VEGAFLOR, Quezon—Welchor de Vera wanted so much to redeem a mortgage taken by his parents on the family’s coconut farm that he sold one of his kidneys to an Arab for P90,000.
But because the loan signed 15 years ago covering the fruits of the 9-hectare sprawl on a mountainside at Barangay (village) Vegaflor still had two years before maturity, the lender in downtown Lopez refused to accept his money.
“It was sad. I was not able to get the land back,” said De Vera, 30, raising a well-worn Dallas Cowboys T-shirt to show a 9-inch scar on the side of his body from the operation in 2008. “It still hurts sometimes,” De Vera said.
At least 127 young men in Lopez town alone were documented to have sold half of their kidneys at the time, according to Larry Mergano, a researcher of the nongovernment Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement.
Mergano looked into well over 400 such cases involving mostly coconut farmers and fishermen in a bid to stop the pernicious practice and help authorities prosecute those behind it.
Several cases have been filed in court, according to Mergano, but none has been held to account and the practice goes on, except that the pay for donors is much higher—up to P300,000.
“Extreme hardship,” Mergano said, explaining the desperation.
De Vera’s parents had mortgaged the land handed down by a great grandfather to defray medical expenses of a seriously ill sibling.
It was a common practice for rural folk before the state health insurance agency, Philhealth, extended its coverage in the countryside several years ago, said Adelmo Arandela, a former barangay captain at Vegaflor.
“Without savings, villagers usually took out loans using their land as collateral to care for the sick, to raise farming capital, to send children to school,” said Arandela, 60, who spent six years as a radio operator in Saudi Arabia and Taiwan before returning to resume a farmer’s life.
With little or practically no access to credit, the villagers are at the mercy of usurers and loan sharks—most of them copra traders who control the industry.
End of the road
In Irosin, Sorsogon province, Juan Balderama finally got his bachelor’s degree in agriculture a year ago, fulfilling his father’s deathbed wish in 2004.
It took him seven years to complete the course, including a three-year break to earn tuition money after proceeds from the sale of three of four cows his father had raised for his education ran out.
The 28-year-old bachelor said his father thought that armed with a diploma, he could magically coax the family’s 3-hectare coconut farm to produce more nuts, replace aging trees, plant alternative crops and thereby raise more revenues.
“Where do I get the money to fatten the land?” asked Balderama, youngest of seven siblings and the only child in the family to get past high school.
Balderama has since gone to Manila to look for a job. Last month, he was stricken with hernia from years of hauling copra on his back and working as a grocery hand. The remaining fourth cow was sold to defray his five-day stay in the hospital.
Both De Vera and Balderama took the road less traveled, believing it was a way out of their miseries.
They have now hit a dead end, unless reform-minded activists battling in courts for three decades succeed in recovering billions in assets acquired with the use of a coconut levy.
The tax that fluctuated from P15 to P100 for every 100 kilos of copra was clamped in 1973, a year after President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law. The avowed aim was to ameliorate the lives of the farmers. It ended up enriching the dictator’s cronies and business associates.
The challenge now is how to return the money back to the farmers, said Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, author of a bill seeking to establish the Coconut Farmers Trust Fund.
“It is no longer possible to give it back to the farmers who contributed to this fund,” Enrile told a Senate committee hearing in December. “There are so many people who now claim to be coconut farmers and contributors to this,” he said.
“For as long as you allow this to drag on and stay in the courts, the funds will be dissipated. We have seen this. So much of the money of the coconut industry was lost because of shenanigans by the people assigned to handle them, and I think it is time the government will now make a decision. And the only solution that I can think of is for Congress to now act without waiting for the courts to make a decision,” Enrile said.
“My suggestion is this money must not be spent for the industry,” said Enrile, Marcos’s defense minister who also headed the state regulatory agency, Philippine Coconut Authority, at the time.
“Instead, we liquidate the assets,” he said. “Let this cash be borrowed by the national government and use it for infrastructure development, and pay market interest … The interest will be used to develop the coconut industry,” he added.
“I want to put all of these on the record because they think that we stole the money of the coconut farmers and, in fact, I still have a pending case, I guess, but I can sleep very well because I know they have no case against me.”
During the martial law years, Enrile was a member of the triumvirate that was allegedly responsible for deceiving the coconut farmers.
The others were businessman Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco who then headed UCPB, and the late Maria Clara Lobregat, president of the Coconut Planters Federation of the Philippines (Cocofed), an organization that now claims levy funds on behalf of a million farmers. Cojuangco, President Aquino’s uncle and a major contributor to his election bid in May 2010, is San Miguel chairman.
Critics say that the 88-year-old Enrile is now in a “legacy mode,” particularly referring to his conduct as elder statesman presiding over the Senate impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona.
It is easy to see where the government has failed the coconut farmers at Vegaflor, one of the barangays in Lopez that seems to have been caught in a time warp.
Here, farmers from the mountainsides teeming with towering coconut trees transport to the trading outpost their copra in sacks placed on either side of a horse, or on a wooden sled pulled by a water buffalo.
The 30-kilometer road to the main highway in Lopez is a moonscape. It takes an hour to negotiate it by car. On a sun-splashed Friday at the onset of summer, patches of the road were deep in mud from a rainstorm two days earlier and were impassable even for a four-wheeler pickup.
The road from Lopez to Buenavista was built during the Corazon Aquino administration to cut travel time in half from five outlying towns. Only a few stretches of the dirt road had been cemented. Along the rutted path to Vegaflor, two kids were collecting P10 from motorists.
“It’s for maintenance,” Arandela said.
Potential gold mines
Back in Manila, administration and NGO officials gush at the wonderful products that could be made from coconut, including juice from the nut and nectar from the flowering stem that could rival Gatorade as a sport drink, medicinal oil, sugar for diabetics, and coir from the husk that could be a potential gold mine with a booming international market for its fiber.
Transporting the products is a major problem, especially at this time. Parts of Maharlika Highway, obviously haphazardly constructed during the Marcos years judging from the crumbling thin coat of concrete, were under repair. It took an Inquirer team six hours to drive to Vegaflor from Manila because of traffic jams.
Getting the clueless villagers to embrace the new products involves conducting awareness programs. Education is the name of the game. It seems a low priority at Vegaflor, where an elementary school for 140 children is staffed by three “multigrade” teachers.
Unable to enjoy the fruits of his land, De Vera makes both ends meet as a copra harvester for his neighbors. The cash he received for parting with one kidney has vanished after he built a stone house for his family. Few such houses could be seen in the barangay. Most of the 400 families there stay in thatch and bamboo homes, some with corrugated roofs, often blown away by the storms during the typhoon season.
On the Friday the Inquirer team went to the barangay, De Vera secured a P3,000-contract to build a hut for an Army company deployed in the area two months ago after the capture of a communist New People’s Army (NPA) commander who led a raid on the town jail to free imprisoned comrades.
“We came here on the request of the barangays,” said Sergeant Reynaldo Criste Aquino who obviously also was on a mission to win hearts and minds. He appeared to be popular among the rural folk, ferrying them on the pillion of his motorcycle.
Arandela said Vegaflor used to be an insurgent sanctuary. He recalled guerrillas on horseback armed with guns and bandoleers roaming the area, just like in a Lito Lapid movie. That was the time when NPA strength peaked, fueled by an exploitative martial law environment that kept the farmers impoverished.
Consigned to poverty?
Unlike the De Veras, Balderama’s family in Irosin—likewise a doormat to storms from the Pacific—refuses to take a loan on the family’s 3-hectare land, aware of cash-strapped farmers who had lost hocked properties by default to traders.
“We did not want to take a gamble,” said Balderama, who graduated from the Church-run Veritas Agricultural School in Irosin in March last year.
But the piece of land handed down like a heirloom from generations of Balderamas has fallen on bad times—like most coconut plantations across the archipelago. Trees have become senile, the soil is in bad need of fertilizer.
“We used to harvest 2,000 coconuts every three months. Now it is down to 1,000 coconuts,” said Balderama, who is now staying with a sister in a 24-square meter shanty his brother-in-law, working as a church janitor, secured after paying P24,000 for the space in a squatter colony straddling Fairview subdivision in Quezon City.
Balderama said he needed at least P50,000 to replant the farm and increase the number of trees in it—from 600 to 2,100—and cultivate alternative crops to provide supplementary income.
The amount is a fortune beyond the reach of his family that depends for survival on the 300 kilos of copra eked out of the farm and sold for P3,000 every three months—an income way below the poverty threshold defined by the National Statistical Coordination Board in its newest survey in 2009. The board said that a Filipino needed P974 to meet his monthly food needs and P1,403 to stay out of poverty; that a Filipino family of five required a monthly income of P4,869 for food and P7,017 to stay out of poverty.
Had the UCPB lived up to its promise to farmers upon its creation in 1975 as “a permanent solution to their perennial credit problems,” would De Vera and Balderama have extricated themselves from being just a part of the statistic of those consigned to be among the poorest of the poor?
Culled from Todays Gist