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Rough Cuts: The plight of oil-producing palm farmers

Late last week we wrote about the pitiful plight of small coconut farmers who are now reeling from the exceedingly low farm gate buying price of whole coconut fruits. We tackled the inaction of the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) in helping the coconut farmers see through this time of the lowest low of the coconut production industry.

We failed to mention though the PCA’s mother agency, the Department of Agriculture, that we believe, should also be concerned of the situation of the coconut farmers, especially the small ones, who are at the mercy of the big time coconut produce buyers. They communicate among themselves and agree on what should be the buying price during specific days of the month. So, the small coconut farmers have no choice but sell their produce to the traders that for long have strangled them.

Last Tuesday we got a text from a former co-employee at Davao Light and Power Co. (DLPC), Ross Luga who is head of the power utility’s Reputation Management Department (RMD). In his text message Ross recapped the title of our column “The pitiful plight of the small coconut farmers.” But our friend added a line, “What about the palm oil farmers?”

We texted Ross back asking, “Why, what happened to the palm oil farmers?” We forgot that Ross has around 10 hectares of oil-producing palm trees in New Bataan, ComVal Province that he started developing about 10 years ago. He goes there during week-ends to oversee his farm hands in developing the rolling land, planting and in maintaining the palm trees.

Eventually Ross saw his toil rewarded when the palm trees started producing fruits. That was seven years ago. All the while, after we retired, we were thinking that our friend was already bathing in the oil wealth his farm has been producing. We know he has spent a huge fortune, time and effort in the venture.

But last Monday we were surprised when we learned from him that he and other palm oil farmers have also been feeling the slack in the farming field they have gone into.

According to Ross, like the coconut farmers, the palm oil planters are also very much hard-off because of the very low buying price of their produce; so low that their income cannot even recoup their operating expenses.

Ross is at a loss why this is happening to the industry and why the government seems nowhere to be found to rescue the drowning palm oil farmers.

We commiserate with our friend because we know how it is to be in a closely similar boat with him. But what makes Ross’ and other small palm oil farmers’ plight even more pitiful is that there seems to be no specific government agency or bureau, or whatever that they could run to for assistance. The DA perhaps. But it is too preoccupied with efforts to stabilize production of the country’s staple food — rice and corn. So busy is the DA that there are other fields in agriculture that it should also look into but has not.

In fact, some years back, we could remember when the government under then President Fidel V. Ramos, was pushing for the Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines-East Asean Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA), the vast logged over areas in Mindanao were offered to both local and foreign businessmen for development into massive palm oil farms. And we know there were a lot of takers to the offer. That was why, when we travelled to Agusan del Sur and Norte as part of our work before our retirement, we saw both sides of the Maharlika Highway lined with palm oil trees. Some palm oil extracting plants were put up in strategic locations to cater to the demands of farmers for transport cost-friendly delivery of their produce.

Based on the existence of palm oil plantations and the rise of oil extracting plants, coupled with stories of emerging affluence among the early investor in the industry, our hunch then was that the new rich must be enjoying the dividends of their venture.

Unfortunately, the experience of small palm farmer Ross Luga appears to be telling us a different story. And knowing his dedication and passion in his work, we have no doubt Ross is telling exactly not just his story but the story of the palm oil industry.

Well, if there is any government agency charged to oversee the palm oil farming industry will it please stand up and be recognized? Will it say something to assure palm oil farmers that they are not left in the dark?

May be DA XI’s Ric Onate can come out with a statement that the agency has nothing to do with palm oil farming. That might exonerate his office for the sin of omission.

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