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Coops vs. COVID


BACOLOD CITY, Negros Occidental, Philippines – Many years ago, some peasant groups scoffed at them for being “reformists” by submitting to the government’s land reform program.

Several years later, after the land reform department issued them land ownership awards, these former sugarcane workers are running their own sugarcane farms through a “workers-owned, workers-managed” scheme.

The sun rises over a sugarcane field owned by the Dama Farmworkers and Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries in La Castellana town, Negros Occidental, Philippines. | Photo by Julius D. Mariveles

A cooperative in simple terms.

For decades, the eternal problem of most canefield workers in Sugarlandia was how to stave off the seasonal deepening of hunger when the dead season comes.

With more than 70 percent of sugar production in the country coming from this province, it is estimated that the same percentage of the close to 700,000 workers (according to the 2013-2014 crop year estimate of the labor department, as cited by the Sugar Regulatory Administration) can also be found here in the province.

The dead season, tigkiriwi in Hiligaynon or tiempo muerto in Spanish is that period between planting and harvesting of sugarcane.

It is during this purgatory-like phase when work stops or slows down in the fields and workers receive little to no salary at all.

It usually peaks in August and starts when the summer heat or the El Nino, in recemt years, begins to be felt.

The quarantine declared over the province has only complicated problems in the haciendas, a non-government organization leader tells DNX.

Mt. Canlaon, Negros’ most active volcano is reflected in a rice paddy in this photo taken from Hda. Maria Cecilia, owned by one of the member cooperatives of Altertrade Philippines Foundation. | Photo by Julius D. Mariveles

As work in the fields is affected by social distancing policies and quarantine measures, meager income workers have to rely increasingly on government subsidies or food.

Partner cooperatives of the Altertrade Philippines Foundation for Food Sovereignty, however, have managed to somehow to “COVID-proof” themselves in the process of their preparations for El Nino and tiempo muerto.

Ariel Guides, ATPFI president, cites to DNX as an example the preparations by the Dama Farmworkers and Agrarian Reform Beneficiaries Association in La Castellana town.

He said the cooperatives have already bought 50 sacks of rice, one sack each for their members aside from dried fish and other essential food stuff.

“That way they are not totally dependent on government food aid or subsidies,” Ariel says.

The Dama experience is similar to what most of the 13 partner organizations of the Foundation have also done in anticipation of a lockdown in the province, he adds.

In the end, Guides says this only points to one lesson: land, if given to farmworkers, can make a difference in their lives and prepare them against calamities.

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