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Age-crimp

/ 04:01 PM September 27, 2011

Loco over coco,” read  the Inquirer headline. A front-page photo depicted President Benigno Aquino III  drinking  buko juice at  his airport press conference on return from the United States.

Coconut water is emerging as America’s “new  natural sports drink,” P-Noy told  welcomers. Pepsi Co. and Vita Coco spearhead  this now “$100-million industry.”  Other firms  may join an emerging buko queue.

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Palms are planted in 68 of 79 provinces and  sprawl over 27 percent of agricultural land. But most of the 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.

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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 P16.2 million in 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 vital 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.   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.

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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 must we direct  would-be buyers to shop  next door—thanks to the coco levy thieves?

That’d be Jakarta. Indonesia has over 3.74 million hectares planted to coconuts. Over three million Indonesian households depend on the tree. 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 a  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, also  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 newspaper   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. As  “capo di tutti  capi (the boss of bosses),” 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  erupted, was to sign Executive Orders 313 and 315. “Erap delivered the levy—estimated at over P100 billion—to cronies,” a Cebu daily 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 Tañada 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 of 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.

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