By Mikhaela Dimpas

Ambrocio Aveceno, or better known as Ka Ambo, saw and experienced first-hand how the farmers fought for their land, and now, how they are being forced into poverty and debt because of unfair contracts that riddle the banana farms.

Compostela Valley is a vast land filled with banana plantations owned by big multinational companies. Aveceno owns less than a hectare of land which he cultivates and depends on for his livelihood.

The land, however, wasn’t even his to begin with. His wife was a previous quality inspector of SUMIFRU Philippines. When the land was offered under the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP), the employees had the first dibs on it.

SUMIFRU Philippines is a Japanese-owned company that engages in the sourcing, production, shipment and marketing of various fresh fruits, primarily the export of quality Cavendish bananas, pineapple and papaya. They own several plantations in Mindanao.

His wife worked for SUMIFRU for 23 years. They didn’t know that in just another 13 years, they would be owning land that will further bury them in debt.

Mountains of papers

Aveceno was the one who was left to take care of the kids while his wife worked. He also provided the support when they were still processing the documents for the land. From 1995, he has been going to government offices, photocopying documents, and returning home with another requirement left to pass.

Sa umpisa palang ng pag-aasikaso ng lupa, halos mabaon rin kami sa utang kasi napakaraming gastos (When we were still applying for the land and filing our documents, we were slowly getting buried in debt because of the expenses that we needed to pay),” recalled Aveceno.

He said that he and his wife have given too much just for that small parcel of land. The money that they have spent for the trips to the municipal government, the provincial government, and to the Department of Agrarian was a luxury that they couldn’t afford. The offices aren’t anywhere near their house, and often, they needed to travel to Davao Del Norte just to get and pass requirements.

They gathered debts and thought that owning and farming their own land can return those expenses.

Tiniis talaga namin yun ng asawa ko kasi akala naming malaki yung kikitain naming kapag nag-saka kami ng sariling lupa tsaka para kapag tumanda kami, meron na kaming ipon at naipundar. (We endured everything because we thought that this land can provide for our family and can support us until we grow old),” said Aveceno.

Their dreams, however, didn’t happen.

Unfair contracts

When they were awarded of the land in 2008, they immediately signed a contract with SUMIFRU, thinking that transacting with the previous company of his wife will be good.

However, they already had problems in the beginning. Ka Ambo recalled that agreeing on a specific price for the banana produce was difficult. In the end, the banana farmers got the losing end of the deal.

They started with just $3.00 per box or 13.5 kg of bananas. 8 years after, in 2017, the prices of the bananas increased only to $4.25. This is after a long fight to change the terms of sale from ex-plant to ex-patio.

As for their request for a price increase? SUMIFRU never answers. According to the SUMIFRU, “there is nothing to talk about.”

Aveceno is already too old to work. He employs one worker to maintain the land for him, but Aveceno still does whatever he can to help.

Lahat ng makakaya kong gawin sa field, gianagawa ko parin. Halimbawa sa akin, may isa naman akong tauhan na taga-maintain dahil mahirap naman yung mga kagaya kong matanda tapos aakyat pa para sa mga saging (I still do whatever I can do in the field even if I have one worker already. My bones are already aching and I’m already too old to do the harvesting),” he said.

But even if he only has one worker, he finds it difficult to pay him the right amount of salary and benefits that they deserve for a hard day’s work. For the farmers beneficiaries, if SUMIFRU only pays for the right prices of the bananas based on current markets, then things might be better. The farmers and workers might receive the wage and the benefits that they deserve.

According to Aveceno, it’s hard to change things, but when he started working as a treasurer of the Davao Fruits Banana Growers Agrarian Reform Cooperative or DFBGARC, he saw that having one strong, collective voice is already a weapon.

Kapag tayo tayo lang ang nag-uusap, hindi natin makakamit yung pagbabagong gusto natin (If there are only a few who will talk, then we won’t achieve the change that we want),” he said. “Kailangan ng mga magsasaka na magkaisa, humingi ng tulong, at ipaglaban ang kanilang karapatan (Farmers need to stand as one to ask for help and to fight for our rights).”

DFBGARC is just one of the many cooperatives who have unfair contracts with SUMIFRU Philippines and other big, multinational companies. Together with the Initiatives for Dialogue and Empowerment through Alternative Legal Services, they are pushing for the passage of House Bill 5085 or the Agribusiness Ventures Agreements (AVA) Bill. This progressive bill will better protect the rights of more than 500,000 banana farmers and workers in the country. #

Struggling for land, life, and change

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