BY RIGOR ZABALA
The banana industry in the Philippines has expressed fears that more banana plantations in Mindanao could close down as communist rebels intensify their extortion activities by attacking companies who refuse to pay revolutionary tax.
Unemployment in the Philippines’ southern island where export banana is a major dollar-earning crop, is rearing its ugly head as the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), carried out a dozen attacks on banana plantations this year.
The NPA is driving investors away from Mindanao, said Stephen Antig, executive director of the Pilipino Banana Growers and Exporters Association (PBGEA).
PBGEA is the umbrella group of banana industry players in the Philippines.
The government should pay more attention to the insurgency problem because “it is driving the present and prospective investors away from Mindanao. Obviously, the closure of plantations will lead to unemployment and then poverty,” said Antig.
The government will also lose revenues from property taxes, business permits, VAT and income taxes, among others if the threat to the banana industry continues and investors pack their bags and close down their plantations, Antig said.
Antig raised the fear of investors moving out as over 1,500 farm workers and employees lost their jobs after Dole-Stanfilco, a multinational banana firm in Tagbina, Surigao del Sur, shut down its operations on its 400 hectare plantation this year. The closure followed a series of attacks against the company by the NPA allegedly for refusing to pay revolutionary taxes.
Meanwhile, communist rebels and alleged environmental groups batting for a total ban of aerial spraying in banana plantations in the Philippines could be sharing the same agenda to cripple down the banana industry — one of the country’s biggest dollar earners.
Early this year, the Mamamayang Ayaw Sa Aerial Spraying (MAAS), a non-government organization (NGO) and a partner of another anti-aerial spraying NGO, Interface Development Initiatives (IDIS), renewed calls for a ban on aerial by prodding the Supreme Court to fast-track decision on Davao City Ordinance 0309-07 which banned serial spraying in the city. MAAS and IDIS front-lined the lobby for the passage of the ordinance which was approved by the Davao City Council in 2007. The Davao City aerial spraying ban has reached the High Court as the banana industry questioned the legality of the ordinance.
The NPA attacks on the banana plantations where they burned equipment and raided company armories have taken a severe toll particularly on workers.
Severely affected workers displaced by the closure are questioning the real motives of NGOs against aerial spraying who claim to be for the people, now that agricultural plantations are being attacked and their employees harassed by the NPA.
The rebel atrocities are risks to people’s health and the environment which are the same concerns raised by the NGOs in opposing aerial spraying, according to Eduardo Maningo, a spokesman for the Agrarian Land Reform Beneficiaries (ARBs).
Maningo said he sees a mutual pattern of destruction in the series of attacks by the NPAs and the renewed calls by MAAS and IDIS on the ban on aerial spraying.
“Why is it that (MAAS and IDIS) which have always been vocal about their apparent concern about the welfare of farm workers are silent about the atrocities committed by these lawless elements? Why are they not indignant that these workers’ livelihood and well beings are being threatened by the rebels?” Maningo asked.
“Are these NPA bombings and torching of farms and equipment not an alarming immediate threat to lives and the environment?’” Maningo added.
Aerial spraying is an agricultural practice accepted by the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations.
Aerial spraying ensures farm productivity and quality and prevents diseases in banana plantations. The practice is the strongest armor of banana plantations against the deadly leaf diseases Sigatoka, which crippled the banana industry in South America years ago.
MAAS and IDIS in lobbying for the ban claimed aerial spraying posed risk to people and environment, which was refuted by PBGEA.
Antig earlier said the claims are “unsupported and baseless.”
These groups are fond of parroting claims they cannot support. The case is already in the Supreme Court, we want the truth to actually come out. Let the Supreme Court decide based on the merits of the case, said Antig as the NGOs renewed their call for the ban.
Allegations against aerial spraying have been refuted by scientists, PBGEA said.
On the ground, farm workers and residents around the plantations assert that their environment have remained highly conducive for healthy living, farming and raising animals. The residents also swore, during public hearings conducted by the Davao City Council, that they have been living healthy lives for more than three decades, even with the plantations employing aerial spray.
“We can’t help but think that these groups (MAAS and IDIS) are one with the rebels with the same goal – which is to shut down the banana industry. The workers are just poor collaterals,” Maningo lamented.
A report published in Biz-Buzz Inquirer a year ago cited that environmental groups pushing for the ban of aerial spraying in the Philippines are being financially backed by some organizations in Netherlands with vested interest in the banana growing and exporting industry in Indonesia, once a colony of the Netherlands.
Antig said the banana industry is serious on its corporate social responsibility to ensure the health of people and the environment as they operate under strict compliance to government regulations.
“Those who are pushing for a ban on aerial spraying should see for themselves how the industry is mindful of the health of the people and the protection of the environment,” said Antig.
Banana plantations account for 83,000 hectares in Mindanao and at an average of four direct and indirect workers, the banana industry employs 332,000 workers. Together with the workers’ families, more than three million individuals are dependent on the banana export industry.