The plantations: exports and jobs, some fringe benefits -- and tentions

George H. Richardson Jr. surveyed the fields of pineapple stretching miles across the alley from one range of hills to another range -- some 9,000 hectares (22,230 acres), producing about one-quarter of the world's production of the luxury fruit.

"I get a sense of accomplishment from this," said the head of Del Monte's subsidiary here, the Philippine Packing Corporation.

The son of an American missionary family, Mr. Richardson has been working here in northern Mindanao Island for 23 years, since 1966 as manager. He is "the boss" to around 14,000 workers, and not a remote one in some office tower. Mr. Richardson drives his own truck between a packing plant on the waterfront and the plantation in the fertile Bukidnon Plateau 2,000 feet higher. He knows his way around the miles of dirt and gravel roads that crisscross the fields. "The 'great man,'" commented an executive at another plantation, speaking of the tall, erect Del Monte manager.

Plantation agriculture -- for pineapple, sugar, bananas, and some other, lesser crops -- is controversial in the Philippines.

It is valued because it employs large numbers of workers in rural areas where large families mean job shotages. For instance, Mr. Richardson figures he needs one man for every two acres for weeding alone. The plantations also provide huge amounts of foreign exchange. Del Monte ships about 100,000 tons of fresh pipeapple to Japan each year and 12 million cases of canned pineapple around the world.

But it is criticized because it is largely controlled by multinational corporations and it is big. And in some cases, particularly with the smaller plantations, the work conditions may be poor.

Here in Mindanao, four major multinationals, Dole, Del Monte, United Brands, and the Japanese trading house, Sumitomo, operate 27,000 hectares of choice land. In some areas, they have displaced small farmers and indigenous minorities. These multinationals also buy under contract the crops of smaller plantations.

Del Monte has nine contract banana growers with some 5,000 hectares altogether, producing 22 million boxes of the yellow fruit each year. Del Monte markets it abroad.

The contract growers deal with land and labor problems. They own their estates or lease them from small farmers. They sell their product at prearranged prices to the multinationals, and if necessary are provided with credit, fertilizer pesticides, and other needs.

It's a relationship that sometimes has tensions. Caspar Javellana, the assistant general manager of the Lapanday Agricultural & Development Corporation , operator of three plantations near Davao in southern Mindanao, complained about the contract price offered by Del Monte for bananas. He maintained he was getting better prices shipping on his own, when cargo space could be found. But he admitted that overproduction worldwide has depressed banana prices.

A major company like Del Monte provides its employees with relatively good working conditions. It has just built a new 100-bed hospital to supplement another hospital. It supports a nutrition program. It is spending $1 million a year on employee housing and has enough now for more than 8,000 of its employees. It pays above-average wages -- which still aren't much money in a poor country.

Del Monte also has programs to help out the poor barrios that spot the areas around the plantation.

The company leases its land from the government, thereby avoiding to some degree nationalistic feelings about foreign ownership. Some Filipinos still recall that decades ago the US Congress considered, but did not pass, a bill to separate Mindanao and Sul from the Philippines and annex the islands -- making them something of a remote American plantation.

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