ILOILO CITY—The ferry boat trip across the sea from Bacolod City to Iloilo City takes only 45 minutes—less time to travel from Manila to Corregidor. Actually, they are the only twin cities in the Philippines. Their inhabitants speak the same language, Ilonggo. Their economies are intertwined and symbiotic. They cannot exist without each other.
Negros Occidental historically is the sugar capital of the country and produces 70 percent of the sugar crop. Iloilo is the rice granary of the Visayas. Up to this time, Ilonggos haven’t reconciled totally with the concept that Tagalog is the base national language. They still believe that Ilonggo is the superior and richer language than Tagalog. They are proud of their accent.
The port of Iloilo opened to foreign trade in 1855—over a decade ahead of the Suez Canal. Since then, Iloilo was crowned by the Spanish colonial government as the Queen City of the South. It had the second-deepest and -safest harbor port in the country after Manila.
Negros Occidental produces the sugar that the Philippines exports to United States and Europe. Because Negros has no deep water port, it ships sugar to Iloilo and that makes them inseparable economic twins.
In Bacolod last week, local officials told me that in the near future Negros would produce sufficient rice to feed its population, ending its dependence on Panay Island for its staple supply. That means the Negrenses are more optimistic of achieving self-sufficiency in rice earlier than the Department of Agriculture. Agriculture Secretary Proceso J. Alacala has forecast that the Philippines will be self-sufficient in rice in the next several years for the first time since the 1970s in its goal of achieving food security.
Without taking the cue from the central government of Negros Occidental, Mayor Alfredo Marañon told the local media that Negros Occidental had been cited as the organic food production center of the Philippines, including fruits and vegetables, in addition to sugarcane production. This indicates that Negros is becoming more diversified in production and getting away from its mono-crop culture centered on sugarcane.
The sugar industry—powered by the 17 sugar centrals in Negros, the most number in the Philippines—is having a revival in the midst of bigger world markets and rising domestic demand. The Philippine Sugar Administration is pushing for expanding production in the industry by making it more efficient and producing byproducts. In addition to sugar, it is promoting biomass for fuel (ethanol) and rum. It is encouraging the production of Muscovado sugar, which has a growing demand in domestic and foreign markets.
Among all categories of farmers in the Philippines, nothing is more dynamic, modernized and mechanized than the sugar planters. They have adapted to change more quickly than rice and coconut planters, despite disruptive economic policies during the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship.
The Negros planters have shed their extravagant lifestyle as sugar barons and power brokers embodied by the so-called sugar bloc of pre-martial law years. The transformation is evident as one travels the highways of Negros Occidental from north to south, from Silay where the new airport terminal is located, to Hinigaran in the south.
The milling season for sugar has concluded but the cane fields are green again, and the next crop due for harvest in October is robust. Now waist-deep in height, the crop carpets the well-irrigated cane fields. The sugar plantations in Negros make a mockery of their counterparts in Luzon, such as the Hacienda Luisita in Tarlac. The canes of Negros are the size of the wrist while those in Central Luzon are like broomsticks from which you cannot squeeze any drop of juice. They’re only fit for bagasse.
Without exaggeration, the highways of Negros Occidental are the most extensive and best paved after those in Metro Manila and the provinces surrounding it, such as the Calabarzon. These highways have been maintained since the Commonwealth Period of President Manuel Quezon as a concession to the sugar industry as the No. 1 Philippine export crop.
The improvement of the highways continues. A new road network is being built branching out of the Silay highway to Bacolod, bypassing Talisay. The new highway is expected to cut in half the travel time and distance between Silay and Bacolod.
In contrast, Iloilo—much older than Bacolod—is in a state of decay, trapped in time. Its highways are in tatters, but it is a city with the heritage of the mansions of the old-money families in Jaro and Molo, famous for its pancit molo and Panaderia de Molo.
A living monument
But Iloilo is determined not to be left behind. The old commercial buildings in the central district are having a face-lift, like those in Singapore. The district is being built on the old streets—Iznart, Calle Real, Muelle Loney, JM Basa and the boulevard in front of the old customs house (Aduana) on the waterfront.
Iloilo is being promoted by city authorities as a tourist destination and a living monument with an elegant and historical past. The latest initiative is developing the city as a suitable venue for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in 2015. It was selected over other cities, including Cebu and Bacolod. This is a last chance for Iloilo to regain its glory as the Queen City of the South at the turn of the 20th century.
There’s a plan to build another airport in the old site of Mandurriao. The present terminal in Sta. Barbara has been the best provincial airport after Mactan in Cebu. The terminal in Sta. Barbara is modeled on the centennial airport in Manila. The Bacolod airport in Silay is also modeled on Sta. Barbara, which makes them almost like twins.
Not least, which no other city can claim, is that the last Spanish governor general in the Philippines, Diego de los Rios, surrendered Spanish sovereignty over the Philippines to Gen. Martin Delgado, head of the revolutionary forces in Panay, in Sta. Barbara. He didn’t surrender it to the Aguinaldo revolutionary government in Luzon.