The recent enactment of Republic Act 11524, also known as the Coconut Famers and Industry Trust Fund Act (or Coco Levy Act) brings into sharp focus the significance of the coconut industry. “Can we call the coconut industry a sleeping giant?” inquired Agriculture Secretary William Dar in an essay he wrote in late 2019. His answer: “It is the third most dominant crop, after rice and corn. While the productivity of rice and corn has been steadily increasing, the country’s coconut farms need a shot in the arm.”
Secretary Dar’s shot in the arm analogy assumes greater realism amid the economic doldrums brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The new law spells out the crafting of a 50-year Coconut Farmers and Industry Development Plan under the aegis of the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA). This is double the time horizon of the current Philippine long-term development plan — dubbed as AmBisyon 2040, began in 2015 — being shepherded by the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA).
As required by the new law, the PCA Board is chaired by the Secretary of Agriculture and joined by the secretaries of finance, budget and management, trade and industry, and science and technology, the PCA administrator, and three representatives of the coconut farmers sector (one each from Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao.) The Cabinet secretaries have already met; consultations are ongoing for the selection of the three farmers’ representatives.
In the past, the coconut levy funds were used to establish a commercial bank, the United Coconut Planters Bank (UCPB), secure a substantial foothold in San Miguel Corporation, and control several oil mills that accounted for as much as 80 per cent of industry output. Through the more than three decades following the EDSA People Power Revolution of 1986 and the promulgation of the 1987 Constitution, the control and ownership of the coco levy funds has been mired in legal dispute while the coconut industry itself floundered in the shoals of stiff global competition. Most starkly, many coconut-dependent regions of the country are poverty-stricken.
Secretary Dar’s recovery agenda for the coconut industry needs to be addressed promptly: first, a hybrid planting program to increase yield to 300 nuts per tree per year or parity with India and Brazil, an eight-fold increase from current output; second, aggressive promotion of coco methyl ester (CME) blend in local diesel fuel from the two to five percent; third, tapping the huge export market for coconut water and milk; fourth, intercropping in coconut farms; and fifth, increasing the land devoted to coconut planting through multilevel farming.
Sixty-eight out of 81 provinces in the country are coconut-growing areas, while the area planted to coconut is 3.6 million hectares or 26 percent of the country’s total agricultural lands. Yet, the 3.5 million coconut farmers “live mostly below the poverty line” even as the country has always been one of the world’s leading coconut exporters.
Evidently, Secretary Dar and his fellow Cabinet members who sit in the board of the Philippine Coconut Authority, do not need to be reminded of the popular idiom, “Use your coconuts.”