Hope for vicious occupation

SAN FERNANDO, La Union—Growing tobacco, the world’s most widely cultivated non-food crop, is a vicious occupation that forever consigns families to grinding poverty, and it is a way of life in many parts of the Philippines for many generations.

Other Filipinos dream of a good life and strive to have a better future, but tobacco farmers could only look at the next crop as a means to pay debts and to continue to bring food to the table.

Tobacco farm. A tobacco field gives color to the horizon in Candon,
Ilocos Sur while two farmers (inset) start harvesting the leaves.
Photo below (left) shows Oscar Barrientos of WCKF and the scholars
signing the scholarship agreement. Photo at right shows WCKF
officials and 200 scholars and their parents pose for a souvenir photo.    

“For as long as I can remember, we have always been poor,” said Moises Calica, whose family works on a leased one-hectare tobacco plots in Barangay Tubao.

Tobacco is grown in 23 provinces and provide livelihood to 43,960 farmers and 1.93 million industry workers. The northern provinces of Ilocos Sur, Ilocos Norte, La Union, Pangasinan and Cagayan produce 67 percent of total volume of tobacco produced in the country.   

Farmers, with average farm size of one hectare or less, prefer planting tobacco because it is more profitable than corn, vegetables and legumes. Tobacco can also grow in soils with low fertility and in arid environment.

Calica, 41, who has been a tobacco farmer for 17 years, said his family is in hock to moneylenders and traders, who lend money to make the farm operational every planting season.    

“For 17 years, I wake up around 4 a.m. and work for more than 12 hours watering, pruning and caring for each leaf by hand to remove pests,” he said.

“I earn about P50,000 after five months but more than half goes to the trader, who loaned the money for fertilizer, pesticides and fuel for the water pump. What is left is barely enough for food. But it’s all right. I will just borrow again for the next planting season,” Calica said.

Mario Rovero, 46, of Barangay Bisagu in Aparri, Cagayan said he tried to plant rice during the rainy season but “last year’s typhoon destroyed our crops.”

“We were left with hardly anything to sell after the typhoon ravaged our crops. The rain damaged even those hanging inside our home for drying,” Rovero said.

Most tobacco farmers make ends meet with P300 a day and elder children drop out of school to help tend the farm --- even the young kids help gather the leaves for drying, uprooting weeds and watering the plants.

Many farmers are high school graduates but they lack the financial and management skills to break out of the debt cycle and make the farm profitable enough to meet their needs without getting money from lenders at high interest.

Like most Filipino families, tobacco farmers also dream of their children getting college education, which they see as a means to escape from poverty but life looks bleak and many of them give up hope.

The Wong Chu King Foundation (WCKF), the only non-government organization to recognize their need and provide them assistance, give them new hope and has revived their aspirations for a better future.

The foundation has embarked on a multi-million-peso program that will benefit 65,000 tobacco farmers in the area, giving them irrigation pumps, mini-tractors, tools and farm implements through 35 farmer associations organized to serve their welfare.

WCKF, in cooperation with the National Tobacco Administration, has also launched an annual search for the Most Outstanding Farmers in a bid to showcase the dignity in the work of tending the soil and engender pride in the quality of their crops.

Most of all, WCKF, the social action arm of a local cigarette company, offered 200 children of tobacco farmers full college scholarships, which many parents welcomed as a blessing.

“The foundation’s college grant for my son is probably one of the few bright spots in my life as a lowly tobacco worker. It made my family much happier to have hope for the future,” said Analiza Zipagan of Cauayan City, Isabela, whose son, Tomas, is an AB Sociology scholar at Isabela State University.

Editha Aurellano of Pilar, Abra, whose son Joseph is a BS in Agriculture scholar at Abra State University, said: “I came from generations of tobacco workers and it was our dream to send a son to college. It would have remained a dream if not for the Wong Chu King Foundation. It is a dream come true.”

Kabataan party-list Rep. Terry Ridon described the grants as a boon that “will help the tobacco industry grow and empower workers and their families.”

“We are happy that WCKF is not only helping the tobacco industry but also its people and dependents as well,” Ridon said.

James Navarette, WCKF General Manager, said workers are the real heroes of the tobacco industry, who are “caught in inescapable poverty because of lack of proper education.”

“WCKF is now giving their children a chance to lead better lives and they can help their respective families and communities,” Navarette said.

“Our scholars are taking agriculture-related courses so they can help infuse the much-needed boost to the local tobacco industry. They are the next generation of tobacco growers. They will make our tobacco variety world-class in quality,” he said.

Fr. Victor de Guzman of the Diocese of San Fernando, in his homily during Mass, said: “We thank the Wong Chu King family and the WCKF for giving these blessings to us. Helping the poor is an original Christian act.”

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