Philippine coconut farm workers: born poor, stay poor

Like most of those who work in the coconut groves that occupy the northern edge of the Philippine island of Mindanao, Diego G. Limbaro never imagined another life. His father climbed onto the skinny trunks of the surrounding plantations, brandishing a machete to cut down the coconuts. His father’s father too.

Such multigenerational experiences are typical throughout the province of Misamis Oriental. Harvesting coconuts – separating the flesh from the shell and processing the produce into oil and juice – is one of the few ways to make a living.

People work six days a week under the tropical sun, torrential rain and blazing sun. Their salary is determined by the price of coconut oil influenced by traders around the world. The typical farmer earns about 60,000 pesos a year, or about $1,100.

“We are poor here,” Mr. Limbaro said one recent morning, as a constant drizzle turned the reddish soil into mud. “We only buy sardines and rice. For most people here, the life they were born into is the life they will live.

At 64, Mr. Limbaro’s life is dominated by two activities: playing basketball on the concrete courts that form the center of each village and running a copra cooperative that allows local farmers to pool their efforts.

Farmers typically harvest coconuts on their own small farms, remove the husks, and sell much of the fruit encased in their husks to agents at processing plants that make juice. They sell the rest of their harvest to village drying factories which roast the meat over open coals, resulting in a product which is sold to processing factories which grind it into oil.

The factories that dry the fruit, which burn coconut shells for energy, are usually owned by local women like Mercita Rementizo, 65, who also operates a local grocery kiosk. She earns extra money as a music teacher and as a drummer in a family band that plays tango, jazz and rock classics at village festivals.

“I have a lot of side hustles,” she said. “Everyone here does it.”

Mr. Limbaro said he was counting entirely on women to fill out the ranks of the cooperative’s board of directors. “Women are more productive than men,” he said matter-of-factly. “Women don’t gamble, drink, or womanize. “I trust women the most.”

The main function of the cooperative is to organize the transport of coconuts to processing factories. This task has become much more difficult in recent months after the organization’s truck broke down. It lies in the mud under a tarp, its sides rusted and paint peeling, immobile for want of the 150,000 pesos (about $2,600) needed to repair it.

The cooperative is therefore at the mercy of the buyer’s agents, who charge members for transportation costs. This additional cost comes at a time when copra prices have fallen precipitously this year, farmers lament. No one really knows the cause, although some speculate about a glut of palm oil – an alternative to coconut oil for cooking – as major producers in the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia increase their production.

Mr. Limbaro remains stoic in the face of such forces.

He feels his own mortality as he draws sustenance from the trees, some centuries old, that connect the ground to the sky.

“It’s the only resource available here,” he said. “The coconuts will still be there even after I pass away. »