Philippine poverty is mainly rural poverty. Rural poverty mainly stems from the coconut sub sector, which has produced to date only poverty and misery for millions of Filipinos while giving incredible wealth to a few global and local corporations.


Photo by Rafael Rex Felisilda on Unsplash

One in three coco hectares on earth is presently found in the Philippines. It is here, more than anywhere else, that coconut has no difficulty growing in comfort and quasi-self-supporting prosperity. Not just any spot on earth can grow coconut – it is a special gift for certain tropical lands between latitudes 20 degrees North and 20 degrees South on the planet. It is the Philippines’ natural competitive advantage.

In the Philippines, some 3.11 million hectares of nearly 1.6 million holdings (averaging less than 3 hectares in size) are devoted to coconut. Out of 78 provinces, 64 grow coconut as a major crop employing some 3.4 million small farmers, tenants, lessees and farm workers. And it is generally recognized that the coconut industry provides livelihood to some 25 million Filipinos today.

The coconut is the oldest, most strategic and biggest garden in the Philippines. It is the No. 1 agricultural export providing revenues of up to a billion dollars or more per annum.

More significantly, from an environmental viewpoint, it is the country’s first line of defense. Coconut trees form a natural canopy that protects the Philippine environment.

There is no question that the fall of the coconut industry, which (to some) seems imminent, will also mean the destruction of the country’s ecological balance and of a major source of wellness and ecological products for the whole world. It will lead to widespread devastating floods hitting prime agricultural lands, towns and cities; severe soil depletion and erosion; destruction of rich flora and fauna; climatic change in the whole country.

It will also mean the loss of almost 50 billion pesos from export earnings per year, the loss of millions of tax revenues annually from domestic sale, and the pressure to spend billions of government funds for homes and livelihood of displaced or dislocated farm families, not to mention the urban blight that will ensue when hundreds of thousands more of displaced coconut farmers hit the cities desperately looking for work.


While 3 billion nuts are a great food source annually for a growing and hungry population, it is also a glaring fact that some 1.5 million-coconut trees are being cut down every year.

Seventy-five million coconut trees are old and unproductive. Seedlings to replace these old and lost trees are inadequate.

So many coconut farms remain monocropped, with farmers unable to adopt new farming technologies, and the industry as a whole not able to compete globally. A coconut farmer earns no more than Php 10,000 ($238) per year in a one-hectare monocropped farm – a sure prescription for rural poverty. Eighty percent or 8,000 sq. m. of a typical one-hectare monocropped farm is so wastefully unutilized in much the same way that in such a situation the coconut farmer’s labor potential on a 45-day harvest cycle is also wastefully reduced to 9 days of work.

Unless something is done soon, the farmer’s judgment is conclusive: there is no money for him in coconut; cut the tree down.


The “Tree of Life” is what many people call the coconut – cocos nuciferos – a perennial tree grown extensively in Asia Pacific, Africa and parts of Latin America covering about 12 million hectares of land on planet earth. For many communities in the developing nations of these coco areas, the coconut is a source of food, drink, fuel, furniture, medicine, handicrafts and fiber. It is the tree of a thousand uses – in most of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Kerala India, parts of Malaysia and Thailand, and many Pacific islands.

For most of the developed world, coconut oil is the greatest source of lauric oil  – C12 to C14 – the desired raw material for soaps and toiletries, personal care and detergent products, cooking oil and fats component of food products. Millions of tons of coconut oil flow into Rotterdam annually for redistribution, in turn, to the whole developed world to meet these demands that only coconut can satisfy with superiority. Coconut oil is premium oil and has no perfect substitute. The closest substitute is palm kernel oil.

Coconut oil is also the secret of the jet age. Jet turbines need this oil whose specific carbon content mineral fossil oil cannot provide.

Of late, it is the most desired fruit for its richness in monolaurin, the medium-chain fatty acid largely found in only one other place – in mother’s milk. These fatty acids are burned almost immediately for energy production, and so they are not converted into body fat or cholesterol and do not affect blood cholesterol levels. These therapeutic benefits of coconut and its by-products are protection against heart disease, cancer, diabetes and a host of other degenerative illnesses. Coconut oil supports and strengthens the human body’s immune system. Due in part to the scientific consensus globally reached on the matter, coconut virgin oil is at long last becoming more than a fad.

Recent studies have also found that increasing amounts of coconut flour in bakery products result in what scientists call “lower glycemic food index.” Why? Because coconut flour from “sapal” is a good source of dietary fiber. Also very low in the glycemic index is coconut sugar, sourced from coco sap and coco shell and is a natural version for diabetics of the synthetic “sugars” they can be easily dangerously addicted to.

In the light of these facts, the strong lobby of the American Soybean Association or ASA for the labeling of coconut oil as “bad for the heart” collapsed at committee level in the US Congress, but the propaganda stuck and many people up to now don’t realize how good coconut is for their own health. As a result, it has been reported, ASA is currently contemplating a propaganda come back at the US Senate.

In fact, for both developed and developing countries, another thing – coconut skim milk – has been found to be a one-on-one equal to fresh cow’s milk in its nutrient composition, with the added superiority of being lactose-free: a boon for many lactose intolerant populations like ours.

Originally, during Spanish colonial times, the Governors-General obliged the indios (as they called the Filipinos then) to plant coconut trees in order to ensure a constant supply of fiber for the cordage they needed in the first east-west global Manila-Acapulco galleon trade. Later, when, for health reasons, Europeans shifted from overly using animal fats in their diet to consuming more and more vegetable oil, planting coconut became more intense in order to meet Europe’s requirements for cooking oil.

Typically, however, of a colonial economy the Philippine coconut industry was never a price-setter but merely a price-taker.  Because of 11 other alternatives to coconut oil in the vegetable oil spectrum, the international market always dictated prices to our domestic coconut producers who consumed very little of their own products.

We never adopted the policy of supply management as “Philippines, Inc.” Whereas other coconut producing countries consumed their own coconut products by up to 80 percent, we exported ours by up to 90 percent. Domestic utilization of coconut was always very low. Colonial policies ensured this structure’s staying that way.

We have the dubious distinction, then, of being the world’s No. 1 coconut oil (CNO) exporter when we should have been working towards becoming the oleo-chemical production center of the world.

Our countryside should already have been brimming with small and medium size factories for the production of bio-fuel additives to clean the environment for use both in our own country and many other countries, which now clamor for this coco-derived material for the express purpose of complying with their various Clean Air legislation.

Instead, most of our coconut farms are still hung up on copra, the intermediate product for the production of coconut oil that is often aflatoxin-contaminated. Technologies abound that can take us into a ‘copraless’ society rather quickly but the financial, infrastructural and marketing support service expected from the state has not been forthcoming – not till now, despite the billions of pesos forcibly taxed out of the hapless small holders. In fact, these “coco levy funds” (as they were called) mostly got diverted to purposes other than the benefit of the coconut farmers and the modernization of the coconut industry.

Thus coconut farms are being abandoned and thousands of coconut trees are being felled due to the (slightly and temporary) higher income that could be derived from the sale of coconut lumber. This – at a time when the future realistically offers growth opportunities for competitive coconut producing nations due to a number of very persuasive reasons.


In the past, it is true, coconut always experienced volatility in prices due to competition from other edible oils on one hand, and on the other hand, due to the demand for alternative fuel sources.

But now research and development efforts worldwide continue to make breakthrough discoveries in the various medicinal, dietary, agro-ecological and bioenergy related benefits of coconut-based products.

It is not hard to see how all that will surely continue to diversify revenue streams along the coconut value chain (that should also benefit producers) and drive global demand for coconut products and by-products higher.

One need only look at the current increasing demand from industrialized countries in North America and Europe for coconut oils in their diet and personal care products alongside the rapid urbanization and purchasing power growth in China, India and other emerging markets in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Africa that likewise drive exporting opportunities for coconut producing countries, foremost of which is the Philippines.

Additionally, the domestic demand for biofuels is strong due to the minimum additive requirements in the petrol industry. Demand for many other non-food coconut derivatives due to an increasingly ecologically conscious world is also quite on the rise, and man y of these products provide higher margins than traditional products.


Be all this as it may, the picture herein drawn will remain a perpetual possibility – absent a serious reform, rethink and redesign of the coconut industry in the Philippines where millions of small holders need to be organized, new capital mobilized for the appropriate pre-and-post-production infrastructure, and the transformation will happen at last launching the massive movement from:

  • From monocrop to multicrop
  • From solo CNO to oleo chemicals and a diversity of other products
  • From subsistence cropping and single farm to nucleus estates or coconut districts
  • From unitary to inter-agency management of the industry
  • From vertical to include horizontal integration

From the poverty-causing copra mode of production, we need to bring the coconut industry to a prosperous state of copralessrural industrialization mode where one fresh coconut produces at least five or more finished products of food and fuel. This is what was meant earlier by challenges of heroic proportions considering that the not-too-visible stakeholders of the coconut industry are both local and international, and old poverty-  making habits die hard, and not too many are able to think of a win-win program in the interests of poverty reduction, food security, environmental protection and sustainable development over-all


Charles Avila -The Gardener
The Gardener’s Tales


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