Like most of those who work in the coconut groves that fill the northern edge of the Philippine island of Mindanao, Diego G. Limbaro has never imagined another life. His father climbed the thin tree trunks of the surrounding plantations, wielding a machete to uproot the coconuts. His father’s father did the same.
These multigenerational experiences are typical throughout the province of Misamis Oriental. Harvesting coconuts (separating the meat from the husk and processing the bounty for oil and juice) is one of the few ways to earn a living.
People work six days a week in the sweltering tropical climate, under torrential rain and under a scorching sun. Your salary is determined by the price of coconut oil, influenced by traders around the world. The typical farmer earns perhaps 60,000 pesos a year, about $1,100.
“We are poor here,” Limbaro said one recent morning, as a steady drizzle turned the reddish soil into mud. “We only buy sardines and rice. “For most people here, the life they are born into is the life they will live.”
At 64, Limbaro’s life is dominated by two activities: playing basketball on the concrete courts that form the center of each village and running a copra cooperative that gives local farmers a way to pool their efforts.
Farmers typically harvest coconuts on their own small farms, removing the husks and selling much of the shell-wrapped fruit to processing plant agents that make juice. They sell the rest of their harvest to village dryers that roast the meat over hot coals, producing a product that is sold to processing plants that grind it into oil.
The plants that dry the fruit, which burn coconut shells as a source of energy, tend to be owned by local women like Mercita Rementizo, 65, who also operates a local grocery kiosk. She earns extra money as a music teacher and as a drummer in a family band that plays tango, jazz and rock classics at town festivals.
“I have a lot of side issues,” he said. “Everyone here does it.”
Limbaro said he relied entirely on women to fill out the ranks of the cooperative’s board of directors. “Women are more productive than men,” he said matter-of-factly. “Women don’t gamble, drink or womanize. “I trust women more.”
The main function of the cooperative is to organize the transportation of coconuts to the processing plants. That task has become much more difficult in recent months after the organization’s freight truck broke down. It lies in the mud, under a tarp, with rusty sides and paint peeling off, motionless for lack of the 150,000 pesos (about $2,600) needed to repair it.
So the cooperative is at the mercy of buyer’s agents, who charge members for the cost of transportation. This additional cost is coming just as copra prices have fallen precipitously this year, farmers complain. No one is entirely clear about the cause, although people are speculating about a glut of palm oil – an alternative to coconut oil for cooking – as big producers in the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia ramp up production.
Limbaro remains stoic in the face of such forces.
He feels his own mortality as he seeks sustenance in the trees, some of them ancient, that connect the ground with the sky.
“This is the only resource that is available here,” he said. “The coconuts will still be here even after I die.”