Monday, June 22, 2009

The Philippine coconut: An economic game changer

The moment I saw the headline that 400,000 hectares would be given to Japanese interests for 50 years to grow coconut for bio-fuel, and for free, I saw another confirmation that Charter change (Cha-cha), whether by constituent assembly (con-ass) or constitutional convention (con-con), is really about giving the nation’s land to foreign capitalist interests. This shocking news was already preceded by the Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce (JFC)--led by the American, European, and Japanese chambers--finally letting the cat out of the bag in telling the country to remove the limits on foreign capital in local ventures and on the sale of its land to foreigners. Given the impecunious reality of Filipinos, foreigners will own the Philippines in ten years’ time and we shall be landless tenants in our own country.

The thought of such huge tracts of Philippine lands (400,000 hectares is the size of Abra or Masbate) being given to foreign interests brought back memories of Rizal turning into a dissident and rebel intellectual. Rizal’s parents were well-to-do hacienderos but were only leasing land from the Dominican friars. The friars then incessantly increased the rent that, at one point, Rizal led the farmers of Calamba to contest this imposition, an imbroglio which eventually led to the “Calamba Affair” where most of the farms were torn and burned down.

When the Japanese, then the Chinese and Koreans, get hold of half a million hectares, and after the Americans expand their pineapple plantations in Mindanao , nothing will be left for Filipinos who’ll end up as farm managers or workers.

When I read the news item, I had just taped a cable TV episode entitled “Save the coconut industry: Save the national economy” last Saturday morning with Party-list Rep. Leonardo Montemayor of ABA-AKO, Mr. Melot Santos (a coconut chemical expert) of Senbel, and Mr. Joey Faustino of the Coconut Industry Reform (COIR) movement. We discussed government’s neglect of the coconut industry such that despite the sector’s P50 billion earnings a year, the government only plows back less than half a billion pesos when it ought to be the flagship of any economic stimulus and recovery program.

The coconut industry is the livelihood of 23 million Filipinos, or about a fourth of the nation. Faustino informs us that there are 3.2 million coconut farming families, of which 2.2 million hold coconut farms of less than a hectare in size and earn an equivalent of only P30 per day. While there are so many measures that government can use to increase this income fivefold--from fertilizing the coconut farm lands with salt and doubling coconut yield, to cross cropping with cacao or corn and others, and processing beyond copra into virgin coconut oil and its ancillary products such as skim milk, flour, sugar that’s low in the diabetic index, dietary fiber, coffee creamery that’s non-hydrogenated and non-carcinogenic, geo-textiles used for erosion control, and higher chemicals from bio-fuel and bio-lubricants, even chemicals for the explosives industry--it has done virtually nothing.

Oftentimes, only the private sector has taken steps to develop these potentials, like the bio-lubricants (2T oil) for motorcycles pioneered by Mr. Santos’ Senbel; yet globalization has sabotaged these repeatedly. Efforts like the 1987 approved EO 259, requiring Philippine detergent manufacturers to use coco-based surfactants for 60 percent of their requirements, have been negated by the country’s accession to the WTO as sponsored by Gloria Arroyo on the ground that these violate the “free trade” principle, even when the Philippines could have easily gotten around this by citing environmental concerns which the WTO supposedly puts priority on.

We have 2.2 million coconut farmers needing more land, experts and entrepreneurs like Mr. Santos, and a long history of pioneering in coco-chemicals like the Cocochemical Plant, Inc. established in 1967, yet why does government have to bring in the Japanese with a free land deal, in what can only be a doubtful promise to “reforest” land in Ilocos?

We received a text from one of the stalwart coconut industry advocates about this deal: “Yes, foreign market ulit, siguardong copra na naman.” This promotes dependence on the foreign market again, delaying the development of our domestic market and the import substitution potential of our products. For sure, the Japanese will grow, harvest, process, and export these to Japan ; and Filipinos will only be used as brawn.

Philippine economic planners are missing out on the paradigm shift in the global economy, which is to develop the domestic market and domestic resources. The repeated promise of recovery in the US economy isn’t going to come because there’s only one thing that the US produces and exports better than any other country, and that’s war and destabilization of the Third World to enrich its defense industry while the rest languish until the final collapse.

The BRIC ( Brazil , Russia , India and China ) economic block is moving to enhance each country’s natural edge. The Philippines should be doing the same and, no doubt, its principal strength is its 350 million coconut trees that can be a “game changer” for the Philippine economy.

While we do not have much admiration for the present economic managers, we recognize that the nation’s economic survival is paramount and we have to attempt to convince them to take the right track toward economic recovery--the development of our natural strengths, of which the coconut industry is topmost, as well as, the domestic market, upon which the economy can stand independently.

(Tune in to Global News Network, Destiny Cable Channel 7 and its other channels, Tuesday, 8:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., for “Save the coconut industry: Save the national economy;” and 1098AM, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., and Saturday, 10 p.m. to 11 p.m.; also visit