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Agriculture’s ‘orphan child’

April 21, 2010

By Cielito Habito
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 00:30:00 04/19/2010

IF YOU think rice is the Philippines’ most important farm crop, think again.

As of last official count (2002 Census of Agriculture), 3.32 million hectares of our land were planted to coconut, against 2.5 million hectares for rice, and 1.4 million for corn. There were 1.4 million coconut farms, while rice only had 1.35 million. As such, coconut accounts for 29 percent of all farms, and an even larger percentage (34 percent) of farm area. Coconut is reportedly planted in 70 out of our 81 provinces, and provides jobs to an estimated 3.4 million farmers and workers. Coconut continues to be our top agriculture export (worth up to $900 million a year) coming from 37 products and by-products that are exported to 114 countries. The bulk (80 percent) of production is exported as crude and refined coconut oil, copra meal, desiccated coconut, activated carbon and various coco-chemicals.

Poorest crop

In spite of all that, coconut is the crop that is most associated with rural poverty in the country. For decades, poverty has been most prevalent in coconut lands, with coconut farm workers being the poorest among the rural poor, for at least two reasons. First, work in coconut farms is very seasonal. Back in grade school, my teachers described coconut as the “lazy man’s crop,” as farmers would simply wait for the nuts to mature in 2-3 month cycles between harvests – and did practically nothing in between.

Second, among our crops, coconut has the lowest farm production value per hectare. With a yield of 35-40 nuts or 750 kilograms of copra per hectare, the Bureau of Agricultural Statistics estimates that coconut brings in only P10,660 per hectare, against an average across all crops of P31,580 per hectare. (Meanwhile, sugarcane brings in P59,200 per hectare, banana yields P52,360, rice P46,960, and corn P20,990.) But this would be true if coconut is the only crop planted to the land.

Anyone who has been to a coconut farm would know that the area under the trees could be productively planted to other crops as well. In other words, coconut need not be a lazy man’s crop if combined with other crops (intercropped) – and need not be a crop associated with so much poverty (not to mention insurgency), as it has been and continues to be.

Neglected crop

In the face of the above contrasts, it is a sad irony that coconut now appears to be the most neglected among the country’s major farm crops. Economist Dr. Rolando Dy of the University of Asia and the Pacific has been studying the industry for decades, and laments how coconut has become the “orphan child” among our major crops. For one thing, there has been no sustained roadmap for the industry, which he defines as a strategic plan where all stakeholders have agreed to be guided regardless of changes in political leadership.

The budget allocated to the industry’s development is miniscule, with the bulk of the government’s agriculture budget inordinately focused on rice. Outside observers find it hard to comprehend the industry’s low budget priority in relation to its land area and farming population. Dy attributes this to too much reliance on the ever-elusive resolution of the coconut levy funds issue, which has drawn on for decades.

The constant changes in the leadership of the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) – and of the Department of Agriculture, for that matter – do not help any, and works against continuity of programs. What the industry needs, then, is a serious development program that will be sustained even as the leaders of the country change. And the only way for this to happen is to formulate a plan with the ownership and buy-in of the various stakeholders in the industry.

Wanted: a roadmap

What are the key elements that such a plan must address?

Foremost on the agenda must be how to address the low and declining productivity in the industry. About a third of coconut trees are more than 60 years old and need replanting; on this, there is dire need for ample planting materials for higher-yielding varieties. Infrastructure support (especially irrigation and roads) and research and extension services for coconut also need a dramatic boost, especially with irrigation programs still inordinately focused (70 percent) on rice alone.

Financing is the other limiting constraint on investments in the industry. As it takes about seven years before newly planted trees begin bearing fruit, availability of long-term financing arrangements from banks is essential.

We need a final and definitive closure to the coconut levy issue, to free huge funds for the industry’s development; even then, budget allocations for coconut must be scaled up from its pathetically low levels now.

The institutional problems besetting the industry also need strong attention and decisive solutions. PCA must provide professional, consistent and competent leadership that is able to harness meaningful multi-stakeholder participation from civil society and the private sector in program design, implementation and monitoring. This implies a departure from the traditionally highly politicized and top-down nature of leadership in the industry (and indeed, in the agriculture sector as a whole).

In short, coconut needs to be taken out of the orphanage and given back the legitimate parental support it has always needed and deserved.
(Comments welcome at

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