CUARESMA, or Holy Week is the time when Filipinos reflect on the agony of Jesus Christ. It is also the time when the mamumugon – the workers in the vast haciendasor plantations of Negros Occidental – slip into a suspended state between life and death, a seeming purgatory on earth.

This is Tiempo Muerto, the dead season in the Philippines’ sugar bowl, a period between the planting and harvesting of sugarcane. It lasts from April until August, and is a season that the sugar plantation workers dread more than the typhoons that enter the country also around this period.

Cuaresma, of course, ends with the celebration of Kristo conquering death, heaven imposing its desire on earth. But Tiempo Muerto may soon last more than the usual four months in Negros Occidental with the impending implementation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Free Trade Agreement (AFTA) in 2015 – if some sugar industry insiders and observers are proven correct.

Should that happen, the province and many of its sugar farmers who ignored the summons of the 1985 sugar crisis to reform, innovate, and be more competitive, would be largely to blame.

AFTA will bring the tariff on sugar imported from the 10 ASEAN member-countries down from 10 percent this year to five percent next year. ASEAN includes Thailand, the second largest exporter of sugar in the world after Brazil.

Yet what could be bitter pill for the sugar industry may actually turn into a sweet treat for most Filipinos who are all consumers of sugar and sugar-based food and other products. What may be Tiempo Muerto to Negros’ sugar producers could even spellTiempo Suerte to most Filipinos who are sugar consumers.

Tariff cuts, scholars say, may cause transitory pain for some sectors but the positive overall effect is to help the economy by lowering prices for consumers, and even cutting poverty incidence by 0.285 percentage points.

In the newest offering of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, senior journalist Julius D. Mariveles writes about the politics of the economy of Negros Occidental, a land whose history, politics, culture, and economy have long remained wrapped around the sugar cane.

Mariveles is a senior journalist who has worked in both print broadcast media in Negros Occidental for over 15 years. He now joins PCIJ as one of its multimedia producers.





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