now our life. I think it is the same with others because like in Bingawan (3rd district) and other areas there is no irrigation, so the most favorable crop for the soil you till is sugarcane,” he said.

Palabrica said one of his crusades “is for the provincial government to give due importance to sugarcane farming, and like other agricultural sectors, sugarcane tillers also need support and attention as they are composed mainly of small farmers and not owners of vast plantations.”

He expressed optimism that under the administration of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. the “glory days” of the industry in the 70s will be revived.

September each year marks the start of the milling season in the sugar industry, which also signals the beginning of a new crop year. For the upcoming milling season, the crop year is set from September 1, 2022 to August 31, 2023, the Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) said.

In Negros, which produces about 60 percent of the Philippines’ sugar output, there are 13 sugar mills and six refineries, the biggest in the country. A total of 12 sugar centrals and five refineries are all situated in Negros Occidental while the rest are in Negros Oriental.

As of Aug. 18, four sugar mills have resumed operations in Negros Occidental.

Iloilo Province has three sugar mills including the Central Azucarera de San Antonio in Passi City, the Universal Robina Corporation–Passi facility based in San Enrique town, and the Capiz Sugar Central in President Roxas, Capiz province that is expected to start with their milling operations also next month.

SRA Deputy Administrator for Regulations, Guillermo Tejida III said their agency determines the estimated production for the next crop year based on the survey of  the sugar mills.

For the crop year 2021 to 2022, the production estimate has been pegged at 2.138 million MT nationwide. As of August 7, however, actual production is only 1.793 MT.

Although the milling season is still ongoing, “we theorize that we will not still hit the production estimate as of last year,” he noted.

Tejida said one of the reasons for lower sugar production was the decrease in production areas. He noted that 10 years ago, some 423,000 hectares of land were devoted to  sugarcane nationwide, but this has dropped now to only 399,000 hectares this current crop year.

“The trend shows decreasing areas dedicated to sugarcane, maybe due to land conversion or planting of other crops. Another factor is climatic conditions,” he added.

Over 4,000 sugar migrant workers locally known as sacadas are preparing for deployment to sugar-rich Negros Occidental in time for the milling season next month.

The Antique Provincial Planning and Development Office Sacada Desk meets with sacada contractors on August 22 to determine how many sacadas will return to the sugar bowl province and prepare them for deployment, said desk in-charge Randy Ardeño.

“Last year, we have registered 4,322 sacadas who went to Negros Occidental to work,” he shared, adding that the sacada migrant workers will stay in Negros Occidental during the six-month milling season starting September.

Antique is predominantly the province where sugarcane land owners of Negros Occidental outsource their sacadas, based on the 2012 research conducted by University of Antique headed by Dr. Nelibeth P. Fedelicio. (PNA)