Change has come in Negros. Sugarcane is not the only thing growing in the province, infrastructure is rising, as well. And for the future, the sweetness of sugar might not be enough to boost the local economy.
Economic diversification has been one of the programs pushed by the provincial government to break away from its mono-crop industry. From the sugar crisis in the 1980s, the move to diversify was emphasized by the government’s “Panaad”, a Hiligaynon term for “Promise”. This gave birth to a celebration to help the local government units promote their products and services apart from sugar, which was eventually called “Panaad sa Negros Festival”.
After almost 25 years, the government has bragged that this “promise” has eventually expanded and lured more industries to flourish, Provincial Planning and Development Coordinator Ma. Lina Sanogal said.
The province has been continuously diversifying as more retail, tourism, power, and township industries rise in the highly-urbanized Bacolod and nearby cities. From the province’s green landscape, vast tracks of lands are now transformed into commercial, residential, and mixed-use areas, placing the construction industry at its peak.
These projects include creating renewable energy plants, inter-connectivity roads between Negros Occidental and Oriental, rising condominiums and Information Technology-Business Process Outsourcing (IT-BPO) facilities, and the implementation of the “Build, Build, Build” program, dubbed as the government’s ‘Golden Age’ of infrastructure.
Both the government and the private sector said that this situation created a “construction boom” in the province that requires a lot of materials. The high demand for construction materials is also indicated by the number of private individuals applying for quarrying, sand and gravel in the province. But, will it be enough?
THE ‘WHITE GOLD’
Negros Occidental has been the home of the biggest sugar plantations and milling centrals in the country since the 1950s. With its rich agricultural lands, it was inevitable that these would create powerful families or “sugar barons” for decades, forming big gaps on social classes. Working in the backdrop are the farm workers who till the land where the sugarcane grows.
Sugar has become the “white gold” driving the people.
The sugar crisis that hit the province in the 80s was due to the rise of artificial sweeteners and the lowering of US sugar quota. This was a learning lesson for Negrenses to be resilient and diversify to lessen economy dependence on sugar as the primary commodity.
The economic diversification has welcomed industries, like mining, to operate in the province during that time. With the rich mineral resources of Negros, large-scale operators have entered to explore and mine these resources.
Big trucks and bustling automobiles have ultimately replaced the iconic “iron dinosaurs” or steam engines crossing the sugar roads. The trucks do not only carry sugarcanes. Others transport sand, gravel, and other related minerals from quarry operations. Some still go to the sugar milling centrals, the others to the construction, mine processing, and industrial sites.
Above this, Negros has maintained its position as the top sugar-producing province in the country, and more than 50 percent of its agricultural lands are still sugarcane plantations.
Mining became one of the major industries in the province decades ago. There were large-scale mining operations in north and south Negros that contributed millions of pesos in revenues to the economy. However, they are now non-operational due to the opposition of the government and independent organizations against the effects of mining on the environment.
Mines and Geosciences Bureau-Western Visayas records show that, as of last year, there were 12 metallic and non-metallic Mineral Production Sharing Agreements approved in Negros Occidental. The MPSAs of metallic commodities were only at their exploratory stages. The minerals being explored in the areas were gold, copper, silver, manganese, silica and molybdenum. Other non-metallic MPSAs were mostly sand and gravel located at major rivers of the province.
If the MPSA area is more than 5 hectares, MGB is the one that monitors the operation, but if it is less than 5 has., the province, down to the barangay council, is assigned to monitor small-scale quarries. The monitoring and law-enforcement of mining laws and ordinances are led by the Provincial Environment Management Office.
PEMO also receives applications from these small-scale quarry operators, in which the trend in their record shows that the number of applicants was increasing. As of April 11, the total number of permit holders in the province is 180, with close to 900 still applying for renewal and operation, and almost all of them want to quarry sand and gravel, which are used in creating infrastructures.
PEMO head Wilfred Ramon Peñalosa, in an interview, said that the applications will not rise if these applicants did not see any demand coming from the construction industry.
Metro Bacolod Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive officer Frank Carbon said the private sector in the different industries now has a favorable atmosphere since private investments from Manila and Cebu have caused more vertical constructions in Bacolod, and neighboring cities like Talisay and Silay.
Big players like the Ayala Group, Megaworld, Filinvest, and Cebu Landmasters, among others, have already pledged billion-peso investments that promise thousands of jobs for the province, starting from the construction of their facilities.
IT-BPO companies have also segmented its various services that could be exported to other parts of the world through fiber optics, like knowledge process outsourcing, medical billing, and high-end IT processes, that require more infrastructures favorable to the industry.
Carbon said these private initiatives have allowed an artificial increase of the real property taxes on lands, and doubled the money circulation, especially in Bacolod.
In terms of government investments, more horizontal infrastructures like roads and bridges are now underway.
Last year, the Negros Island Regional Development Council endorsed the P7.9 billion Tourism Road and Infrastructure Program (TRIP) to create and reconstruct 32 access roads of the two provinces. The Department of Tourism will download P700 million to start the 5-year project this year.
Public Works and Highways Secretary Mark Villar has said that one of the Build, Build, Build projects soon to be done in the region is the Panay-Guimaras-Negros Bridge, which is eyed to cost about $2 billion and become the longest inter-island bridge in the country at 19 kilometers.
Carbon said more inter-provincial roads are also needed to be constructed as government officials of both provinces have united for a Negros Federal State in the proposed federal form of government in the country.
WILL MATERIALS BE ENOUGH?
He also said that there will be more private and government-initiated infrastructure projects that may come to Negros, and MBCCI sees that this construction boom will extend up to 10 years, and the challenge is that local construction materials might not be enough to supply infrastructure projects after that span.
Private sectors in Negros, especially contractors, are already looking for areas in other provinces as potential sources for these materials as the provincial government has been implementing strict enforcement to ensure that natural resources are sustained, Carbon, who also sits as the committee chair on infrastructure in the Provincial Development Council, said.
“The demand for construction materials is very high in the province, but most local quarrying operators could meet it,” he said.
Metal materials, and cement to construct buildings and roads are usually imported from neighboring provinces, but sand and gravel, which compose most of the construction materials, are sourced locally, he added.
Peñalosa said that foreseeing the high demand of construction materials, PEMO is now conducting river assessment to measure the availability of materials and determine if the river systems of the province are already abused due to these quarry operations.
The results of the assessment will be the basis of creating more policies and regulations on quarrying in the province, he added.* (To be continued. With sources from the DAILY STAR archive, PEMO, MGB, PDC, and MBCCI)
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