Oxfam has written a report exposing the exploitation of banana farmers in the Philippines: “Land But No Freedom: Debt, Poverty and Human Suffering in the Philippine Banana Trade”.
Bananas can be harvested at all times and are consequently of very significant economic value. In fact, they are among the most lucrative agricultural commodities for the Philippines, the world’s second largest exporter of the fruit.
Yet the economic prosperity of the banana trade has failed to trickle down to the banana farmers, many of whom are condemned to deprivation and hunger as a result of exploitative contracts with large companies. Indeed, in regions such as Compostela Valley and Davao Oriental, as many as six in ten banana farmers are struggling to feed their families.
Redistribution of large land holdings to farmers in the Philippines was meant to endow them with control of production and access to export markets as well as title to the land. However, without any capital or support to make a success of their holdings, many have been forced to forfeit their land or enter into unfair and unequal contracts with trading companies and exporters. These are known as Agribusiness Venture Agreements (“AVAs”).
A study conducted by Oxfam in 2013 found that farmers were fundamentally disadvantaged by the onerous terms of the AVAs, under which buyers would obtain almost complete control of the financial health of their land. By way of example, the contracts would contain clauses enabling the buyer to impose set prices on the bananas, irrespective of costs and actual market rates, and contractual restrictions on growing other crops for supplementary income.
Furthermore, while the obligations on the farmers were set out in strict terms, other clauses were worded “loosely” in order to allow for interpretations favourable to the buyer. In addition, the AVAs did not offer an effective remedy against abuses. Oxfam found that the Department of Agrarian Reform had failed to safeguard the interests of the farmers by omitting to supply the necessary legal and technical assistance to enable them to understand and assert their rights and negotiate fairer contractual terms.
Oxfam identifies that women within the community, who have no say in the contract negotiations, are suffering a “disproportionate burden” in a society where gender still governs the division of labour. While men are the heads of the family and work on the land, women are expected to manage the household as well as assuming care responsibilities. With such a small income available, they struggle to pay for essential items and services such as education and healthcare. Their means of earning a wage or enjoying a role in the community and outside the home are limited.
Cooperative farms can create opportunities for economic empowerment by allowing women a share of value in the system. In the case of banana farms, however, women have found it difficult to find a foothold; this is due to the fact that cooperative membership was initially restricted to signatories of the AVAs, the “vast majority” of whom were men. Their lack of assets and ownership rights mean that women are unrepresented, marginalised and without an opportunity to influence decisions. Where women are cooperative members, they are often confined to secretarial or administrative tasks or work such as packing produce, weeding and cleaning.
While the Government continues to review the regulations relating to AVAs, farmers are working within their cooperatives and with the support of Oxfam and agrarian reform advocates to renegotiate or nullify their contracts. There is too a “growing sense of solidarity among women” and Oxfam is working with cooperatives to increase opportunities for women’s empowerment. For now, however, the environment that would enable small-scale farmers or members of a cooperative to sustain a livelihood from their land and escape poverty, debt and hunger “simply does not exist”.