Workers on a Philippines Coconut Farm: Born Poor, Staying Poor

Like most of the those working in the coconut groves that fill out the northern lip of the Philippine island of Mindanao, Diego G. Limbaro has never imagined another life. His father pulled himself up the skinny tree trunks of the surrounding plantations, wielding a machete to detach coconuts. So did his father’s father.

Such multigenerational experiences are typical throughout the Misamis Oriental province. Harvesting coconuts — separating the meat from the husk, and processing the bounty into oil and juice — is one of the very few ways to earn sustenance.

People labor six days a week in the tropical swelter, through torrential rains and under the punishing sun. Their pay is determined by the price of coconut oil as influenced by traders around the globe. The typical farmer earns perhaps 60,000 pesos a year — about $1,100.

“We are poor here,” Mr. Limbaro said on a recent morning, as a steady drizzle turned the reddish soil to mud. “We buy only sardines and rice. For most people here, the life they are born into is the life they will lead.”

Workers’ wages are determined by the prices for coconut oil as influenced by traders around the globe. They typically earn $1,100 a year.Credit…Jes Aznar for The New York Times

At 64, Mr. Limbaro’s life is dominated by two pursuits — playing basketball on the concrete courts that form the center of every village, and running a copra cooperative that provides local farmers a way to pool their efforts.

Farmers typically harvest coconuts from their own small holdings, removing the husks and selling much of the shell-encased fruit within to agents for processing plants that make juice. They peddle the rest of their crop to village drying works that roast the meat over open coals, yielding a product that is sold to processing plants that crush it into oil.

The plants that dry the fruit, which burn coconut husks as a source of power, tend to be owned by local women like Mercita Rementizo, 65, who also operates a local grocery kiosk. She earns additional money as a music teacher, and as a drummer in a family band that plays tango, jazz and rock classics at village parties.

“I have a lot of side hustles,” she said. “Everyone here does.”

Mr. Limbaro said he relied entirely on women to fill out the ranks of the cooperative’s governing board. “Women are more productive than men,” he said matter-of-factly. “The women are not gambling, not drinking, not womanizing. I trust women the most.”

Mercita Rementizo, a member of the copra farmers’ cooperative, outside the grocery kiosk she operates for extra income. “I have a lot of side hustles,” she said.Credit…Jes Aznar for The New York Times

The principal function of the cooperative is arranging transportation for coconuts to processing plants. That task has become far more difficult in recent months after the organization’s cargo truck broke down. It sits in the mud under a tarp, its sides rusted and shedding paint, motionless for lack of the 150,000 pesos (about $2,600) needed to repair it.

So the cooperative is at the mercy of the buyer’s agents, who charge members for the cost of transportation. This extra cost is landing just as copra prices have fallen precipitously this year, farmers grouse. No one is fully clear on the cause, though people speculate about a glut of palm oil — an alternative to coconut oil for cooking — as large producers in the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia boost their production.

Mr. Limbaro remains stoic in the face of such forces.

He feel his own mortality as he cadges his livelihood from trees, some of them a century old, that connect the soil to the sky.

“This is the only resource that’s available here,” he said. “The coconuts will still be here even after I pass away.”

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