I WAS disappointed, but not particularly surprised, to read the allegations of bureaucratic nonsense being carried out by the new overlords of the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA), as detailed in Marlen Ronquillo’s column on Sunday (“While the agri sector burns, the new sheriff’s focus is elsewhere,” June 22).
The party of the PCA’s new boss, former senator and now quasi-Secretary of Agriculture Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan, has apparently put more time into quibbling over office locations, paint colors, and which vacant jobs can be assigned to friends and relatives than addressing the still-expanding disaster the coconut industry is experiencing.
We can get some sense that the charges made by Mr. Ronquillo’s source in the PCA are probably true from an uproar that exploded from within the coconut industry on Sunday evening. Although finding someone to confirm the action has proven difficult (three different sources, two at the PCA and one at the Department of Agriculture, answered my question with “yes,” “no,” and “I don’t know, but I also heard the same thing, so I think so,” respectively), the PCA has apparently clamped a quarantine on the entire Calabarzon region or is planning to do so this week. The embargo will prohibit the movement of any coconut products out of the region in an effort to keep the dreaded coconut scale insect epidemic from spreading.
The quarantine is authorized by Executive Order 169, which establishes “emergency measures to control and manage the spread and damage of Aspidiotus rigidus [i.e., the coconut scale insect] in the Philippines and designating the Philippine Coconut Authority as the lead agency for the purpose.” It was signed by President Aquino on June 5, but only now, nearly three weeks later, has any large-scale action gotten underway. In the meantime, the infestation has continued to spread; more than a week ago, this newspaper and others reported that the pest had appeared in Zamboanga, apparently carried there from heavily-infested Basilan, and there have been unconfirmed reports of small outbreaks in other parts of the country. The lead agency, apparently busier with more important things like office decorations, is simply not moving fast enough to make any progress against the infestation. That’s the first problem.
The second problem is that the action preferred by the PCA, the application of neonico–tinoid pesticide through trunk injection, is of highly questionable value. The coconut farmers themselves, almost without exception, are violently opposed to it; there are even rumors that some farmers have declared that they will prevent agriculture officials from attempting the treatment on their farms—with force, if necessary. With the imposition of a quarantine, however, there is a grave concern that farmers will be blackmailed into accepting the pesticide treatment, being banned from transporting or selling any coconut products until they submit to the chemical procedure.
And the blackmail will be easy, because as soon as the quarantine is imposed, the livelihood for coconut farmers—meager enough under normal circumstances—instantly evaporates.
And it is not only the coconut farmers that will be affected but an entire chain of secondary producers as well. The highly-touted coconut water business, coconut oil extractors, vinegar makers, distributors of coco lumber and coconut husk fiber, lambanog distillers, and even makers of the buko pie Laguna province is famous for will all find themselves out of work, at least temporarily (the most-often mentioned time frame for the quarantine is six months to a year), and so far, the only plan to address that potential—nay, inevitable—economic calamity is a vague mention of “livelihood programs” that may or may not actually exist.
What is infuriating not only to the coconut industry but to anyone else with even a basic ability to use Google for casual research is that the government is pushing a pesticide treatment that is expensive, difficult to carry out correctly, and requires the use of chemicals that have been banned outright in some places, most notably the European Union. According to one researcher, formerly with the University of Minnesota and now employed with the State of Hawaii Department of Agriculture (he asked that his name not be used, as he had not gotten authorization from his agency to speak to the media), the method being used to apply neonicotinoid pesticides by the PCA is probably ineffective.
“We do use it for very serious problems, but it’s considered a last resort,” he explained. “It is effective on some coconut pests, but there are two problems. First, they have to make sure they’re using the right pesticide in the right concentration, because not every type works on every pest. Let’s assume they’ve figured that out, though. The second problem is with the injection method. It permanently damages the tree, for one thing, because coconuts are monocots [i.e., they do not have rings in the trunk], so the hole doesn’t heal. So there’s a risk of different pests or fungal infections entering. And the depth of the injection must be very precise to put the pesticide in the layer that carries water to the upper part of the tree. If it’s too deep, the pesticide remains in the trunk and doesn’t do anything.”
I referred him to a YouTube video showing a clip from one of the local news networks, in which the injection method was being demonstrated. “If that’s what they’re doing [using a large auger bit to drill a hole that appeared to be a couple inches deep], they are wasting their time and damaging their trees,” the researcher said. “Granted, this is just my opinion from hearing you describe what’s going on and seeing a video. But it certainly looks like there is reason to be very concerned.”
So the plan of attack by the government is to completely close down a primary agricultural industry in five provinces (and with it a half-dozen supported industries), and combat the epidemic using a method which is at best expensive, complicated, and risky. Killing the coconut industry will certainly end the coconut scale infection, so in the literal sense, EO 169 is being faithfully carried out. The coconut sector and the big chunk of the economy it supports, however, would probably be better served by the application of a little more imagination.