Philippine poverty and agricultural economy have roots in the colonial era

Rodino Sawan climbed into the harness and dug his toes into the muddy path through the sweltering plantation. He continued forward, fighting the load he dragged behind him: 25 bunches of freshly harvested bananas hanging from hooks attached to an assembly line.

Six days a week, Sawan, 55, a father of five, tows batches of fruit weighing 1,500 pounds to a nearby processing plant, often while planes fly overhead, spraying pesticides. He returns home with back pain and a daily wage of 380 Philippine pesos, or about $6.80.

One day last year, the plantation bosses fired him. The next day, they hired him again for the same contractor role, cutting his salary by 25 percent.

“Now we can barely afford to buy rice,” Sawan said. Still, he kept showing up, resigned to the reality that, on the island of Mindanao, as in much of the rural Philippines, plantation work is often the only job.

“It’s an insult,” he said. “But there is no other job, so what can I do?”

The desperation faced by tens of millions of landless Filipinos is due in part to policies imposed by the powers that controlled the archipelago for centuries: first Spain and then the United States.

In a region defined by upward mobility through manufacturing, the Philippines stands out as a nation that still relies heavily on agriculture, a legacy of external dominance. Nearly 80 years after the country gained its independence, the colonial era still shapes the structure of its economy.

Because the United States chose not to engage in large-scale land redistribution, families that collaborated with colonial authorities retain oligarchic control over the land and dominate the political sphere. Policies designed to make the country dependent on American manufacturing products have left the Philippines with a much smaller industrial base than many economies in Asia.

“The United States imposed land reforms on many different countries in the region, including Japan, because of World War II,” said Cesi Cruz, a political scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “But in the Philippines, since they were fighting on the same side, they did not want to economically punish their ally by imposing all these restrictions.”

Over the past half century, across much of East and Southeast Asia, national leaders have pursued a development strategy that has rescued hundreds of millions of people from poverty, courting foreign investment to build export-oriented industries. Farmers earned higher incomes through factory work, manufacturing basic products such as textiles and clothing before evolving into electronics, computer chips and automobiles.

However, in most of the Philippines, factory jobs are few, leaving the landless at the mercy of the wealthy families who control the plantations. Manufacturing accounts for only 17 percent of the national economy, compared to 26 percent in South Korea, 27 percent in Thailand and 28 percent in China, according to World Bank data. Even Sri Lanka (20 percent) and Cambodia (18 percent), two of Asia’s poorest countries, have slightly higher percentages.

The shortage of manufacturing and the unequal distribution of land are part of the reason why a country with some of the most fertile soils on the planet is plagued by hunger. It helps explain why about a fifth of this nation of 117 million is officially poor, and why nearly two million Filipinos work abroad, from construction sites in the Persian Gulf to ships and hospitals around the world. , sending home significant injections of cash.

“There is an export strategy for Filipinos,” said Ronald U. Mendoza, an international development expert at Ateneo de Manila University. “This is really a middle class we should have had in the country.”

Those who remain at home in rural areas often plant and harvest pineapples, coconuts, and bananas, working largely for the benefit of the rich and powerful families who preside over the land.

The plantation where Sawan works is controlled by Lapanday Foods, which exports bananas and pineapples to rich countries in Asia and the Middle East. Its founder, Luis F. Lorenzo Sr., was governor of Davao del Sur, a province of Mindanao, and a top executive at Del Monte, the multinational fruit conglomerate. His son Luis P. Lorenzo Jr., known as Cito, is a former agriculture secretary of the Philippines.

The founder’s eldest daughter, Regina Angela Lorenzo, known as Rica, oversees Lapanday from a corporate office in the Philippine capital, Manila, in a district filled with five-star hotels, glistening restaurants and luxury car dealerships. She described her family as “a small player” in agribusiness.

“We employ people,” he said. “We add tax revenue. “We make productive use of the land.”

His sister Isa Lorenzo owns art galleries in Manila and Lower Manhattan: Silverlens New York, where she presents modern artists from Southeast Asia. A inaugural exhibition last fall highlighted “issues related to the environment, community and development,” including the question: “Who owns the land?”

Disputes over who owns the land dominate the lives of the Manobo, an indigenous tribe of the central highlands of Mindanao.

For generations, members of the community lived on the banks of the Pulangi River, under the shade of teak and mahogany trees. They harvested cassava, hunted wild boar and fished in the river. They drank from a pristine spring.

“Our ancestors are buried there,” said community head Rolando Anglao, 49. “That is the land we inherited from them.”

There, he indicated, pointing to the other side of a busy road. The forest had disappeared. In its place was a pineapple plantation that stretched across almost 3,000 acres. The land was surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by an armed security brigade.

According to Anglao, the Lorenzo family took over the tribe’s lands. One morning in February 2016, about 50 men arrived in trucks and began firing their rifles into the air, causing 1,490 tribe members to flee, he said.

Anglao, his wife and two children are among 100 families living in shacks made of plastic and corrugated aluminum sheets on the shoulder of the road. They drink from shallow wells contaminated with chemical runoff from surrounding plantations, he said. Children frequently suffer from amoebic dysentery. Trucks with trailers circulate at all hours, with their horns blaring, transporting loads of sugar cane and pineapples to the processing plants.

Over the years, the tribe has tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade local prosecutors to file charges against Pablo Lorenzo III, the president of the local company that controls the plantation and, not coincidentally, the town’s mayor. surrounding Quezon.

This year, the tribe obtained legal title from the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples, a government body. But the commission has yet to formally register the act. Lorenzo has accused the tribe of supporting an insurgency, the New People’s Army, said Ricardo V. Mateo, a lawyer with the commission’s office in Cagayan de Oro. That has prevented the tribe from reclaiming the land, prompting an investigation. by the Philippine Army.

Meanwhile, the security cordon remains, with the tribe outside.

“It is the power of Pablo Lorenzo,” said Anglao. “He is above the law.”

In an interview at Quezon City Hall, Lorenzo denied having taken over the land.

“It’s a scam,” he said. “Those people who claim that, they were not even on that land.”

Still, he acknowledged offering the tribe “a small amount of money” to give up its rights.

His family’s wealth dates back to his grandfather, who worked as a corporate lawyer representing American investors, Lorenzo said. He personally owns 15 to 20 percent of the company that developed the plantation, he said.

Americans did not create the inequality that defines the Philippine economy. Spanish authorities allowed Christian missionaries to seize land while forcing natives to pay onerous rental payments.

But after the United States captured the archipelago following a war with Spain in 1898, the colonial administration reinforced unequal control of the land through trade policy.

Agribusiness companies in the Philippines gained tariff-free access to the US market. In exchange, American industry secured the right to export manufactured goods to the Philippines without paying duties. Tariffs applied to other countries kept products from the rest of the world away.

The United States used the Philippines as a laboratory for economic policies that were controversial at home, including tying the value of the national currency to gold, said Lisandro Claudio, a historian at the University of California, Berkeley. That kept the Philippine peso strong against the dollar, lowering the price of American goods and discouraging the creation of domestic industry.

Even after the Philippines gained independence in 1946, that basic agreement remained. The country had been decimated by World War II, prompting the United States to provide $620 million in reconstruction aid. But the money was conditional on the Philippines accepting the indignities of the Bell Trade Act, which perpetuated key aspects of the colonial agreement.

“The most odious part of that treaty was really the weight provision,” Claudio said. “The Philippine government could not determine the price of the peso without Washington’s consent.”

Since then, a strong peso has remained a cardinal principle of Philippine politics, unlike neighboring countries. From China to Japan and Thailand, officials have favored weaker currencies to make their products cheaper in world markets, boosting their efforts to industrialize.

Meanwhile, the powerful and wealthy families that control the companies have lacked incentives to innovate, unlike surrounding economies where land redistribution has created pressures for risk-taking and experimentation.

“Then it forces the next generation to think, ‘What can we do to compete?’” said Norman G. Owen, an economic historian affiliated with the University of Hong Kong. “But the United States didn’t do that to the Philippines, and the Filipinos didn’t do that to themselves, and here we are.”

On a mercifully cloudy morning, with low, gray clouds blocking the tropical sun, a team of 48 workers pulled weeds from the soil of a Del Monte pineapple plantation in northern Mindanao.

The team leader, Ruel Mulato, 43, was a third-generation plantation worker. His grandfather had worked for an American boss in a job that had changed little over the decades. Then, as now, people huddled on the land and used their hands, earning too little to feed their families, forcing many households to borrow from loan sharks.

Mr. Mulato had apparently escaped that fate. He had worked as a nursing assistant on the island of Bohol, as a security guard in Manila and as a tow truck driver in Saudi Arabia.

But when his wife died suddenly in 2011, he moved home to care for his daughter, who was only 4 years old at the time.

He took the job that was available: on the plantation.

He has remarried and has three more children. She hoped they would find more rewarding work.

“This is very hard work,” he said. “It’s a hard life.”