Sunday, November 4, 2007

56. SUGAR TIME

SWEET DREAMS ARE MADE OF THESE. A sugarcane plantation in Pampanga. In her heyday, Pampanga was the no. 1 producer of sugar in the whole of Luzon and was ranked 2nd after Negros nationally. Four centrifugal sugar mills served the needs of major sugar towns such as San Fernando, Arayat, Magalang, Porac, Mabalacat, Angeles, Mexico, Apalit and Bacolor. Ca. 1920s.

My grandfather , Gerardo R. Castro Sr., earned his keep by planting sugar cane in his agricultural lands in Bundagul from the 1950s to the 70s. Like all landowners, he employed casamacs (working tenants) whom I would often see early morning , waiting patiently in the porch, awaiting orders, perhaps. I knew most of their names as I would often check out my Ingkung’s old ledgers that gave details of their personal expenses, vales and payroll information. There was Tatang Ambu, Tatang Disyu, Tatang Duman, Kong Roman and Kong Mike, our truck driver, who lived at the back of our house.

It was Kong Mike’s duty to haul sugar cane or atbu using our ancient 6-by-6 truck that was kept parked at our place. I always looked forward to the day of the harvest which was done in the months of February, March or April. Ati Bo, his wife, would then extract sugarcane juice which she cooked in a large kawa (vat), stirring patiently, continuously -- until we had inuyat—hot and sticky molasses cooled in a glass of water which we ate like candy or enjoyed with a plate of gatas damulag (carabao milk)-soaked rice.

The cultivation of sugar cane (saccharum officinarum) occupies a prominent place in the agricultural and commercial activities of Pampanga. Long before the coming of colonizers, sugar was a staple of our islands. Antonio de Pigafetta, upon arrival in the Philippines in 1521, was supposed to have been served sugar cane refreshments by Rajah Calanao, ruler of Northern Mindanao. As far back as the first decade of the 19th century, the provinces of Pampanga and Pangasinan alone produced around 7,000 tons of sugar annually, which were exported abroad through Chinese sampans and other foreign vessels. There had grown up in our province at this time, a very active commerce in sugar, which was used in the manufacture of sweets and confections.

The Spanish government gave very little attention to the production of sugar until 1849, when the king enacted a decree granting the Recoleto friars a monopoly in Negros. Later on, the defunct “Real Sociedad de Amigos del Pais” induced the government in establishing an experimental farm station on the slopes of Mount Arayat where a certain Manuel Sota taught scientific ways to improve sugar productivity.

Under the American administration, the sugar industry flourished due to unprecedented world demands. From 1910 to 1941, the growth of the sugar industry was phenomenal; from the spring of 1919 to May 1920, raw sugar was priced at a hefty 23 ½ cents per pound in New York. Average total production jumped from 395,000 short tons in the first decade of the 20th century to a record 1,652,500 tons in 1933-34. American investors rushed to set up sugar mills in the country and in Pampanga, the first such centrifugal mill--the Pampanga Sugar Mills (PASUMIL) began operations at Del Carmen, Floridablanca in 1918. Three more mills would be set up in succession: The Pampanga Sugar Development Company or PASUDECO (1921), Mabalacat Sugar Company (1921) and the Arayat Sugar Mills (1927).

Sugar canes grown in Pampanga were highly prized for their yield, sweetness and overall quality. Famous homegrown cane varieties include Encarnada de Pampanga (Pampanga Red), Morada de Pampanga (Pampanga Purple) and Hind’s Special, an extra-tall drought-resistant cane that can grow over 20 feet, first propagated in the farms of Don Carlos Gil in Porac in the mid 1920s. Hind’s Special was named after Mr. R. Renton Hind, the General Manager of Pasumil.

Pampanga was to become the biggest producer of sugar in Luzon. It ranked 2nd to Negros in national sugar production. As a result, sugar brought untold prosperity to many a Kapampangan hacendero like the Panlilios (Mexico), Pamintuans and Hensons (Angeles), Escalers (Apalit) Venturas, Valdeses and de Leons (Bacolor) and Santoses (San Fernando).

The days of our successful sugar industry came to a slowdown with the U.S. stock market crash of 1929. Sugar consumption declined, prices fell and sugar beet producers demanded the control of imported sugar. It was just a matter of time that the U.S. government introduced a quota system to limit sugar importation. Incredibly, the Philippines, a U.S. territory, suffered the biggest cut. At the country’s independence in 1946, sugar exports were subjected to full U.S. tariff. The next years saw a succession of more quota systems that dictated export allocation and administration, with sometimes unfavorable and favorable effects.

In 1965 for instance, it was to our fortune that the U.S. Sugar Act opened a bigger share of the American market to local sugarmen, enabling the country to earn a potential of $230,000,000. Marketability of new sugar was further buoyed by increasing domestic requirements, a trend that continues to this day. Today, Pampanga’s sugarlands are slowly giving way to posh subdivisions, prime real estate ventures and modern expressways, but let us not forget that once, in our not-so-distant past, our sweet harvest gave us world renown. Perhaps, in the future, Pampanga can reclaim its title as the Philippines’ “Sugar Queen”, so I can start dreaming of sticky, gooey, oh-so-sweet inuyat again!
(12 July 2003)

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