An interview with Hernani Barros, a farmer in Negros province, conducted by the Asian Human Rights Commission

PHILIPPINES: ‘They give us coffins, not food to eat’

OVERVIEW: In 1988, the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Programme (CARP) was made into law for the express purpose of addressing the widespread lack of available land by distributing farmland to the farm tenants who qualify as beneficiaries of land reform. The program was designed to give farmers land to cultivate in order that they would have a source of income and means of subsistence to improve their lives after centuries of enslavement.

In this interview, the interviewee, Hernani Barros, tells about the stories of children who had to work in the farm instead of going to school, a father who lost his two children from hunger and starvation, a sick father who died when his relatives had abandoned him due to his illness and whose son is mentally disabled, and of villagers who only get plywood from the government as form of assistance to build coffins instead of food to eat or medicines for the sick when they need them most.

Barros lives on the island of Negros, where the lurid social divide between the landlords and the poor farm workers has existed for centuries. It is an island where the numerous stories of children and adults dying from hunger and starvation remain untold and unheard by the many, but is already a norm in their society despite the island’s riches. This is an island of plenty in which neglect and abandonment has led to human life losing its meaning.


I’m Hernani Barros, 49 years old, living in Barangay Sta. Rosa, Murcia, Negros Occidental. I’m one of the many child laborers. At 13 years old I was already helping my father due to poverty. That is also the reason why I could not go to school because I feel sorry for my father and that I wanted to help him in farming. Until now we remain farm workers of our landowner enduring Pesos 100 (USD2.2) a day. I have nine children, five of them are working in Manila– four of whom already had their own families; and the four others are still living with us schooling. They also could not finish their schooling because we lacked money to send them to school because my wife also depends only from our small farm cultivation. And on my part, being one of the organizers of the NFSW (National Federation of Sugar Workers) does not have regular income because all of us are volunteers giving our service to the community in our village.

That is the condition in which my family is into; however, by and large this is also the same condition that many of the villagers in our community are into due to lack of adequate and regular income for their livelihood. The children either work hard or idle at the farm instead of them going to school. They had to help their parent to also be able to feed their family, buy clothes. Their condition also is pitiful due to the abject poverty that we are all into.

Because of this, one of my neighbors, Ronillo Mosquera, two of his children died of starvation due to abject poverty. They died due to lack of food because their parents had to work at the farm neglecting their children at home. One of the children died after his parents left him alone in their house when he was sick. His parents had to work to earn money. When the parents return home the child had already died. He died because his parents were not there who could have been taking care of him (but they were on the farm working hard to earn money to buy food).

That is similar to the children of Elmo Barros. His children also suffered starvation. One of the children only eats root crops despite being sick because there was no one that they could ask for help since their neighbors themselves suffers abject poverty.

Lately also, it’s not only children that have died but adults themselves. Raymundo Samson, (53) suffered from high fever. No one could take care of him when he was sick because his child also suffered mental illness, when his friend who was visiting him at his house saw him, he was dead already. Had the barangay officials and the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) provided him support he could not have died early. He was still relatively strong but because he could not buy medicine and food; and that no one is looking after him, he died early.

That is what is happening in our village. And not only our village. I’ve been to many villages and community already, and this condition is similar mostly to the farm workers who do not have regular income that is why they suffer abject poverty. And most of the children had to work in farmlands instead of going to school. The children work together with their parents to add income to their family. That is what is happening in our village.

Question: What is the villager’s opinion about asking for assistance from the government?

They do plan to seek assistance from them by going to the government offices in the city, from the city/municipal mayor, village chief, but since that problem had been going on for many years and that the village officials are not looking after the villagers (they are reluctant of seeking assistance when in need) unless there are already deaths. The village officials would only provide plywood for the deceased family to construct a coffin for their dead. But in terms of providing relief to the suffering villagers, like rice, medicines, the village council do have a lot of program on that and also the DSWD, but these are not permanent and adequate, particularly for persons who are sick. Those relief assistance and program never reach the villagers in need.

Even the sacks of rice subsidy from the provincial government, for example recently wherein they said there were 200 sacks of rice; and we could also see a lot of supplies of rice subsidies but what they give to the villagers is only three kilos. So, if a family of five is given three kilos; and when you cook it is not enough. Can the abject poverty the people are suffering be answered with only three kilos of rice? They (government) should have told the villagers in the community as to what are the possible remedies for them. The realities there is that due to the long dry season recently and the difficulty of the farmers to farm due to lack of financial assistance because they do not receive any assistance from their landowners/planters there is nothing a person can do. It is only when the workers are given adequate salary and compensation that they their plight is addressed. The survival of the family of the workers depends heavy on their own hard work, and that is only when he/she is able to work he/she could earn money.

And since the farmers had no land to cultivate because the land is already occupied (by the landlord) due to the defective land reform program because those who are given land are those who are not qualified beneficiaries of the program. That is what is happening, not only in the village of Murcia but most of the place where we had been from most of the villagers suffer from this failure.

Question: Do you mean in your village, the villagers no longer consider asking assistance from the government because they knew full well that what they can get is only plywood to construct a coffin for their dead?

Yes, that is true. It did not happen only once. On many occasion we had a dialogue with the concerned government agencies but what they give are only promises that are never realised. Even the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) who are supposed to have legal obligation to implement the policy (on the minimum wage in our region) worth Pesos 218 per day (USD 5), which could have helped the workers themselves failed in implementing this law. They could have helped in putting pressure on the employers or the landowners to implement this law. Therefore, the villagers and the farm workers lost their hope that the DOLE could help them. Even if you file a complaint (on labor cases) it will take years and years for them to decide.

Question: Is there anything you want to tell us more?

For the people in Negros, which concerns not only the farm workers, we should not lose hope. We should think that the answer to our (dream) of progress is also within each one of us. Our courage and bravery in (doing something about it) because if we surrender and think negatively our fate would be to earn the anger of our children whom we had been witnessing as falling sick, lacking descent clothes, food.

To read more related articles:

Negros Island: Living in our colonial past


The views shared in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the AHRC, and the AHRC takes no responsibility for them.

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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

Document ID :AHRC-ETC-029-2010
Countries : Philippines
Date : 30-09-2010