In a column about a week ago (“A window to transform our poorest regions,” November 27), Bobi Tiglao explained how the fact that Leyte and Samar are among the Philippines’ poorest provinces and also the country’s biggest coconut producers is not an idle correlation. An inequitable and inefficient social and supply chain structure coupled with a complete lack of institutional support for proper upgrade and maintenance of the resource meant that even before Super Typhoon Yolanda, the economic value of the coconut sector was degrading rapidly.
And because of the unusual power of the storm, the normally typhoon-resistant coconut trees—a big part of the reason the crop is prevalent throughout the storm-prone provinces in Leyte, Samar and the Bicol Region—were destroyed; estimates of the loss (which are, naturally, nervously downplayed by government officials) range from one-fourth to perhaps one-third of the coconut farms. While a destroyed rice crop can be replaced from scratch in a matter of months, rebuilding the coconut sector will take years—depending on the variety, a coconut tree takes five years to grow to maturity, and about 10 years to become fully productive. Not only would replacing the same dysfunctional sector be very stupid, as Tiglao asserts, it is actually impossible.
Reconfiguring the agricultural base of the wrecked coconut-growing areas into something else is not an option, either. Coconuts are deeply embedded in the local social fabric. Raul Alcazar, who I mentioned in Tuesday’s column and who is a Leyte descendant, explained the importance of coconut to the local culture: “Leyte and Samar is coconut country. The kinabuhi (economy) there is dictated by copra. Palay (unmilled rice) is only second and fishing is third, and for the coastal towns only. All the rest are coconuts. Almost everyone knows all about coconut and copra, and has a coconut tree be it a thousand hectare plantation or a single backyard tree. Coconut is sacred to them. Daily living is dependent on coconuts, from the big landed millionaires (there are many of them), to professionals, traders, small planters, tenants and down to petty thieves who would steal a few nuts or make do with rejects.”
Alcazar, who among other things maintains a small organic farm in Batangas, sees no way around rebuilding the coconut industry, but he looks at it as “rehabilitation” rather than just replacing what was destroyed by the typhoon. His worry, however, is that any chance to do that successfully will be lost if some quick action is not taken, both on the government’s part and by the people in the coconut-growing regions. “First off, there has to be a massive quarantine of all coconut seedlings nationwide,” he said. The reason for this is that there is a large-scale infestation of scale insects and the coconut hispine beetle (Brontispa longissima Gestro, commonly known as the coconut leaf beetle) affecting coconut trees in several areas of the country, including Batangas, Laguna, and Quezon provinces, and some parts of Mindanao. According to a press release from the Philippine Coconut Authority as far back as January 2011, even the trees along the Baywalk on Roxas Boulevard are infected, as well as those along the entire stretch of highway between Dasmariñas and Silang in Cavite.
“Even in the backyard of our best scientists at UPLB [University of the Philippines-Los Baños], coconuts are infected,” Alcazar said with some frustration. Without a quarantine, of course, seedlings that would be used for replanting downed trees throughout Leyte and Samar could simply spread the infestation. Alcazar suggests that coconut growers could help their own cause, however, if they applied a little forward-thinking. “The typhoon victims would be well-advised to gather all available mature coconuts and start replanting them,” he said. “Sacrifices should be made. They should forget copra temporarily and plant those mature coconuts first instead of cooking them into copra. If all those fallen coconuts are turned into copra, there could be nothing left to start new plants and they would be forced to import coconuts from Luzon where there is a high risk of infestation, not to mention an insufficient supply.” Literally millions of fallen coconuts were left after the storm, which are providing an ironic short-term bonanza for people in the coconut-growing regions; copra prices spiked after the storm, so if they can gather them, and if they can somehow get them to buyers, coconut salvagers are making good money—an opportunity most cannot overlook in the dire aftermath of Yolanda.
The best window of opportunity for rehabilitating the social structure of the coconut sector probably lies in the unavoidable need to develop interim crops—preferably high-value crops with some export potential, such as dragon fruit and papaya, as Alcazar suggests. If these are put together with the introduction of cost-efficient measures such as organic fertilizer and organic farming techniques, something that Alcazar believes the Waray people would be receptive to after having suffered from an extreme example of the potential effects of climate change, many small farmers could achieve a measure of independence from the economic trap the obsolete structure of the pre-Yolanda coconut sector represented.
All of this will, however, require substantial and sustained government support, and that may be where hopes hit a wall. As Tiglao pointed out in his column last week, successive administrations have spent three decades plundering the very funds meant to bring the coconut sector out of the 19th century; the P72 billion that should have been in the coco levy fund is long gone, a bitter pill to swallow now that it is desperately needed. Nor does the Aquino regime, who has shown a distinct reluctance to extend any assistance to the agricultural sector in general (for example, President Benigno Aquino 3rd cut P4.5 billion from the National Irrigation Authority budget for 2014, directing the funding for irrigation projects instead be sourced from fees charged to farmers), gives us much hope that it will invest in the bigger picture.