In Philippines, sugar barons seek ways to combat insurgency. Negros's poverty proves fertile ground for guerrillas

Had he not been appointed mayor of a Philippine city last March, Victor Puey might have spent next week in Japan or Taiwan racing motor boats. Instead, the landowner-turned-activist will be organizing a small farmers' cooperative on Negros, the most impoverished island in the Philippines.

His city of Sagay (population 108,000) includes more than 6,000 malnourished children being fed under an emergency UNICEF project. ``I may sell the boat,'' he says, opening his wallet to display its picture. ``If we don't fill these people's stomachs, they will join the [communist] rebels in the hills.''

Changes are in the air on Negros -- small ones that may begin to attack a well-publicized problem of widespread hunger and starvation. The island, to its misfortune, has been overly dependent on sugar cane growing. While the world sugar market has gone sour in the past decade, a majority of 3 million Negrenese have been going with bellies empty.

``I've never seen it so bad,'' says Isabela Malabon, who has been selling palm-fiber hats to sugar cane cutters for more than half a century. ``People are eating one meal a day instead of three,'' she says. ``And instead of rice, they eat bananas or sweet potatoes.''

She, like many Filipinos, listened carefully to hourly radio reports on President Corazon Aquino's trip to the United States for the past nine days. The Negrenese are especially keen to know if the US Congress will allow a higher import quota for Philippine sugar, after lowering it over the past decade.

But any change in Negros these days revives old political tensions. Raising the quota, for instance, ``would merely further the feudal system,'' says Negros's Roman Catholic bishop, Msgr. Antonio Fortich. The cigar-smoking activist is known as ``Commander Tony'' for his recent attempt to persuade rebels to give up their armed struggle.

Since the 1700s, Negros has been dominated by wealthy sugar barons ruling paternalistically over little-educated cane cutters. The island's few remaining ancestral homes are reminders of the days of plenty, but a new generation of plantation owners is uneasy about the old patron-client ties with workers, many of whom they grew up with on family estates.

For sugar plantation owner Eduardo Ledesma, any small boost to the economy might help the island make a transition to other crops.

In the meantime, however, he and about 20 other plantation owners and businessmen have banded together to fight a spreading insurgency. The new poverty has proven to be fertile ground for recruitment by the island's 600 to 800 guerrillas in the communist New People's Army (NPA).

``If it's war they want, it's war they'll get,'' says Mr. Ledesma, who admits his group is supported by Armando Gustilo, a Negros ``warlord'' under ousted President Ferdinand Marcos. Mr. Gustilo, now being investigated by the Aquino government on various charges, has been denied permission to leave the country.

The group, known as the Foundation for Peace and Democracy, plans to ``fight communism on the communists' own terms.'' That means propaganda, village ``teach-ins,'' political organizing, and if needed, violence. The group gives at least $100,000 a year directly to local military units to help them fight the insurgency. Such tactics go against Aquino's strategy of using nonviolence as long as possible.

Last Friday, the group sponsored an anticommunist rally in the island's largest city, Bacolod, at which Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile spoke. Before some 5,000 trucked-in sugar workers, Mr. Enrile announced that the military was ready to resume full warfare with the NPA -- ``if the President . . . will give us the order to do so.'' Since Aquino took power, the military has adopted a ``defensive posture'' while cease-fire talks go on.

As Enrile spoke, two white doves were released from the stage. But before they could fly away, the doves were snatched out of the air by a band of lean and hungry boys, perhaps to be eaten for the day's meal.

``Be careful,'' Enrile told the crowd. ``See to it that you will not fall to the deception of the [communists].'' Indicating support for the foundation's counterinsurgency tactics, he added: ``The radical left is organizing its front organizations; why should they begrudge others who do the same?''

The foundation also opposes a proposal, awaiting Mrs. Aquino's approval, for land reform in the main sugar-growing province on the island, Negros Occidental.

Originally to be mandatory but later made optional at the request of landowners, the plan calls for the government to buy 40 percent of a plantation where the owner cannot pay off debts to government banks. An estimated 70 to 90 percent of Negros's landowners are heavily indebted to the tune of a total of $250 million. Responsibility for that debt is variously attributed to market manipulation by Mr. Marcos and his cronies, the drastic drop in world sugar prices, or the planters themselves. A looming question is: What will be the proper ``just compensation'' for lands taken?

Of the land bought, one-fourth is to be given to plantation workers for their use, while the rest would become government-controlled private estates to help Negros diversify into high-value crops such as pepper, pinneapples, and palm oil. Designed by provincial Gov. Daniel Lacson, the plan may receive hefty World Bank aid. For Governor Lacson, the plan is a moral imperative to end hunger and save Negros.

Despite some landowner opposition, it is supported by the largest group of sugar landowners, the Confederaton of Sugar Producers Association, Inc. ``With our size of debt, we had no choice,'' says the group's local chairman, Eduardo Suatengco Jr. Rather than face possible foreclosure, most landowners will go along, he says. Also, landowners only need 60 percent of their land to meet present and projected sugar demand.

Still, the plan would be a test for nationwide land reform, promised by Aquino and proposed in a constitution now being drafted. But redistributing what little arable land remains may be easier than helping and training farmers to till their new-found land.

``Half our problem is how to contain the backlash from landowners,'' says Agrarian Reform Minister Henerson Alveres. ``The other half is that many of our people still live in the 16th century.''

Testing out new development theories makes some landowners bristle. ``You can't just take our land so it can be used as an experiment,'' Ledesma says.

Meanwhile, plans are being readied for an Aquino visit to Negros on Oct. 16. Cane planting restarts about then, and landowners need to know soon if the land reform plan will go ahead. Aquino, whose family owns a sugar plantation on the island of Luzon, has said she is reluctant to break up her own land, because a study has shown that her workers would be less productive if given their own plots.

Msgr. Fortich is also trying to arrange for Aquino to meet with the local NPA commander to seal a cease-fire pact for Negros. After his last talks with the NPA, the military shelled the site.

``The NPA needs to understand Aquino's sincerity. Then they might come down [from the hills and surrender],'' he says.

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