What adds to the tragedy caused by Super Typhoon Yolanda is the fact that the areas hardest hit, Samar and Leyte provinces, have been among poorest in our country. It is as if lightning struck a group of men on a field, and hit were the poorest among them.
Worse, poverty—measured in terms of percentage of families below the poverty threshold—in these areas have in fact getting worse over the years.
Poverty incidence in Eastern Samar, for instance, rose from 39 percent in 2006 to 59 percent in 2012, according to the latest official government survey, while that in Southern Leyte from 22 to 36 percent. With such economic misery in these areas, it is no wonder that the New People’s Army continues to have substantial forces there, where the Communist Party leaders are believed to be based.
Why are these areas poor?
One can cite a number of reasons, most credibly the fact that facing the Pacific, these have been always been the first to absorb the energy of typhoons created in the middle of that ocean and which grow as it moves westward to destructive dimensions. How can these areas attract bigger investments? The richer areas of Cebu, Negros, and Iloilo provinces in effect have been shielded from one of nature’s most destructive phenomena by the poorer provinces.
Coconut industry generates poverty
There is, however, an obvious reason for Leyte and Samar’s poverty, which is an economic one: the coconut industry.
Leyte and Samar are among our biggest coconut-producing areas, and they are dependent on the industry, with as much 42 to 69 percent of their croplands planted to coconuts. The statistics do not quite capture how certain areas of these provinces are oceans of coconut trees.
Why is the coconut industry in these areas the biggest factor for these areas poverty?
While many romanticize it as the “tree of life,” the reality on the ground is it is more the tree of poverty. Coconuts are a ‘primitive’ crop in these areas, of a variety planted as long as 60 years ago, and the industry’s productivity cannot be increased through more use of fertilizers or more mechanization of the harvesting process.
The value of coconut production therefore could not be increased (and has in fact decreased) over the decades, resulting in the stagnation and even relative decline of its prices—i.e., its real, inflation-adjusted price has deteriorated while those of other essential consumer commodities increase.
Secondly, because of historical and economic reasons, production of coconuts is dominantly by 500,000 unorganized farms, resulting in an oligopolistic structure. A small number of traders totaling about 14,000 and the elite group of 100 exporters and oil millers can peg copra prices at their lowest levels, and therefore get the bulk of the profits of production while the mass of farmers and their workers become poorer and poorer each year.
Farms have even become smaller and smaller over the decades, as the first farmer—mostly in the 1920s—had distributed his land to his children, and so did his children’s children. Many of third generation had moved on to the cities, and created a layer of tenants and “katiwalas,” who in turn have relied—exploited—the mass of totally landless coconut workers.
Worse, a coconut tree’s productivity peaks at 25 years, and most of these trees in Leyte and Samar are 40 or even 60 years old, so that the output have been declining—meaning lower and lower income for farmers, who account for the bulk of coconut farms.
Why can’t farmers modernize?
Why can’t coconut farmers with government help “modernize” their farms by planting new, more productive trees? They’re caught in a quagmire, a classic case of a social and economic structure that generates poverty.
Having not enough money even for food, they can’t have the money to purchase and plant new trees to replace their aging ones. And even if they were given these new varieties to plant, how would they live after they cut down their old trees and wait for the new ones to mature?
One of the biggest tragedies of our recent history in fact is that the much maligned “coconut levy” during the closing years of the Marcos dictatorship was precisely intended to finance the modernization of the coconut industry.
The levy was designed to generate the huge funds needed to provide farmers not only with the resources to plant a new variety of coconuts (and even other more efficient crops) but to provide them with the money to tide them over for the two to three years that they’d have to wait for the trees to bear fruit.
It has been a demonstration of how bad our politics and our legal system have been—or of how irresponsible our elites are—that not a single centavo of the estimated P72 billion (including interest and dividends from the shares it bought, over more than 30 years) amassed through the levy has been used to transform our coconut industry that is one of the biggest engines of poverty in our country.
Coconut trees are known to merely bend rather than break in fierce winds, which is one reason why they were planted in areas even hit regularly by typhoons. However, Super Typhoon Yolanda has been so exceptional in strength, and had sustained gusts of 300-kilometers per hour. Instead of an ocean of coconut trees, aerial surveys of Leyte and Samar areas are showing a wasteland of trees leveled and broken like matchsticks, as if a nuclear bomb had exploded.
Super Typhoon Yolanda has been a destroyer of worlds, the coconut-dominated worlds of Leyte and Samar. Nature in a cruel way has done the first phase of what could be a historic project to rid Leyte and Samar of poverty, where a big number of the country’s poor are.
The international sympathy for Leyte and Samar—which could generate funds of at least $500 million—could be utilized to really transform these areas into prosperous lands. The devastation in these areas could be an excuse for winding up the dole-out patronage-politics scheme euphemistically called the conditional-cash transfer program so that the tens of billions allocated for it (P44 billion this year) could instead be used to create a new sustainable industry that would end poverty for four million Filipinos in Eastern Visayas.
Our leaders would be very, very stupid to merely restore the nearly destroyed coconut-based economy of Leyte and Samar.
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