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Philippine sugar farmers' Fair Trade attempts risk death

Delegation will raise awareness of farmers' brutal treatment

Philippine sugar farmers' Fair Trade attempts risk death

Sugar farmers work the fields in the central Philippines. (Photo by Vincent Go)

Fr Shay Cullen, Manila

August 19, 2014

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Fairness and justice is what the poor and the oppressed need from those elected to protect and serve them. When the people are in greatest need and government officials turn away, then the people have been betrayed, abandoned and left without help.

This is what I experience every day in our struggle to get justice for the victims of human trafficking and child sexual abuse. But there is little justice because the rich and the powerful buy their way out of their crimes. Injustice also happens to poor farmers.

That is what is happening to the Panay Fair Trade group on Panay island in the central Philippines. Members of the farmers' cooperative there have been harassed, brutalized, and their leaders assassinated.

In March 2014, Romy Capalla was with his mother-in-law at the public market when motorcycle-riding gunmen killed Romy, an organizer and leader of a farmers' group. The incident happened less than 60 meters from a police station. Romy's mother-in-law went into shock while the killers escaped.  

Romy died on the spot. He paid the ultimate price for his solidarity with the poor.

On the same day, 16 kms away, the small sugar mill of Romy's cooperative was mysteriously burnt to the ground by unknown arsonists. 

The Philippine government has turned a blind eye to it all.

The eyes of the world are, however, not closed. A solidarity group of international observers for the Fair Trade movement from Europe will travel to Panay this month in a demonstration of solidarity and support. The solidarity delegates will visit politicians, Church leaders, and concerned groups to raise awareness on the harm and injustice done to farmers.

In the Philippines, there are killer death squads assassinating farmers who are independently growing sugar cane on their own land and are not part of big sugar growing plantations. These farmers have successfully broken away from the control of rich sugar barons who set low prices of sugar cane and high prices to mill it.

Economic control by big businesses has caused farmers to remain mired in cruel poverty. Farmers and their leaders like Romy have been trying to bring a new and better life for small farmers who are exploited by the sugar industry.

Because of their unity, farmers in Panay were able to sell their produce to Fair Trade organizations in Europe at a fair price, and the farmers have prospered and were able to raise funds to build their own sugar grinding and processing mill. They sell their sugar, called muscovado, locally free from the dominating barons who feel threatened.

Romy will be remembered and celebrated as a staunch human rights defender. He was instrumental in setting up the mill and his group had great success in organizing farmers into the Panay Fair Trade sugar-producing cooperative. He challenged plantation owners and super rich families who form the ruling elite and own or control 70 percent of the economy, manufacturing, and agriculture in the country. These rich sugar planters apparently see the independence of farmers as a threat and a dangerous precedent for others.

All help and assistance is needed to support fair traders like Romy. As always, they who do the most good are rejected, condemned and made to appear bad. It is the story of the Gospel, it is the hardship of trying to do justice, change the world for the better, and doing what is right. 

Irish Columban Fr Shay Cullen established the Preda Foundation in Olongapo City in 1974 to promote human rights and promote the rights of children, especially victims of sex abuse.

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