Agricultural imperialism poses major climate & human rights threat in Negros Island, Philippines

Canada-Philippines Solidarity Organization is organizing an art raffle fundraiser in support of jailed and slain activists on Negros Island

Preview the artwork and buy raffle tickets here

The raffle will take place after a webinar on Saturday, October 16th at 8:00 pm EST. The event is here. Zoom registration required.


The climate crisis is a major threat to the sustainability of all life across the planet, but mainstream and even left-leaning proposed climate solutions frequently pose reforms by first-world capitalist governments as the key to solving climate change. These discourses erase the agency of agrarian and workers movements in the Global South who not only are among the most threatened by the climate crisis, but are leading the fight for a more sustainable future. This is the result of their movements being in direct antagonism with capitalist-imperialism, one of the climate crisis’s root causes.

Monopoly capitalist firms in the world’s imperial core (Europe, U.S, Canada, Japan, etc.) like the ABCD agrofood corporations dominate the global economy by investing their capital into nations in the Global South (in Asia, Africa and Latin America). Imperialists are able to extract superprofits from cheaper labour, land and resources. This imperialist extraction has led to widespread underdevelopment in these nations and renders the majority of their people impoverished and unable to establish self-determined economies to serve the collective needs of their people. Their land and resources are dominated by imperialist corporations and a minority of domestic exploiters. 

This not only renders impoverished the majority of those who live on and work the land, but also results in immense ecological devastation. Modern industrial agriculture causes long-term damage to surrounding ecosystems and major increases in carbon emissions worldwide through clearcutting, pesticide-dependent monocrop farms, and heavy use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. Agro-industry products are disproportionately exported for first-world consumption with little benefit for local food producers and their communities.

Background on Negros Island

Negros is one of the many  islands in the Philippines central region of Visayas. It is a bastion of modern day slavery, where peasants and workers are paid starvation wages while harvesting agricultural products. Farming on the island is dominated by haciendas, vast plantations established during the Spanish colonial era which persist throughout the Philippines. These are controlled by big landlords known as hacienderos and as well as private corporations. Agriculture in the Philippines is often described by peasant activists as “semi-feudal”, where land ownership is dominated by a minority of powerful landlord families, and peasants are bound by a combination of feudal obligations and capitalist relations. The majority of those who live on and work the land on Negros Island have no determination over its use. This persists despite several supposed agrarian reform programs that multiple government administrations have claimed would solve this problem. 

Agro-industry dominates the island in the form of banana, coconut, corn and sugar production. With 53% of national production, Negros is known as the “sugar bowl of the Philippines;,” and approximately 40%, or 300,000 of the nation’s 750,000 sugar workers are in Negros. Workers in this sector are some of the most exploited and neglected in Philippine society, earning less than half the national minimum wage, often paid through the pakyaw, piece-rate system, earning CAD $1.40 to $1.85 per day, less than half the national minimum wage earning CAD $1.40 to $1.85 per day. Female and internal migrant workers (“sakadas”) face even worse conditions. The blood and sweat of sugarcane workers has fueled the economic and political influence of the biggest landlord clans, including the Gustilos, Locsins, and Cojuangcos (who include two former Presidents).

The brutal exploitation of sugar workers and other agricultural workers on monocrop plantations coincides with serious environmental degradation in Negros Island. The burning of cane fields before and after harvests leads to significantly reduced soil fertility. This causes lower cane yields which in turn incentivizes the higher application rates of fertilizers and persistent herbicides, which contaminate local groundwater. Industrial trash burning harms local biodiversity such as populations of ground nesting birds, snakes and wildcats, as well as increasing respiratory problems, eye disease and increased cancer in sugar workers.

With the overthrow of the US-backed Marcos dictatorship in 1986, the new government promised a Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP) to redistribute land to tenant farmers and others who were actually making use of the land. 

Delays in implementation led to protests in 1987, resulting in the Mendiola Massacre of January 22, 1987, when military forces under President Corazon Cojuangco Aquino fired on protesting peasants and workers. Aquino’s family owns Hacienda Luisita, a plantation the size of Manila and site, in 2004, of another massacre of peasants and farm workers protesting the distribution of low-paying Hacienda stocks rather than land. In general, landlords have been able to mitigate or avoid CARP, through one-sided lease agreements, stock options, shell companies, and intimidation and murder of peasants and farm workers.

Colonial and Imperial origins of problems

These problems have their roots in colonialism and imperialism. Sugar plantations became dominant in the Philippines by the early 19th century during Spanish colonialism. It served primarily as an agricultural export to serve European markets. While the colonial period formally “ended” in 1898, Spanish domination was simply replaced with U.S. domination. Until this day the U.S. continues to use their economic and military power to influence the nature of the Philippines economy. The sugar industry remained dominant as a commodity for export (then primarily to the U.S.) until the share of sugar products for exports declined during the 1970s

The unequal semi-feudal structure of land-relations that underpins the industry is inherited from this colonial history and ongoing imperialist domination. This has required the dominance of a landlord class who serve the interests of imperialist corporations. The widespread demand for land redistribution and food sovereignty would take power away from this class. This would bolster self-sustaining production that benefits the majority of Filipino people, while undermining imperialist hegemony over the Philippines that makes it a source of superprofits. While the sugar industry is now primarily domestic, it is upheld by the same unequal land distribution structure that predominates in industries that are heavily export based such as bananas and palm oil

Resistance through Bungkalan

Peasants and farm workers in Negros Island are resisting this unequal system by using a land cultivation system called bungkalan to address mass hunger and exploitive working conditions. It is one of the main initiatives of KMP (Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas) a mass organization of nearly 2 million peasants nationwide. 

With bungkalan, farmworkers and peasants engage in collective land cultivation in degraded areas of the countryside and decide which crops to cultivate while using agroecological farming practices. Agroecology is the use of sustainable ecological principles and concepts to design and manage sustainable agro-ecosystems, typically by combining modern scientific methods with traditional peasant and Indigenous knowledge systems.

In Negros Island, this practice dates back to the 1980s when the National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW) cultivated farm lots for food crops when the sugar industry was in a peak crisis. Local associations asserted land rights for workers and pushed to include farm lots in collective bargaining with their employers or landlords to address mass hunger.

Today bungkalan is most active during the “tiempo muerto” (dead season) of the year that lasts from May to August when the milling season comes to a halt and jobs are extremely scarce for both farm and mill workers. In Negros, there are about 3000 hectares of land cultivation areas (LCA), out of a total farm/holdings of a little under 300,000 hectares.

The success of bungkalan has shaken the exploitative feudal hacienda system on the island as Negros is experiencing a growing people’s resistance. The practice of bungkalan improves the productivity of cultivation areas, allows peasants and farm workers to consolidate and strengthen economic and political gains, takes steps towards building a more collectivized agriculture and allows them to more fairly market their products. Ecologically sustainable food production cannot be separated from who controls land in the process of food production.

Despite the success of bungkalan, the issue of how to ensure food sovereignty remains. Food producers lack resources, technology and institutional power to create a fully self-sustaining agriculture that can end food insecurity in Negros and the rest of the Philippines. The practice of bungkalan should be seen as a step towards farm workers and peasants asserting their rights to the land in their fight for genuine, large-scale comprehensive agricultural reform in the Philippines.

State repression

The history of the resistance of the people of Negros has resulted in intense militarization of the island beginning in the 1980s. The The effects of the state and landlord terror are far-reaching – one older example, and several recent examples, can illustrate its extent:

September 20, 1985 — In Escalante, sugar workers, farmers and their supporters staged a protest against 13 years of martial law, and the deteriorating conditions of sugar workers. Paramilitaries under the provincial governor, Armando Gustilo, massacred a picket of workers and supporters. 

March 2018 — Six youth activists organizing a farmer’s forum in Mabinay were arrested on trumped-up weapons and explosives charges, accused of being members of the communist New People’s Army (NPA). 

October 2018 — nine sugarcane workers (including two children), members of the NFSW, were murdered while undertaking bungkalan

November 2018 — lawyer Ben Ramos, who took on CARP cases as well as being the lawyer for the Mabinay 6 and families of the Sagay 9, was murdered in Kabankalan City. 

September 2019 — eight cultural workers from the Teatro Obrero, which conducts a yearly theatrical reenactment of the Escalante massacre, were arrested on trumped-up charges and accused of being members of the NPA.

The series of killings of peasants and activists in Negros led to Duterte’s Memorandum Order 32, dispatching troops to Negros, Samar and Bicol to “suppress lawless violence.” Accompanied by CAFGUs (Civilian Armed Forces Geographical Units) and other paramilitaries, the military has engaged in a series of operations including Oplan Kapanatagan and Oplan Sauron, worsening conditions on the island for the civilian population. President Duterte publicly called for the arrest of peasants engaging in bungkalan and for the military to shoot those resisting.

This list is non-exhaustive, and the Philippines continues to be reported as the most dangerous country for land defenders with record numbers of assassinated environmental activists have continued in 2020 for the second year in a row. 

Climate Justice

The situation in Negros demonstrates the importance of anti-imperialism and solidarity with  agrarian struggles. Empowering peasants and farm workers to work the land for their collective benefit is essential for creating a globally sustainable food production system. This means breaking from a food system in which producers in southern countries are exploited to make cheap products for both their local exploiting classes and northern consumers, and working towards sustainable food production in the Global North that does not depend on exploiting the Global South.

Applying this to Canada – a settler-colonial state – means supporting Indigenous nations who are leading the struggle to reclaim their stolen lands. This is an essential step to establishing non-exploitative and ecological food production systems, particularly Indigenous food sovereignty. The struggle for Indigenous peoples against Canadian settler-colonialism has parallels to the struggle of Negros farm workers for land redistribution, as well as the struggles of Indigenous Peoples throughout the Philippines to exercise genuine self-determination in their ancestral territories.

We must also support the struggles of Filipino migrant workers in Canada. The intentional underdevelopment of the Philippines that denies them a sovereign and self-sufficient economy compels migration to Canada and other wealthy countries where Filipino workers (predominantly women) work low-wage domestic, manufacturing, and service jobs. These workers keep labour costs low, which profits their Canadian employers, and also privileges Canadians broadly, by maintaining artificially low prices for services (e.g. care, medicine), and commodities (e.g. meat from packing plants). by maintaining low prices for keeping the price of certain services, for example (especially in care and medicine and commodities, such as meat from packing plants, low.

This unequal system of underdevelopment at home and exploitation abroad, based on the violent extraction of wealth from people and their lands, must be dismantled. Solidarity with the people’s struggles in the Philippines and across the Global South must be made a central component of climate justice activism.

One concrete way to do this is to support the global campaign led by the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP) called “Defend Negros Island.” With a focus on human rights, the campaign also aims to support political prisoners and their families and build people-to-people, organization-to-organization connections between the Philippines and other countries.  

We at the Canada Philippines Solidarity Organization (CPSO) are currently organizing a fundraiser to support the families of Negrense political prisoners through an art auction on October 16th, 2021. If you have artwork available or are interested in producing a piece for donation to the auction, please visit our, check out our social media or website at the links below:



Instagram: cpso.toronto


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