Revitalizing a coconut industry

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Jose Santos climbed up the 50-foot coconut tree with an agility that would have shamed a monkey. But to Jose, it was nothing unusual. He has been doing this as long as he can remember.

Jose is a coconut farmer. From his six-hectare farm (about 15 acres) on the outskirts of Tiaong, a busy urban center 250 kilometers (155 miles) south of here, he produces enough copra and coconut products to earn a bare living for his nine-member family.

The Santoses are part of the Philippines' billion-dollar-a- year export industry. And if the government has its way, it could become a multibillion-dollar enterprise by the turn of the century.

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To bring about this revolution in the coconut industry, the government has mapped out a 40-year program to replant aging, low-yielding coconut trees in the country. The replanting program, to begin this year, will cover 60,000 hectares of coconut farms every year by 1984.

Using a hybrid popular in the Ivory Coast, the government plans to increase the country's coconut production fivefold. Benefiting directly will be 500,000 cultivators like Jose who own and tend the country's 2.4 million hectares of coconut plantations.

For Jose, it would mean a better house than the three- room wood and nipa (a bamboo-like plant) shed he and his family now share in bustling Tiaong, better food and clothing for them all, and education for his grandchildren. For the country, it would mean continued, unchallenged supremacy in the world's coconut and copra market.

In many parts of Asia, coconut is known as "the tree of life" because of its varied and multiple uses. Flourishing close to the sea on low-lying coastal areas, coconut palm is a source of food and fodder, of timber and other building materials. Coconut husk fiber, coir, is highly resistant to salt and water and is used for making ropes, mats, carpets, rubberized cushions, mattresses, and wall insulators. Coconut shell can be converted into charcoal briquettes.

But by far the most important byproduct of coconut is copra, the dried nutmeat. Nearly three-quarters of the world's copra is used for producing coconut oil, which has numerous industrial applications ranging from the manufacture of toiletries, shampoos, and cosmetics to synthetic rubber and hydraulic fluid for airplanes.

The Philippines is the world's largest producer of coconut, supplying nearly 70 percent of the world's coconut and coconut products. Nearly one-third of its 45 million people depend for their livelihoods on coconut cultivation, trade, and allied industries.

Coconut is the country's top foreign-exchange earner. In 1979 the Philippines earned nearly $1 billion from the export of coconut oil, copra, and other coconut products to the United States, Japan, European Economic Community members, the Republic of Korea, China, the Soviet Union, and East European countries.

Although coconut production in the Philippines has gone up at the rate of 3 percent a year since 1960, most of the increase has been due to the expansion of the coconut acreage from 1.1 million to 2.4 million hectares. Government officials are worried about the declining productivity of aging coconut trees.

About one-quarter of the coconut trees in the Philippines are more than 60 years old, well past their peak production age. The average coconut yield in the country is only 32 nuts per tree compared with 150 nuts from the hybrid variety that the Philippines Coconut Authority plans to popularize.

The hybrid, developed at l'Institut de Recherche pour les Huiles et Oleagineux in Paris, is a cross between the Malaysian yellow dwarf and the West African tall. The hybrid tree grows to a height of 10 to 20 feet and is easier to harvest than those indigenous to the Philippines, which often reach heights of up to 80 feet.

The PCA, with the assistance of the United Nations Development Program, has done extensive agronomical and plant- production research, including pest and disease control. Surveys are being carried out in all of the eight coconut- producing regions of the country to collect relevant data such as coconut acreage, planting density, and distribution of coconut trees by age groups.

Under the program, coconut farmers will clear their farms and replant them with high-yield coconut seedlings. They will receive payment from the government for their labor and expenses. In addition, they are to receive $150 a year per hectare of replanted acreage for the first five years, the time needed for a coconut tree to reach full productivity.

Coconut is sometimes jokingly referred to as "the lazy man's tree" because it traditionally has required very little care. The new hybrid will demand greater attention, and the PCA is getting ready to train farmers in modern cultivation techniques, including the use of fertilizers. Agro-technicians, trained to educate the farmers in the culture and maintenance of the hybrid, are being assigned to the coconut-producing areas.

While some international experts doubt the country's ability to undertake such a massive program and meet the targets, Dr. Eduardo N. Balingasa, deputy administrator of the PCA, exudes confidence. "We have the capability and the necessary staff to do it. We have done our homework and are ready to go," he observed recently.

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