Sugar Central across the cane fields

Sugar Central across the cane fields

Now the cane arrives on trucks.

Now the cane arrives on trucks.

Sugarcane used to be hauled in cars pulled by this locomotive.Sugarcane used to be hauled in cars pulled by this steam locomotive.  The fuel was the waste bagasse.

Lina spent her first seven years within the compound of Azucarera Central de La Carlota – Sugar Central – in La Carlota, Negros Occidental.  This sugar mill was once the largest sugar mill in Asia  and one of the many “Centrals” that refined sugar from the plantations or haciendas on the island of Negros.  While some of these have closed, La Carlota Sugar Central continues to refine sugar: a stunning 18,000 metric tons a day when running at full capacity!

The sprawling Central compound included not only the mills and all its buildings, but employee housing, a church, school, hospital, cinema, athletic field.  In Lina’s youth, those fortunate enough to live inside the compound enjoyed many benefits:  free health care and schooling, free rice, rum, ice, movies.   She was baptized in the Catholic Church next to the house the company provided to her father.  The company provided free school busing for children attending high school in the town proper of La Carlota.

The “sacadas” or seasonal workers who cut the cane were hired by contractors rather than directly by Central.  There were good contractors and bad, and the sacadas did not enjoy the privileges of those living inside.  The poverty and oppression many of them lived in proved fertile ground for communist organizing in the   1960s – 80s .

Lina enjoyed these privileges because her  “tatay”  (father) and “lolo” (grandfather) worked in the mill as supervisors.   Papa was a foreman and Lolo prepared the payroll of 50 to 70 sacadas under him.   Today, with new ownership and tougher economic times due to competition from other countries and lower US quotas for Philippine sugar, the benefits her family enjoyed have been slashed.  All but one of the old houses has been removed.  The church still stands, and the mill continues to work.

On the day we visited, 40 trucks were lined up outside the gate waiting to deliver their loads of sugar cane to the mill.  The 6 wheelers usually carry 12-14 metric tons, the 10 wheelers may carry 18-20 and trailers even more.

The cane will be crushed and the juice extracted.   This juice is far sweeter than maple syrup, so two liters of the best juice may yield as much as one liter of concentrated syrup, ready to crystallize into sugar.   One metric ton (1000 kilos) of raw cane may yield anywhere from 50 to 200 kilos of sugar depending on the quality of the cane.   So if I assumed 100 kilos of sugar for 1000 kilos of cane, it would take 180,000 tons of cane daily to produce 18,000 tons of sugar.  How many trucks would that be?!   And how many sacadas working how many hours to cut that much?!

The waste cane or “bagasse” is heaped outside in huge mountains and later warehoused in immense “bodegas” that looked the size of football fields and at least 40 feet high.   This bagasse will fuel the huge evaporators.   As it sits in the warehouse, fermentation begins and heat builds up, so the mountains of waste must be moistened to prevent them from getting too dry and perhaps bursting into flame.

Once this fermentation process, applied to the cane juice, led to the distilling of Tanduay Rum at Central, but Central no longer produces rum.  That now happens elsewhere.  The rum ration and the oak barrels, perhaps imported from the American Southeast, are things of the past, as is the way of life that Lina enjoyed as a child.