About Negros

Taken from the Preface to “Seeds of Injustice” by Fr Niall O'Brien RIP

The Republic of the Philippines, an archipelago of some seven thousand islands, lies on the western rim of the Pacific basin just below Taiwan and well north of Australia .

Ten thousand years before Christ, people were living in the Philippines : their traces have been carefully documented. How they got there we can only guess – by flimsy boat, or by simply trekking across the land bridges from Asia and Borneo , uncovered by the lowering of the ocean in the last ice age. When the Spanish reached the Philippines from South America in the early sixteenth century they found a people with a well-developed culture, with religion, laws and the art of writing, and with wide trade contacts with the rest of Asia, and even further afield, for Islam was just arriving too.

The victors write the history, but from what we can glimpse through the ‘cracks in the parchment curtain' the first Filipinos whom the Spaniards encountered were non-belligerent, gentle, generous, and brave when aroused. Contact with the aggressive Portuguese and Spaniards soon forced them to be more defensive.

Spain had learned a moral lessons from early excesses in Latin America , so her policies in the Western Isle (as they were first called) were comparatively enlightened compared with other colonisers. Slavery, which lasted into the nineteenth century in the rest of the world, was by this time outlawed b Spain , and the specials laws defended the land rights of the native populations. The Indians of North America hardly survive today, whereas the Indios of the Western Isles have grown into a great nation of more than fifty million people. Spain came in search of spices and gold. The voyage was unashamedly commercial and was funded by banking houses of Europe . They found neither spices nor gold in quantity, but they stayed to bring the faith-the personal decision of Phillip II, after whom the islands are named, Letters to Phillip are still extant in which the first priests who came on the Spanish galleons vehemently attacked the oppression of the native population by the soldiery and by corrupt government officials. However, as the time went on the Church was co-opted into the ruling body and became almost identified with it. Things took a decisive turn for the worse in the eighteenth century with the accession of the Bourbon (French) kings to the throne of Spain . Whereas in the time of the Spanish Habsburgs the Philippines had been an unproductive jewel in the Spanish crown, now they became an object of planned exploitation. Tobacco, indigo and other monopolies were introduced and the laws protecting the land rights of the native population began to be abrogated to allow European capital to come in to develop the country.

The process was well under way when the United States , expanding westwards towards China , took the Philippines in 1898. Strangely enough, it was under the US that the plantation system that was to bedevil Negros (one of the Philippine Islands) intensified.

Negros had in fact escaped the Spanish colonisation to a great extent-they just did not have enough men, and Moro (Muslim Filipino) pirates coming from the south made it a dangerous place to live in. However, around the middle of the nineteenth century three significant things happened: the Suez Canal opened, shortening the distance between Spain and the East and bringing an influx of European entrepreneurs; the steam boat reached the Philippines and could overtake the Morevintas (fast sailing ships); and Nicholas Loney, agent for the Manchester cotton mills and British Consul in Iloilo, the neighbouring island, ‘founded' the sugar industry.

How Loney did this is important, because it gives us a typical example of one colonial method of penetration. At that time (c.1850) Iloilo had a thriving textile industry; its main city, Iloilo City , has sixty thousand hand-looms which produced fine cloth that found markets around the globe. Loney pirated the textile patterns and sent them back to Manchester , where a combination of steam mills and slave labour was able to produce the same textiles at a much lower price. He shipped them back to Iloilo and in a few years had utterly destroyed the economy of the island. Not wanting his ships to go home empty, he planned to fill them with sugar, hence he pioneered the opening up of Negros to sugar plantations. He gave liberal loans to entrepreneurs (frequently those whose textile interests had collapsed) to buy British-made steam mills and move into Negros to a Third-World economy- a grip it is still in to this day.

With the new steam mills the large sugar farms expanded, and peasants who had cleared the forest of lowland Negros to plant their rice and corn became day labourers on the land they ad cleared. There was still a shortage of workers, so peasants from other islands were imported, creating a new class of semi-indentured labourers known as the sacadas. The system was consolidated under the Americans, who again re-wrote the laws and introduced the enormous centrifugal sugar factories which, with their tall chimneys, still dominate the landscape of Negros today.

Came the Second World War, and, although US strategy decided that Europe came first and so allowed the Philippines to fall to Japan , the Filipinos stood by the US , putting up a brave guerrilla resistance, and gained their promised independence in 1946. But the independence turned out to be illusory, as colonialism was replaces by the neo-colonialism. The US discovered that there was no need to have the Stars and Stripes flying over the Philippines as long as the laws ensured US economic dominion and US military bases. These laws were partly achieved in exchange for war damage money (which was owed to the Philippines in any case). In the ensuing years, as Filipinos struggled to make something out of democracy, a genuine nationalism gradually emerged. People began to demand economic independence and reform of the whole social structure. By 1971 the ground was shaking with the call for change; nothing, it seemed, could hold it back. However, it was precisely to hold it back that President Marcos introduced martial law. Martial law opened the gates to international finance, which marched in with vast self-serving projects and full rights to repatriate their earnings. The two-billion-dollar nuclear plant, built in an earthquake-prone area, is a typical example.

Balked in their push for reform, many idealistic students took to the hills and joined the then miniscule New People's Army (NPA). The regime responded by militarising the whole country. The ensuing actions of the military on the innocent population have served to swell the ranks of the NPA further. Effective reform has been rejected and many people have reluctantly taken up the grim alternative of rebellion. Meanwhile, in the Bishop of Bacolod's controversial phrase, Negros became a ‘social volcano'.

In 1979 Church researches found that only 1.5 percent of the Negros population owned any land at all. Among a total of 332,000 families in the province, 330 families owned 45 percent of the sugar land, 30 families controlled 60 percent of the fishing catch, and 14 families held 150,000 hectares [about 350,00 acres] of lumber concessions. And this translated into extreme poverty for at least 82 percent of the province's 1.8 million people.

Alfred W. McCoy, Priests on Trial, Penguin Books, 1984.

A hundred years ago the introduction of a European-style land title system served to disinherit the traditional owners of lowland Negros. Many of these people moved to the hills. Now the same and new legal devices are being used to disinherit these people again, and indeed mountain tribes throughout the Philippines . For them there is nowhere left to go. It was with these people that Father Brian Gore, Father Vicente Dangan and I were attempting to build small Christian communities.




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