HE WAS born to one of the old-rich families of Negros Occidental in the sprawling Hacienda Binitin in the town of Murcia, but Roberto L. Montelibano does not consider himself a sugarcane planter.
Instead, he thinks himself as a businessman, although like many other hacendado clans in the province, his family built its fortune literally on sugarcane — a grass proficient in making sugar — which their workers plant, harvest, and load for milling into sugar that is exported abroad or consumed in-country.
The Montelibanos own land so vast it stretches on — and so truth and tale go — to as far as the eye could see. Together with other Negros hacendados, the Montelibanos have fortified their economic estates through the years by venturing into politics or seizing public office.
In a parade of elections past, hacendados have fielded patriarchs, matriarchs, sons, and daughters to local elective positions, or pitched funds or votes to prop those who wanted to be president, senator, or senior politician.
But when crisis gripped the sugar industry in 1985, Roberto Montelibano was one of the first from the landowning clans to venture into real estate. Soon after Philippine sugar lost its preferred market status in the United States when the Laurel-Langley Agreement expired in 1974, he had seen a need to diversify and innovate.
Montelibano is ambivalent if he should say goodbye to sugar for good, however. He professes undying love for the sweet reed but also stresses that Negros’s hacendados must embrace change and other crops.
“I am still an advocate for sugar,” he says, adding that, “we should diversify but we should also stay in sugar,” albeit only where the land is productive.
Although the northern towns of Negros Occidental remain highly productive enabling plantations to offer workers higher wages, soil conditions elsewhere in the province have ceased to be good for sugar.
Montelibano began diversifying with his Green Harvest Food company, producing nata de coco, pickles, ham, and other products. Soon after, he launched a hauling firm and a roofing company. His latest project is a dairy farm with 100 heads of cattle grazing on land straddling Murcia and Bacolod City, where his family also owns land. In time, he wants to start making cheese.
During the recent 20th Panaad sa Negros Festival, a showcase of all the top products of the 32 towns and cities of Negros Occidental, Montelibano was even named the province’s best dairy cattle raiser. Today Montelibano employs around 400 workers in his various businesses located in Negros, Iloilo, and Mindanao.
Green Harvest used to produce its own vegetables. It has now outsourced the work to farmers. The firm has provided the farmers seeds and farm inputs, and after harvest time, buys their produce.
Although he already had non-sugar businesses when a crisis hit the sugar industry in the 1980s, Montelibano says that event made him realize all the more that Negros Occidental would not survive on sugar as its sole source of income.
But change, or the willingness to embrace it, has come slow for many of the clans of Negros.
In 2013, the Metro Bacolod Chamber of Commerce and Industry that Montelibano heads exhorted sugar mill owners and government representatives to go into energy production. “There were no takers then,” he recalls.
Recently, however, sugar mills have started to explore power-generation projects. For starters, the First Farmers sugar mill in Talisay City has become a pioneer and is now selling electricity to the grid, Montelibano says.
By all indications, Montelibano and innovators like him are for now the outliers in Negros Occidental, where the old order of wealth wedded to politics lingers still.
A system spawned over centuries of dependence on the large-scale production of sugar — a mono-crop economy — has bred social patterns of nearly absolute dependence on the hacendados, on the part of the sugar workers and the poor of Negros, from cradle to grave. It is a culture that has also assured the rise to political power of the progeny of the hacendados.
“The landlord was the one who dictated who the workers should vote for,” says Professor Virgilio Aguilar, who teaches sociology at the University of St. La Salle in Negros Occidental. “Whatever the landlord would say they would follow — that is how politics is perpetuated in the hacienda.”
Negros Occidental’s 1.57-million registered voters as of December 2013 is the country’s fourth largest, by province, after Cebu, Cavite, and Pangasinan.
When the landlord tells them who to vote for, sugar workers, in fact, have two choices, according to Roman Catholic priest Ireneo Gordoncillo. “It’s either vote or gabot.”
The Hiligaynon word “gabot” means the literal uprooting of a worker’s house, or being driven out of the hacienda.
Lawyer Lyndon Caña, a former councilor of Bacolod City and one of the few independent local politicos, says that sugar workers are wont to follow their hacendados’ wishes during elections because “mentally, emotionally, psychologically the masses are predisposed to looking for benefits, for food, for better wages.”
“And that,” he says, “is wittingly or unwittingly transferred to the political exercise.”
That much was affirmed in the latest elections in May 2013. For the first time in 10 years, the province saw candidates from two major political parties slug it out for the more than 300 local elective positions. At first blush, it seemed like clear evidence of a vibrant democracy.
But in truth, more candidates did not mean more and better — or different — choices for the voters.
“The ruling clans were just fighting among themselves,” Gordoncillo said. The last balloting also marked the collapse of the once formidable United Negros Alliance of Marcos crony Eduardo ‘Danding’ Cojuangco Jr., hence, the tussle for votes between two major political parties.
Still, after the votes had been counted, the same surnames that have dominated Negros Occidental politics for several decades prevailed still as winners. The governor who had succeeded a brother to the same post was re-elected. The second- and third-generation offspring of several hacendado clans won positions as mayor, vice mayor, or councilor in the same towns where their grandparents or parents had served earlier.
By all accounts, “hacienda politics” prevails in Negros. It is a simple enough equation, according to Caña. Because they own and control the land, the clans of Negros have secured free pass to control the votes. — PCIJ, April 2014