Cause of death: ‘Agawan buko’

CTALK - Cito Beltran - The Philippine Star

If, God forbid, the Philippine coconut industry dies, the SOCO team will most likely sign off on the cause of death as “Agawan Buko.”

If you’re not familiar with the term agawan buko, it literally means, “grabbing the coconut” which would be the provincial equivalent of playing rugby. The game involves one full sized coconut covered in lard, cooking oil, grease or soaked in used engine oil. It is considered more humane than chasing a greased pig but no easier because grabbing hold of the coconut often means wrestling it away from someone or stepping on other people’s toes!

Today’s version is quite different because instead of carefree children chasing a coconut to win a prize, the players involved in the agawan buko and eventual death of the coconut industry would be “grown-ups” from the Philippine Coconut Authority, the Department of Agriculture, environmentalists, scientists, entomologists, pesticide manufacturers, crop protection specialists, farmers’ cooperatives, the Department of Trade and Industry, the Department of Interior and Local Government, cattle-fighting cock-pig raisers as well as a handful of local and foreign “volunteers” and politicians, all of whom have some direct or indirect vested interest to protect.

The problem as I pointed out in my last column is that no one has officially declared “game on,” what the object of the game is and what the actual prizes will be. Right now they are still arguing about their over valued opinions and the science of the scale insects. Private sector specialists are voting for chemical spray war on the plague because time is of the essence since scale insects will kill a tree in 6 months, but scientists support bio-controls by breeding insects that would attack the scale insects. But entomologists argue that this can create an imbalance or create other threats or plagues especially since there are 3 to 4 types of insects currently destroying coconut trees. Breeding bio-control insects is also too slow in comparison to the ability of the enemy to multiply. There are reportedly 10 scientists in the DA able to breed/produce 10,000 bio-control insects in a month inside a laboratory while the scale insects reproduce in the millions outdoors.

At the same time, the PCA and DA officials won’t sponsor or endorse any action or product unless there has been enough science, research and testing because failure can subject them to graft and corruption charges. This requirement can take anywhere between one year to three years after which time all the trees currently infested would be dead, chopped down and used as coco lumber.

So someone grabbed the buko and said lets declare a state of emergency and a strict quarantine all over the Calabarzon to prevent the spread of the disease. But the DTI representative screamed “No!” It would seriously endanger our coconut exports and its by-products if the world decide to put an embargo on all coconuts and products coming from the Philippines. An LGU official also chimed in demanding for the protection of the regions’ interests, namely their buko pie industry that would suffer a black eye from a declared quarantine. Already the buko pie makers are reportedly upset because it’s so hard to get buko meat in the zone and they have to import the materials from other provinces.

A PCA official cut in, made agaw the buko and said “Well the best way is to simply fertilize, spray a neutral oil/dishwashing soap mix on the trees and cut what has to be cut and burn what has to be burned! Then we can just undertake a replanting program!” “Yes, you will certainly burn the coconut trees if the farmers make the wrong mix with the dishwashing soap!” screamed a chemist. “Do you realize that if you leave people to their own device, they tend to make stronger mixes and use them more often than prescribed or suggested? What we will have would be Ni-lechon na talbos ng niyog!”

Then the farmer’s cooperative joined the fray and said: “Who’s going to pay and do all that work, us? We have a depressed market, our trees are depressed and now we’re also depressed! We can’t even cut the trees to sell them because there is a law against that too! In addition to that, the PCA once said they would pay P25 for seedling farmers produced but never came back to get the bulk or pay us for the seedlings. Now you want us to do the tango with you guys again! Besides which, aren’t you understaffed because people mistakenly grabbed an erroneous retirement package that was unfunded and now put so many people on pending early retirement and surviving on “JO” or job orders?”

Just then another expert from the crop protection sector made singit, made hila the buko and declared that they too were depressed! Even if many farms accepted chemical spraying, the government hesitates to endorse it because the environmentalists demand the use of purely organic materials and solutions only. How is that possible against a plague of biblical proportions where even mother nature failed to maintain the balance because of climate change?

If the environmentalists were not enough of a pain in the neck, the cattle ranchers, the sabungeros and racehorse breeders all refuse to spray in their farms and would rather wait until the trees heal themselves or die because they’re afraid that the chemicals would affect the health of their dairy cows, fighting cocks and horses. That in turn upsets other farms trying to spray and save their coconut trees because those who won’t spray end up becoming temporary breeding stations of scale insects that fly or move back to re-infect trees that have been sprayed.

This dear readers is not a comedy play. This is what is actually happening in the field as reported, shared, sumbong by readers, farmers and planters as well as emailed by businessmen dependent on the buko. While writing about the disaster I heard the sad whine of a chainsaw that led me out of the house to my next-door neighbor. Down on the ground were the last of their coconut trees being sectioned. I wondered if it was prophetic? Will we once again hear the chorus of chainsaws, not from illegal loggers, but the mercy killing of thousands of coconut trees? Will the Tree of Life survive the “agawan buko”?

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