Monday, January 14, 2013

Hard Times

In many areas all over the Philippines and particularly so in the Lianga area, it used to be that the coconut tree was the poor farmer's reliable cash cow.  With the minimum of maintenance and care, even a small coconut farm of a hectare or so harvested every two or three months can produce enough copra which if sold could provide for, at the very least, the basic needs of a farmer and his average-sized family and tide them over until the next harvest.  When copra prices are high, enough cash can even be earned which can be used to buy a few luxury items or be set aside as savings for the family's future needs.

Copra, for the uninitiated, is, of course, the dried or desiccated meat of the coconut which is a rich source of coconut oil. The oil has many industrial uses and also happens to be a vital ingredient in many food and medicinal products.  The Philippines is one of the world's top copra producers with more than a quarter of its available agriculture land planted to coconuts.  It is said that more than a third of the country's total population is dependent, either directly or indirectly, on the copra industry.

Nowadays with copra prices spiraling to their lowest in years which many are blaming on a worldwide glut in palm oil stocks, many local coconut farmers in Lianga are wondering if it would be worth their while even to think about harvesting their trees,   Most of them are already grappling with the depressing thought that if they do go on to schedule a harvest, the high production cost of their copra may far outstrip whatever little prospective income they may eventually earn.  This leads to the specter of being forced to borrow more money in order to survive and go deeper into debt after already seeing their incomes steadily shrink in previous harvests as copra prices continue to fall.

From a high of more than P40 per kilo in 2011, copra prices have been on a downtrend for months and as 2013 began the average buying price has been hovering at around P18 in Davao and Gingoog cities where, for many local farmers in the Lianga area, many of the more major accessible oil mills and big-time copra buyers operate.  With local buyers buying copra at about P14 on the average, no wonder most coconut farmers are desperately wondering if there is indeed any more tangible value left in the copra they are producing and if there is any hope for the coconut industry to rebound from this present crisis in the foreseeable future.

The fundamental problem here is that making copra involves a labor intensive process that has virtually remained unchanged for decades.  Virtually all coconut farmers today produced their copra in basically the same time consuming and laborious way it was done almost a century ago.

Teams of specialized climbers or magdadaag are paid to clamber up the slim trunks of the coconut trees and strip them of ripe nuts which are then collected by other laborers who split them open, scoop out the coconut meat which are then cured in batches over charcoal in a curing hut or tapahan.  A batch can take a whole night or most of the day to cure.  Then the final copra product is packed into sacks and sold directly to buyers or transported to a storehouse or bodega.

Unless the entire harvesting process can be done by the members of the farmer's own family, he has to either borrow money or raid his meager savings in order to pay for wages of laborers who are paid on a per piece basis.  Climbers get on the average P6.00 per tree they service and other workers are paid about P30.00 per hundred coconuts split open and cleaned out of their meat.  Add to that transport and other costs and anyone can immediately see that unless copra prices go up from their present level, the copra making industry as far as farmers are concerned is fast becoming untenable.

In many ways, most coconut farmers today have become extremely dependent on paid labor.  This is because few of them now have the requisite number of relatives and offspring who can help them in their farming and copra making activities like the old farming families of the past.  Most rural children nowadays go to school and dream of lives and careers free of the drudgery and poverty associated with farming.  Most no longer work the farms and choose to migrate to the cities for higher paying jobs.

For farmers who are merely tenants who till coconut farms on behalf of absentee landowners, the situation is more worse.  They are often solely dependent on the income from copra and have usually do not have the capability if not the incentive to diversify their crop production.  With no clear income coming from their labors, their's is a onerous fate plagued by constant and mounting debt that amounts to to slavery on an epic yet modern scale.

There is much talk, of course, nowadays about using the more than 50 billion pesos in coconut levy funds to give financial assistance to coconut farmer or use the same funds to rehabilitate and modernize the coconut industry.  The so called coconut levy funds were recovered from the redemption of shares of stock constituting 24 percent of the preferred stocks of San Miguel Corporation whose ownership has been vested by the Supreme Court in the Philippine government in a recent decision.  The shares were acquired through funds accumulated by the Marcos dictatorship through the collection of a coconut levy starting in the mid-1970's.

There is also much recent posturing by politicians and government technocrats which all seek to push the government to find new uses and markets for coconut oil and other coconut products.  The aim obviously is ostensibly to help find ways to resuscitate what is clearly a vital Philippine industry in grave trouble and whose collapse can have catastrophic effects on the overall Philippine economy and the lives of millions of Filipinos.

Yet for the coconut farmers here in Lianga and all over the country who are staring at the prospect of abject penury and destitution for the foreseeable future, the time for talking and posturing has long since passed.  They have, for decades, been a vital part of the vast agricultural backbone of this country's economy.  Yet they have not only largely been ignored and neglected but, as in the case of the Marcos coconut levy, have been ruthlessly and mercilessly exploited by those they have, at one time or another, have trusted to look after their interests and welfare.

It appears that with copra prices still stuck to low levels as the first month of 2013 draws to a close that local coconut farmers will have to continue to find ways to endure and survive after almost a year of hardship and misery.  For it is clear now that no one and nobody, the government included, is coming to their rescue this time or anytime soon.

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