VIOLENCE CRIPPLES PHILIPPINE BANANA INDUSTRY
RENEWED VIOLENT ATTACKS by communist rebels on banana plantations in Mindanao in Southern Philippines is crippling the banana export industry, a major dollar-earner for the country.
The specter of unemployment lurks as the industry fears that foreign partners of companies in banana production would pull away investment to relocate to safer countries in wake of the violence by the New People’s Army (NPA).
The NPA, which has a heavy presence in many areas of Mindanao, is the armed wing of the National Democratic Front (NDF), the political umbrella of leftist organizations under the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP).
Banana farm workers and farmers, most affected by the crisis, have called on the NPA to stop the violence and urged the government to intervene.
Banana farmers who are Agrarian reform beneficiaries (ARBs) of the government’s land reform program, are appealing to the NPA to stop harassing the big plantations. For lack of capital, ARBs partner with the big companies in banana production.
“If the NPA is truly for the people, why deprive the masses of their livelihood?”
The ARBs also appealed to the administration of President Benigno Aquino to stop the rebels from attacking plantations because they might shut down their operations, laying off hundreds of thousands of farm workers.
Last year, the NPA attacked Mindanao plantations almost on a monthly basis beginning in January until November. The NPA burned heavy equipment, container vans and cargo trucks loaded with bananas in T’boli and Surallah in South Cotabato; Barobo and Lianga in Surigao del Sur; Quezon, Bukidnon; Maco, Compostela Valley; and Maasim, Sarangani Province.
The attacks stopped in December, in time with the annual Yuletide Suspension Of Military Operations (SOMO) declared by both the NDF and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
The NPA resumed their violent activities in January 2016.
The number of attacks in less than a one-month period, covering January 22 to February 19, 2016, already equaled the number of attacks for the whole of 2015.
The NPA, in less than a month this year, burned four Martignani spray trucks, a warehouse inside a packinghouse compound and other heavy equipment from eight different plantations in Bukidnon, Agusan del Norte and south Cotabato.
The attacks, at the least, could stop expansion of the plantations.
At its worse, the violence could drive away multinational corporations with investments in banana production to relocate in other friendly countries.
If the harassment and violence by the NPA continues, the biggest loser would be Mindanao, whose major dollar earner is the lucrative fruits export market in Asia and the Middle East.
The attacks have not yet resulted in any physical casualty to plantation workers but a much greater injury awaits, not only the farm laborers but also the economy in general, Eduardo Maningo, a spokesman for the ARBs said.
Banana plantations alone account for 83,000 hectares in Mindanao and at an average of four direct and indirect workers, the banana industry employs 332,000 workers. Together with their families, a potential of two million people will lose their livelihood.
The government will also lose the taxes collected through property taxes, business permits, VAT and income taxes, among others, derived from investments of the multinationals.
The NPA has gone hi-tech in pushing the industry to the wall by sending out warnings through text messaging.
After the series of burning incidents in Bukidnon, the communist rebels circulated the following message:
“Mainitong pagbati gikan sa mga pulang manggugubat. Nabati na sa mga mapahimuslanon nga mga dagkong kumpanya dri sa Bukidnon ang silot nga gipahamtang sa hukbo nga maoy tinuod nga sandiganan sa mga naalaot nga masa. Dili pa kini igo tungod padayon ang pagkaguba sa kinaiyahan, mga katungod giyatakan sa militarisasyon ug ang nagharing hut-ong mao pa gihapon ang nabolahan. Karong tuiga makab-ot na nato ang kadaugan. Daghan pa nga mga opensiba ang ipahigayon hangtod ang mga kapitalista mo yukbo. Kung kamo nga mga trabahanti mawad-an ug trabaho sa mubo nga panahon, giawhag namo kamo nga mag sakripisyo alang sa tinuod nga pakigbisog. Kinahanglan ipahunong ug ipasiraang mga dagkong kumpanya nga nag tamastamas kanato sa dugay na nga panahon.Mobarog kita alang sa kaangayan, hustisya ug tinuod nga reporma. Mabuhi ang BHB! Mabuhi ang PKP!”
(“Warm greetings from the freedom fighters. The opportunistic big corporations here in Bukidnon have already felt the presence of the army of the masses. This is not yet enough because the destruction of the environment still continues. We will achieve victory this year. We will continue our attacks until we topple down these capitalists. If you workers will lose your jobs for a short period, we call on you to sacrifice for true unity. We need to shut down these big corporations who have been oppressing us for the longest time. Let us stand for conformity, justice and true reform. Long live BHB! Long live PKP!”)
Last week, the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDF) in Mindanao warned large banana plantations to stop the use of aerial spray planes or rebels will be forced to shoot down the aircrafts.
Ka Malaya, a spokesperson of the NDF cited the damage of the fungicides to workers, residents, and the environment.
Big banana plantations use low-flying airplanes to spray fungicides at the banana leaves to prevent the sigatoka disease, the deadly leaf disease that years ago nearly crippled the banana industry in the South American countries. The Sigatoka blight remains a major threat to Mindanao bananas.
Ka Malaya said that the banana plantations had been warned in December last year, “but they continued to use this, not considering the damage it causes to the surrounding people, plants and animals,” she said.
However, all these allegations have been refuted by farm workers and other residents around the plantations, claiming their environment have remained still conducive for farming and raising animals. They said they’ve been living healthy lives for more than three decades, even with the plantations employing aerial spray.
Banana companies as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) projects maintain health assistance programs in communities where they operate.
The banana companies said nobody has proven that aerial spray caused sickness among residents and workers.
Ka Malaya called on “pilots of the aerial-spray aircrafts to stop and look for other jobs.”
“Even if they are not the targets of the shooting, they are at risk to be hit by the bullets,” she said.
An armed conflict is far from what the ARBs want, said Maningo.
“The government should step in and do something about it. If the government doesn’t do anything, then we will all be losers,” he said.
The country’s employment problem is seen to worsen if the government is not able to solve the Mindanao crisis.
Thousands of the country’s Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) have been laid off in the Middle East as the region suffers a crisis due to the declining oil prices.
With the potential plantation workers losing their jobs and the OFWs returning from overseas, the country faces a terrible problem.
Banana plantation workers sum up their bleak future with this sentiment against the communist rebels:
“Maybe this is what the NDF wants. Where will we end up?”