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No Free Lunch

In search of a coconut roadmap

/ 05:06 AM October 23, 2018

“It’s not true that the coconut industry does not have a roadmap,” someone declared in a recent discussion I was in. This was after another lamented that there has been no coherent plan for the country’s coconut industry for decades now. “Our problem is that the roadmap is changed with every change in leadership at the Philippine Coconut Authority [PCA].”

A true roadmap for an industry, according to Dr. Rolando Dy of the Center for Food and Agri Business of the University of Asia and the Pacific, is a strategic plan where all stakeholders have agreed to be guided, regardless of changes in political leadership. Both viewpoints are correct, then, and the sad fact that emerges is that we do not have any clear direction for the industry that produces our top agricultural export. We have spent all these years focused on money — in this case, the tens of billions of pesos in coconut levy funds tied up for decades since the Marcos years — and seemed to have largely forgotten about the product. Meanwhile, the industry has undergone so much change, both domestically and globally, and both for better and for worse.

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This is not the first time I’ve written about this crop, long derided as the “lazy man’s crop,” and not without reason. The tag comes from the characterization of the coconut farmer as someone who simply waits to harvest coconuts every 60 days or so, without doing anything in between. Based on our agricultural data, the average annual value of production from coconut lands in the country is P33,313 per hectare, against an average of P71,414 for all farms across all crops. And yet there remain so much land under the coconut trees that could be planted productively with crops that could earn much more than the coconut itself. For example, coffee, a common coconut intercrop, yields an average of P51,402 per hectare, much more than coconut itself does.

So why is it that most coconut farms, especially in Southern Luzon where the crop has traditionally been planted over vast areas, remain monocropped, putting large areas of tillable lands underneath the trees to waste? Someone in the group commented that the PCA, our long-standing government institution tasked to oversee and manage the development of the industry, will not look beyond coconut itself, seeing other crops to be someone else’s concern.

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If indeed it’s true that the PCA won’t have anything to do with other crops that could be planted under coconut trees, they should, at the very least, have close coordination with the high-value crops unit at the Department of Agriculture. But silo mentality is something I’ve seen too common in government, and seemingly more acute in our own, which makes it so hard for our economy to advance at the same pace as our neighboring economies have been doing.

Meanwhile, most of the coconut trees in our coconut-growing regions are already “senile” or “senescent,” meaning they have grown old, and grown very tall. Thus they are less productive, yielding only about 75 nuts per tree in a year, when one can potentially get 200-300 nuts from younger trees of improved varieties. It has also become much more costly to harvest the trees. What is obviously needed is a massive replanting program, ideally with hybrids, but I’m told that the few seedling nurseries the PCA has could only produce tens of thousands of seedlings, whereas the need is in the order of 10 million.

Most of our coconut farms also remain focused on the single product of copra to be milled into coconut oil, when there is so much more money now being made from coco sugar, coconut water, virgin coconut oil, and fresh young coconut — not to mention various products from the husks, shells, leaves, stalks and virtually every other part of the coconut tree. A good roadmap for the coconut industry would seek to reap the most value out of the gold mine that each coconut tree literally is, for our poor farmers’ sake.

Meanwhile, we’re hearing that coconuts are being massively planted in Northern Australia, Hainan Island and other places where they’ve seen the great future potentials of the crop. And here we are, still fighting over the money.

cielito.habito@gmail.com

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TAGS: Cielito F. Habito, Coconut Industry, No Free Lunch, PCA, Philippine Coconut Authority
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