New hope for coconut farmers
Last June, President Marcos ordered the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) to improve the lot of coconut farmers, the sector that has long languished at the bottom of the income pyramid. Gracing the 50th anniversary of the PCA, the President said he wanted the Philippines to be the biggest exporter of coconut products. “There is no reason why the Philippines should not be the biggest producer of export in terms of coconut products.”
The problem is that every administration in the past has promised to revive the coconut industry and alleviate the plight of farmers. Yet until today, coconut farmers and families dependent on the industry remain among the poorest of the poor, notwithstanding the tens of billions of pesos earmarked for the industry that remain idle in government coffers. Their plight is rooted in the controversial coconut levy funds collected from farmers by the government under the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos from 1971 to 1982. After the Marcoses were booted out of Malacañang in 1986, lawsuits filed by coconut farmers showed that cronies of the Marcos administration had diverted the funds to finance their own business interests. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that the coconut levy fund belonged to the government for the benefit of coconut farmers. The Philippines used to be the world’s biggest exporter of coconut products, until the lack of modernization resulted in stagnant production, eventually pushing the country to the third spot after Indonesia and India.
However, farmers have reason to be more hopeful in the current push to revive the coconut industry. Unlike in the past, there is now a more detailed plan and funding is readily available. The Department of Finance (DOF), citing a Commission on Audit report, pegged the value of coconut levy assets at P111.3 billion. Early this month, the President got the ball rolling by ordering the PCA to start rehabilitating the coconut industry with the planting of 100 million coconut trees by the end of his administration’s term in 2028. Last week, a four-member House panel also listed amendments to the 2024 budget bill, which included the allocation of P2 billion to PCA for the massive replanting and planting of coconut seedlings.
The President has also directed the PCA to invest in new technologies and initiatives to guarantee the resilience of the coconut industry even beyond his term. He cited the need to intensify the implementation of the Coconut Farmers and Industry Development Plan (CFIDP) “to accelerate the modernization of the coconut industry and to improve the lives of our coconut farmers and their families.” The CFIDP is the detailed road map for the revival of the coconut sector crafted in the final year of the Duterte administration. On June 2 last year, former president Rodrigo Duterte signed Executive Order No. 172, or the CFIDP, to serve as the basis for using the coconut levy fund through various programs and projects that will rehabilitate and modernize the industry and benefit 2.5 million small farmers nationwide. The CFIDP groups the action plans into social protection; coconut farmers organization and development; integrated coconut processing and downstream products; innovative research projects; support services, among others.
As then agriculture secretary William Dar noted, EO 172 “is such a formidable law that will give new life and new hope to coconut farmers in this country.” The blueprint, at least on paper, can truly raise expectations among farmers. But as with any other plan, the crux is in its implementation. And the records so far look discouraging. A COA report released last September showed that only 8.78 percent of the P755-million fund for the CFIDP and the Coconut Hybridization Project was used in 2022. The PCA blamed the slow pace of implementation partly on their adjustments under the new administration, which had to reconstitute the PCA board. As such, it said projects were stalled until the new board was in place, which first met on Oct. 5, 2022. This also led to missed targets, with only 3,540 hectares of the 10,676 hectares allotted for precision farming fertilization covered, 495,472 palms fertilized out of a target of 1.53 million, and 202 of the target 2,517 personnel trained.
With the snags cited by PCA finally resolved, it must now buckle down to work double time and implement the directives of the President. By the end of the current administration’s term, it is hoped that Mr. Marcos will have fulfilled his desire “to uplift [the] lives of coconut farmers and empower them to improve their conditions, break free from the chains of poverty, and dream bigger for themselves and for their loved ones.”
Much of the burden in reviving the sector is indeed on the Chief Executive’s shoulders. As fate would have it, the Marcos family, through the President, has been given a second chance so it can correct the injustices against the poor coconut farmers.