Karim Raslan (ABS-CBN News)
Efren Cornessa is the mildest man you’ll ever meet.
Stoic and ever-smiling, the sixty-one-year-old is recovering from a bout of illness.
With high-blood pressure leaving him unable to work for long in the sun, he has been reduced to sweeping the streets of Talisay City in the island of Negros in the Philippines every morning between 4:00-6:00 a.m.
Talisay (officially called “Talisay Negros Occidental”) is part of the wider “Metro Bacolod” metropolitan area.
When I first met Efren back in November last year, he was running a sari-sari (i.e. convenience) stall (now shuttered) from the front of his home, replenishing his supplies at the local wholesale market every few days.
Purposeful and content, he chatted happily about his years as manual labourer as he guided us through the country lanes around Bacolod.
The island of Negros is sugar country. The landscape is a monotonous sea of sugar cane as far as the eye can see and at harvest-time, huge, overloaded trucks ply the island’s roads, carrying the freshly cut crop to the mills.
Land reform – or at least its failure – has been the hallmark of life in rural Negros as local haciendas with their vast landholdings continue to dominate the countryside.
In the past, these expansive farms were staffed by hundreds if not thousands of agricultural labourers – some permanent, the majority merely transient and known as “sacadas”. However, the glory days have long since passed.
Local sugar cane can’t compete against imported corn-syrup and the industry has been shedding workers, most of whom have little prospects of finding other employment.
My Team Ceritalah colleagues have been visiting and catching up with Efren and his family since September last year – just two months after President Rodrigo Duterte assumed office in June 2016.
Efren, his wife Evelyn and their four children are classic Duterte voters—poor, landless but hard-working. Indeed, Efren remains an enthusiastic supporter of the “War on Drugs.”
He first started work at the age of fourteen and for six years he weeded the fields diligently with a simple hand-held implement, one of which he keeps in his home as a token of his years as labourer.
His father and grandfather worked on the same hacienda which is 30 minutes from the city.
The family has lived rent-free on same piece of land for four generations: part of the web of relationships that has bound workers and bosses in this quasi-feudal corner of the Philippines.
Still, his children have made something of themselves. Eldest daughter Emy is married to Neil, a sugarcane processing plant engineer and they have a daughter of their own.
Ramiel sells home-cooked food at a local eatery while Efren Junior studies Computer Science at the Technological University of the Philippines. The youngest son, Janry, is currently a high school student.
But now, Efren is being forced to leave the smallholding his family has called home.
The hacienda owners have offered him an alternative: about seven to eight kilometers away from town.
It’s a desolate spot without electricity or running water and Efren – despite the relative success of his children– doesn’t have the money to build a new dwelling.
Efren’s wife, Evelyn – a university graduate—is less accepting.
When we first met the family, she was still in Talisay. But now, six months on and faced with the need to make more money because of Efren’s illness, Evelyn has moved to Manila where she works as a maid.
She rails at the family’s situation – even more so since Efren has now been reduced to sweeping the road to survive: “We don’t have the money to shift to a new place. I guess I can only watch as they demolish the home we built. There are no jobs in Bacolod. We will have to move to Manila.”
When asked how President Duterte’s policies have improved life in the provinces, she is dismissive: “There is no development in Bacolod! There is no difference. Duterte’s policies haven’t improved my life or the lives of anyone else in my barangay. He shouldn’t just be focusing on drugs. He needs to look into poverty.”
Duterte came into power on the back of improving the lives of families like the Cornessas. His recent Philippine Development Plan 2017-2022 aims to reduce rural poverty to 20% by 2022 from 30% in 2015.
There has been talk of prioritising infrastructure projects outside of Metro Manila. Duterte last month also promised to have another stab at land reform, promising farmers not just plots but also seedlings and fertiliser.
Some PHP2 billion has been set aside from the national budget for free irrigation.
But if the Cornessas plight is anything to go by, things are not moving fast enough.
Duterte—as noted—came to power on the back of the votes of people like them.
Nine months in and for even his most hardened supporters, most of the improvements he promised have yet to materialize. Having raised expectations, it’s a race against time to deliver change.