Age-Crimp

by Juan L. Mercado

“Loco Over Coco”  the Inquirer headline read. A  front page photo depicted President Benigno Aquino, drinking “buko” juice, at  his airport press conference, on return from the U.S.  

Coconut water is emerging as America’s “new natural sports drink”, P-Noy told welcomers.  Pepsi Co. and Vita Coco spearhead this now “hundred million dollar industry”  Other firms  may join an emerging “buko” queue.

Palms are planted in 68 of 79 provinces and sprawl over 27 percent of agricultural land. But most trees are senile. So, where are the coconuts?

“With two of these palm trees, a whole family of ten can sustain itself,” marveled  historian Antonio Pigafetta (1491-1534). This Venetian was among 18 of Ferdinand Magellan’s original 240-man crew who made it back to Europe.

Coconuts are a fixture in color-drenched  Fernando Amorsolo paintings. This palm provides livelihood for more than two million Filipinos. Most till farm slivers. Others are landless tenants.

Factor in their families. And you find that 10 million use this tree. As they did before the Overseas Filipino Worker remittances era, coconuts still bring in  foreign exchange.  

Systemic plunder, over the years, reduced coconut into a “sunset industry”. Coco levy pillage impoverished millions. Did looting embed coconut buccaneers in first places at table?

Ask the Arroyo Supreme Court. Most justices  agreed to Eduardo  Cojuangco pocketing 16.2 million San Miguel Corp. shares, by dipping into coco levies wrung by martial law bayonets. “The biggest joke to hit the century,” dissented  then Justice, now Ombudsman, Conchita Carpio Morales.

“He who plants a coconut tree plants food and drink, vessels and clothing, a home for himself and a heritage for his children”,  South Sea islanders say.  Here, few noticed  that theft of  coco levies crippled replanting programs.

About 44 million coconut trees are over 60 years old. They bear less than 10 nuts yearly — puny by the  45 to 60 nuts of their prime (If high-breed seedlings are used, yield can go up to  80 plus.)  Industry-wide aging  is reflected in a 13 percent production slump.  Coconut oil production slipped  by a third.

This age-crimp will intensify over the next three to five  years. The oldest will stop bearing.  Yields from senile trees  will shrink more. Patchy replantings can’t catch up.

If P-Noy is right, US demand for buko juice could  rise to new levels over the next three to five years. But will we have  the juice to sell? Or thanks to our coco levy pirates, must we direct would-be buyers: shop next door?

That’d  be Jakarta.  Indonesia has over 3.74 million hectares planted to coconuts. Over three million Indonesian households depend on coconuts. Indonesians replanted far more than we did.  Some fret Indonesia could dislodge the Philippines from the top slot among coconut exporters.

History deliberately replayed is farce. Coconut will not be the first vital industry we’ve run to the ground.

In 1575, over 92 percent of the country was forested, notes the Food and Agriculture Organization. “The Philippines was the first Asia-Pacific country, in the post World War II era, to extensively liquidate it’s forest wealth.”

Yearly, freighters hauled out 10 million cubic meters of wood for markets abroad. We didn’t  reforest or reinvest. Forest  barons   acted as if they had no grandchildren. We strutted as “Timber Prima Donna” in the 1960s

By the 1980s, this once-lavish resource petered out. We now shop for timber abroad. “Net imports cost the country 10 times the value of its forestry exports.”  We are today’s ‘Wood Pauper’.  

Will coconuts, then fisheries wildlife remnants, go down the same drain? Rewind  to 1973. The Marcos dictatorship then  clamped on Presidential Decree 276. Among others, it asserted that “coco levies” were owned by cronies “in their private capacities.” Taxes morphed into individual booty.

If this decree is not scrubbed as unconstitutional,  “President Marcos found a legal and valid way to steal”, wrote then Inquirer columnist Antonio Carpio. Here is arguably the best Supreme Court chief justice we never had.

Such decrees formed  part of the “New Society’s” institutionalized  pillage. Marcos divvied agriculture among camp followers. Florendos were assigned bananas. The late Roberto Benedicto oversaw sugar. And Eduardo Cojuangco emerged as coconut czar.

After People Power, “protracted conflict”  persisted to prevent small farmers from getting back levies extorted by martial law bayonets.

One of President Estrada’s last acts, before People Power II ousted him, was to sign Executive Orders 313 and 315. “Erap delivered the levy–estimated at over P100 billion – to cronies,”  Sun Star noted. “It was grand larceny that needed ever-larger doses of hypocrisy”.

Gloria Macapagal Arroyo dissipated coco levies recovered by the Davide Supreme Court which declared them public funds. The “Brat Pack” — congressmen allied with Eduardo Cojuangco — tried but failed to impeach Davide.

Inquirer published  former Solicitor General Francisco Chavez’s analysis on how coco levies were laundered to bankroll San Miguel purchases. Deputy Speaker Erin Tanada filed House Bill 5070 to ensure the 27 percent  of the Coconut Industry’s Investment Fund is safeguarded. Come to the farmers’ aid, the Catholic Bishops Secretariat for Social Action urged Aquino.

Thousands farmers went to their graves, clutching worthless Marcos  coconut levy certificates. A buko juice boom will  be  too late for them.

Will it also be late for P-Noy? A new tree will bear the first nuts only after seven years. That’s Agronomy 101.

(Email: juanlmercado@gmail.com)

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