Wasting our resources

BUSINESS SNIPPETS - Marianne Go - The Philippine Star

I can with all honesty attest to the fact that during my entire career as a business journalist, we as a nation continue to waste our natural resources and that our farmers, miners, loggers, fishermen and most of the working population do not properly exploit the benefits and enjoy the rewards that our resources have provided us with.

This feeling of regret was highlighted recently during a Pandesal Forum hosted by The STAR columnist Wilson Flores at his 85-year old Kamuning Bakery Cafe in Quezon City on a private group’s advocacy for coconut for food and fuel.

Clara Reyes Lapus, the granddaughter of Aristocrat Restaurant founder Engracia Cruz Reyes and daughter of Sita Reyes who founded Mama Sita, a well-known company that makes various local condiments, is the main proponent of a private advocacy pushing for the continued development of coconut for food and fuel.

It seems like an eternal revolving time loop that keeps repeating itself, the Philippines is the No. 2 biggest producer of coconuts, second only to Indonesia...the production is there, the potential is there, the knowledge is there, the technology has evolved and yet we seem to be going around and around, never actually reaching our potential, repeatedly calling on the government to protect the coconut sector, improve production, upgrade our processing and manufacturing and yet we continue to remain the raw material provider...exporting our raw copra for further processing abroad and ending up buying the processed products at a much higher cost.

In my early days as a reporter, growing, developing and funding the coconut sector was already the big agricultural news with no less than the senior former president Ferdinand Marcos and industrialist Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco spearheading efforts to expand coconut production, helping provide huge funding for the sector and its coconut farmers, even leading to the creation of the now defunct United Coconut Planters Bank.

But long story short, here we are again, as if nothing has ever been done for the sector as it wallows in under development while other nations take the lead.

This loop is repeated in so many other sectors – in mining, as we export our raw minerals like copper and nickel for further processing abroad and which we then import as finished metals or components for other products that we also manufacture but also export abroad.

In the energy sector, we used to sell our “wet” coal at a cheaper price and import the high quality coal from Indonesia. Nowadays, with the new technology in coal-fired plants, our coal is usable, but with the international call for the protection of the environment, we are now being forced to shift to more environmental friendly, renewable and sustainable sources of energy like solar, battery and wind, but of course using technology and equipment that we have to import first.

The good old times

Ms. Lapus, along with Department of Trade and Industry – Export Marketing Bureau representative Ma. Melvin Joves, enumerated the various products that are produced from coconuts, our Tree of Life, that we had used and still use, such as coconut oil for cooking.

Technology evolved and coconut oil underwent more processing and refinement. The biggest local producers of clear refined coconut oil were Baguio Oil and Minola which during their time were quite popular and profitable.

Baguio Oil, which was launched in 1932 is still around, but is no longer as popular as it was in the past. Minola Oil, on the other hand, as a label, has been absorbed into Legaspi Oil Company Inc.

Unfortunately, a much cheaper bland cooking oil was produced from palm oil, resulting in a major shift away from the traditional coconut cooking oil.

According to Ms. Joves, coconut oil is considered a premium, healthier oil and commands a much higher price, making it less competitive to the cheaper palm cooking oil.

Ms. Joves said that while palm oil is mostly imported, the Philippines actually already grows palm oil trees, but on a contractual basis.

Virgin coconut oil or VCO is used as a health supplement. Coconut oil likewise is used as an ingredient for topical use as shampoos and lotions.

Coconut sap vinegar, another coconut derived product, Ms. Lapus laments, languishes in sales when compared to the better promoted apple cider vinegar, but in truth, coconut sap vinegar is just as natural and healthy.

Desiccated coconut is used for baking and cooking, coconut water as a health drink and dried coconut husks are used in a variety of ways for car seats, with German carmaker BMW using the coconut husks fibers as materials for their premium vehicles.

According to Ms. Joves, Jo textile, which is made from coconut husk, is used as a material against desertification, for fishponds and is even used by the Department of Public Works and Highways in some of its projects.

Biodiesel blend

Another valuable product from coconut that should benefit the country is the production of coconut methyl ester or CME which is blended with diesel, making it less of a pollutant. However, again the Biodiesel Law intended to help boost local coconut production for use as CME has not been followed, according to Rafael Diaz, a petroleum and biodiesel expert and advocate of CME.

For 15 years, the Philippines implemented a two percent blend of CME since it was first mandated under the Clean Air Act of 1999. Fortunately, the current leadership of the Department of Energy, under Secretary Raphael Lotilla, just this March has ordered the increase of the CME blend to three percent by July this year, and then up to four percent by July 2025, and up to five percent by 2026.

Based on the advocacy group’s calculations, with the Philippines’ coconut production of P15 billion annual nut production, if properly developed and used could earn as much as $3 billion.

Oh, such an aspirational number! Reality check though based on the advocacy group’s own criticism that the coconut sector does not even have accurate production numbers, with the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) delegated to collect and collate the statistics, but facing a massive shortage of manpower.

Hope, I will still be in the journalism profession when the Philippine coconut sector will truly have reached its potential even as most admit that it is now a sunset sector for the country.

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