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Tobacco control: What about the supply side?

Text By: Buena Bernal || Photos By: Ezra Acayan

BALAOAN, LA UNION, Philippines – There are no more bills to pay, no more children to send to school, no more house to build, but Manong (Older Brother) Dominador ‘Domeng’ C. Clemente and his wife don’t even need an alarm clock to jolt them up from sleep at 5 in the morning to head to their 3-hectare tobacco farm.

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The couple of 33 years no longer remembers a year in their life when their family and the generations of families before them did not harvest tobacco.

Tobacco is life, money, family, and community to them.

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But it is also a fatal peril for many others.

Almost 48% of male adults and 9% of female adults in the Philippines are smokers as of 2009. That is some 17.3 million smokers who are susceptible to preventable causes of disease, disability, and premature deaths.

Smoking is a habit that dies hard.

In the town of Balaoan, the labor-intensive farming for this crop is also a means of living that is hard to shake off.

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Mang Domeng’s eldest daughter is already a nurse in Taiwan. His two other children finished criminology and education courses respectively from their parents’ hard-earned tobacco money.

They tell their aging father who only understand them in the vernacular to stop growing tobacco. We no longer need it, they say. He doesn’t have to.

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But Mang Domeng keeps renting a plot of land from an arendo (a local landowner) so he can be with his workers from morning till noon.

At the farm, they cut the tobacco leaves that prior to harvest serve as their canopy at noon when they eat together.

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The leaf is both product and protection from sunlight for them.

The taller the plant, the better the yield. Class double A to A, as the big-time tobacco company classifiers would say. The types that can be sold at P80 per kilo.

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The taller the plant, the higher also is their canopy.

At lunch, the women in their lives bring food for the tobacco farmers. Meat is served. They whisper to each other that it is cat meat, but eat and laugh like tomorrow’s never coming. Bottled soft drinks are passed on from a pail of crushed ice.

Finding refuge from the sun, the farmers squat on the narrow strip of soil in their field dividing the tobacco plants into rows. Their hands all greasy from the resin of the plants during harvest.

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Mang Domeng leads about a dozen workers, tells them to gather the leaves early this time, assures everyone there will be no work in the field when the sun shines its brightest that day.

The farmer smiles with the smile of a man at his prime who sees only the good in life. All is well in his tobacco paradise.

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Paradise it is for many of these tobacco farmers who prefer the simplicity of cultivating their land for their families, for others’ consumption, and for what they call the tatak (signature) of Balaoan.

In this side of the country, the mere mention of a smoking ban brings residents into reflection.

“A tobacco ban would make our hearts heavy. We paid for our children’s education through farming tobacco,” 49-year-old farmer Hilario O. Olidan said in Filipino.

“We hope they won’t ban tobacco because many will lose their jobs,” he added.

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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered a ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces, including inside public transport vehicles and other cars.

One of the premises of Executive Order No. 26 is the belief that “public health takes precedence over any commercial or business interest.”

Duterte recognized that cigarette smoking puts a strain not only on the financial resources of individual households but on public healthcare.

The order dated May 16 points to “scientific evidence [that] has unequivocally established that tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke cause death, disease and disability, lead to devastating health, social, economic and environmental consequences.”

“… an increasing number of Filipinos become afflicted with and die each year of tobacco-related diseases such as stroke, heart disease, emphysema, various cancers and nicotine addiction, and both the public and workers in facilities where smoking is allowed are most at risk from these and other tobacco-related diseases,” the order explains.

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While tobacco farmers in Balaoan fear such policy directives, experts assure the public that these measures will not cripple the tobacco farming industry.

“There is no evidence that tobacco control measures will unduly affect our tobacco farmers, to the contrary, reports from the Department of Finance demonstrate that our tobacco exportation has increased,” explained  Dr. Lee P. Yarcia, health law and policy consultant.

Philippine tobacco exportation ensures a market for existing tobacco farmers.

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There are 55,533 tobacco farmers in the Philippines, according to data in the years 2010 to 2011. This is 0.16% of the country’s total employment.

But tobacco growing is extremely labor-intensive. It yields relatively low income compared to input costs as well as foreseen negative externalities – i.e., costs to health and public interest that are hard to put a price on.

Houses in Balaoan have burned down because of nearby unattended multistoried fireplaces meant for cooking tobacco leaves. These structures need round-the-clock monitoring for a week after harvest.

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“Both under the Sin Tax Law and the WHO (World Health Organization) Framework Convention on Tobacco, we recognize that tobacco farming is an unsustainable and unhealthy practice for our farmers, for our environment, and for the people,” the tobacco control expert added.

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Tobacco cultivation is often related to cyclical poverty due to unfair loan conditions as well as diseases due to the poor handling of strong pesticides.

Still, farmers in Balaoan are wary of leaving tobacco farming.

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One of the major obstacles for tobacco farmers to diversify their crops is the lack of technical knowledge when it comes to growing other crops, having been used to tobacco growing and trading in their farms.

“The Philippines has both domestic and international commitment to support tobacco farmers shift to alternative livelihood such as engaging in food crop production,” explained Yarcia.

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He explained that the sin tax law “guarantees that tobacco-producing regions have earmarked funds from revenues collected from sin taxes.”

A percentage of sin taxes collected from cigarettes is meant to fund programs that would help tobacco farmers to diversify their crops.

The challenge, said Yarcia, is “to ensure implementation of the law so that our farmers will fully benefit from tobacco control measures.”

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But it will take more than lip service to elevate the discussion on tobacco control among farmers on the ground.

Education and awareness on the need for effective regulation is scarce in areas like Balaoan.

In Balaoan, current alternative crops such as corn and watermelon provide lower income compared to tobacco due to the lack of a captured market the farmers can directly sell to.

Mutlinational tobacco companies enter into deals with tobacco farmers to gain exclusive purchase of their crops, providing a sure income for land lease holders like Mang Domeng and a guaranteed return for the months-long labor of his workers. These giant cigarette firms also extend pre-harvest loans meant for fertilizers and pesticides.

Statutory law also grants incentives for local governments in the form of tobacco excise taxes.

Other crops are simply not given the same attention as tobacco in both public policy and private investments.

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Not only that. In a town reliant on tobacco farming, tobacco has an impact on the most important elements of human life.

Tobacco farming provides liquidity, has strong emotional resonance among families who survive and thrive through selling smoked and dried tobacco leaves to cigarette companies, and has become part of people’s daily routines.

The dignity in the work that they do is something Balaoan’s tobacco farmers take pride in.

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“What else will we do? What else will we plant?” asked Mang Domeng’s wife, convinced that there is no other alternative.

But this is far from the truth, if only shifting perceptions on the ground is prioritized as part of the transition process and if only food crops are subsidized in national laws the way tobacco is.

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Tobacco farming is indeed systematically entrenched.

Local governments earn from tobacco cultivation through their shares from national taxes. Most farmers also simply rent lands from landowners who are part of associations that have tobacco as their crop of choice.

“It is high time that we implement our policy commitment to pursue genuine and effective tobacco control measures, which includes supply side reduction measures,” said Yarcia. (END)

 

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“This story was produced under the ‘Mga Nagbababang Kuwento: Reporting on Tobacco and Sin Tax Media Training and Fellowship Program’ by Probe Media Foundation with the support of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. The grant-giving bodies have no editorial control over content and information-gathering.”


 

Labor leader’s death dampens rural workers’ pursuit for land reform

Text & Photos By: Buena Bernal

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NEGROS OCCIDENTAL, Philippines – Rolando Panggo was not a dancer but he loved to dance – when drunk, during parties organized by his labor group and special occasions at home.

He was a shy and quiet man. But when inebriated, the myth of Bacchus becomes perceived reality through his dancing.

There was less dancing when Rolando, nicknamed Lando, took upon himself the task of organizing a group of long-time sugar cane plantation workers to help them fight for better wages.

Lando is known as ‘Nong Lando to most of his comrades in the local labor sector, where he has been a labor organizer in Negros Occidental province for over 2 decades.

(‘Nong is a shortened form of the word Manong, a vernacular term of endearment for an older brother.)

Through the country’s agrarian reform program, the 46-year-old ‘Nong Lando was resolute in helping these rural workers who look up to him finally own their due share of the land that they and their fathers’ fathers have tilled for over half a century.

On November 29, 2014, ‘Nong Lando died.

He was on his way home riding a motorcycle with his cousin, when a car blocked their way and an unidentified man alighted to point a gun at them.

The man dragged Lando to the side of the National Highway, shot him in the head, and took off.

Lando’s body lay right beside the tall, blade-like, and forest green grasses of sugar cane his province is known for. He was proclaimed dead on arrival at the town’s infirmary.

Lando’s youngest daughter Lea Jane still believes her father is coming back home.

At night, as Lando’s grieving widow tucks in the 4-year-old kid to sleep, Leah Jane releases an innocent smile and tells her mom she is still waiting for Papa.

Demolition of houses

‘Nong Lando’s death has dampened organizing efforts at Hacienda Salud, where long-time tenant-workers are taking their chance to become land-owners.

’Yung iba, hindi maka-intindi. Parang natakot na (Others don’t understand. It’s like they were consumed with fear),” said Jose Julo Dablo, president of the Hacienda Salud Farm Workers Association (HASAFAWA).

Like many labor organizers, the late ‘Nong Lando was in charge of morale – keeping the workers’ spirits hopeful in the face of great tribulation.

The acts of intimidation by the arendo or the plantation’s lessee increased after Lando’s death, said 37-year-old Maria (alias), wife of one the rural workers.

Routinely, Maria would help out her husband in the daily tasks at the hacienda (estate) – planting the cut stalks of cane, ploughing the land, and pulling out weeds.

A group is then contracted to harvest the canes for mass sale at the local sugar refinery.

The hacienda, located at the village of Romirang in Negros Occidental’s town of Isabela, has been home to dozens of families whose ancestors lived and died as farm workers there.

These generations of families have built their homes in the hacienda, but all of them were at the beck and call of one arendo after another through the years.

HASAFAWA officer Mary Grace Narciso said the groups’ land dispute with the plantation’s owner – who is not in the Philippines but has leased out the land to a local businessman – angered the lessee.

The lessee had allegedly pressured them to withdraw the case through various forms of harassment, including firing farm workers and demolishing the houses in the hacienda passed on from generation to generation of farm workers.

Plantation road

Over 32 houses were demolished in 2015 – all erected by families who have applied as agrarian reform-beneficiaries with the help of Lando.

Since then, the farm workers who were driven out of the hacienda they were born into have tried their luck in industries unfamiliar to them – as drivers of local public transport vehicles, for example.

Some of them are still hunting for jobs, making no income in the meantime.

Maria herself is starting to doubt if their struggle for land ownership will bear fruit, casually and with reservation asking in the vernacular to what end are their efforts for.

But she immediately lets go of the thought, as she pulls her kid in between her thighs, as if the sight of the young child makes her forget.

Chilling effect

Freedom of association is one of the cornerstones of promoting decent work for all, crucial in ensuring that members of the working class have a shot at a better life.

Mary Grace questioned how a daily wage of less than P300 (around US$6), which was what each farm worker received at the hacienda, would suffice if one is already sending kids to school.

HASAFAWA members maintain that the birth of the group was driven by a desire to break the perverse cycle of intergenerational poverty among them.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 141, also known as the Rural Workers’ Organizations Convention of 1975, mandates that such groups “remain free from all interference, coercion or repression.”

A universally applicable standard on labor rights, the said international instrument was ratified by the Philippines in 1979. This means the country is bound to institute policies that ensure its application.

Despite this, Filipino labor leaders and organizers like Lando are threatened with trumped-up charges, actual violence, and in his case, even death.

This creates a culture of fear among those who desire to form or join workers’ groups, which can legally demand through the workers’ collective power for better labor conditions.

The alleged forms of harassment against labor organizing in rural areas are on top of what international labor standards consider as anti-labor policies, including the prescribed minimum number of members needed to establish rural workers’ trade unions.

Lando’s eldest son displays his emotions generously at the thought of his father’s dancing.

Lando was a jolly man, the son said, as his fair-skinned wife rested her palm on his shoulder.

Trying but failing to hold back his tears, the son would wipe each droplet with his pointer right at the edge of his eyes before the tears fall on his cheeks.

He didn’t really think much about it when his father was still alive, but he now volunteers to proclaim that he is proud of what his father did for a living. (END)

 

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“This story was partially funded by the Center for People’s Media (CPM), a private endeavor focused on underreported labor issues. CPM has no editorial control over content and information-gathering.”

A farmer and his daughter

Text & Photos By: Dante Diosina, Jr.

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MOUNTAIN PROVINCE, Philippines – “Planting crops is like raising your own children. You have to take care of them all the way through,” said 41-year-old farmer Efren Loogan.

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Agriculture is the primary livelihood in their community at Sitio Paktil, Bauko in Mountain Province, explained Mang Efren.

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But it’s no longer as profitable, Mang Efren laments.

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Before even beginning to plant, farmers like him need to buy supplies such as fertilizer and pesticide, he explained.

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Due to typhoons becoming more frequent than before, spoilage occurs more often, decreasing the volume of harvested crops. The resulting produce is likewise priced at cheaper rates.

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But Mang Efren still plants despite these challenges, with the future of his children in mind.

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Mang Efren and his wife Margarita desires that their 3 children study hard, envision their future, and dream big instead of forming bad habits. Margarita is a teacher by profession.

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Efren and Margarita finds delight in their children’s perseverance in school and their eagerness to help in household chores. Erryl, their second child, dreams of becoming a doctor to help the community and has also shown talent in photography.

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Ten-year-old Erryl took part as a student in the Juan Portrait program, where photographers travel to far-flung communities around the Philippines to teach the art of photography to youngsters like her. Erryl won fourth place in the program’s Most Proficient Photography category. She had two photos in the exhibit in their hometown, Bauko.

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Mang Efren and Margarita are proud parents, happy to see their child excelling in a craft. They said this gives them the strength to work harder and inspires them to do whatever they can to help Erryl achieve her dreams. (END)