Palm oil industry makes headway

By Rose de la Cruz


THE RECENT inspection by President Rodrigo Duterte of the first palm oil commercial biomass power plant in Buluan, Maguindanao could send mixed signals to coconut farmers who along with the rice farmers are the backbone of the country’s agricultural sector.

The President visited the 4.5-megawatt Buluan Biomass Power Plant that includes the organic rankine cycle(ORC) generator, capacitor bank, 35-metric ton water tube steam boiler, power generator, power control, economizer and pollution abatement equipment, water scrubber, fiber storage building and material handling area.

He directed the Department of Agriculture to allot P300 million for biomass power projects to boost the energy supply of Mindanao, which has constantly suffered from severe power deficit.

The Buluan power plant was developed by the local government of Maguindanao under Gov. Esmael Mangudadatu and Green Earth Enersource Corp. of China.

Reports said Duterte was impressed by the plant’s use of palm oil by-products as fuel, a first for the country, thus giving the DA the go-signal to release such funds immediately.

Priority of the new plant is to supply the energy needs of the Provincial Capitol, the entire municipality of Buluan and neighboring towns.

Bad effects of palm oil

Several scientific and social studies have been undertaken showing the ill effects of oil palm plantations not just to the environment, ecology (soil erosion and loss of biodiversity) but also to indigenous people’s communities that are being swept away to pave the way for hundreds, if not thousands, of hectares of palm oil plantations.

The World Wildlife Fund, principal vanguard of the environment, cited for one the massive soil erosion (from forest clearing); increased flooding and the removal of silt deposits, which could multiply several fold the cost of dredging rivers and ports. Soil ersosion would lead to loss of marine life as soil sediments could lead to shallowing of waters.

In July 2014, a Responsible Business Forum in Manila tackled the country’s dream of becoming a major palm oil player, recommending that it proceed cautiously with this particularly in view of five major concerns of such plantations.

Back then, Environment Secretary Ramon Paje was optimistic about palm plantations in aiding the replanting in 8 million hectares of idle and denuded lands to palm.

And the potential of financial returns for the product would hover around $50 billion just like what Indonesia is earning from its six million hectares of palm plantation.

The forum made these recommendations: a) conduct social and environmental impact studies first (and using less chemicals first); b) implement sustainable palm oil practices (advising against monoculture which negatively impacts the ecological balance of the soil and greater area and affecting traditional way of planting in rural communities); c) the adoption of a pro-farmer model by government and private sector; d) good seeds should be public goods (and affordable to the farmers); and e) risk – sharing by national banks or development banks with commercial counterparts to stimulate financial innovation that can boost smallholders’ productivity and livelihood.

Protecting coconut

Since the 70s, the areas planted with coconut increased by six percent, reaching 3.6 million hectares across the country and copra meat had to be processed by coconut oil mills set up then to add value to these exportable products.

The number of mills rose from 28 in 1968 to 62 in 1979.

When coconut prices began to fall in the early 1980s, pressure mounted to alter the structure of the industry such that by 1985, the Philippine government agreed to dismantle the United Coconut Oil Mills as agreed with the International Monetary Fund which bailed out the Philippine economy.

In 1988, the United States restricted food importations by requiring those using tropical oils to be labeled indicating the saturated fat content, thereby giving a hard blow to the Philippine coconut.

This of course was debunked by studies after studies by Harvard and other institutions that later showed the health benefits of coconut oil.

The Philippines is the second largest producer of coconuts aside from being its strong market using coconuts mainly in making main dishes, refreshments, and desserts. Coconut juice is also a popular drink in the country.

In the Philippines, particularly Cebu, rice is wrapped in coconut leaves for cooking and subsequent storage; these packets are called puso.

Coconut milk, known as gata, and grated coconut flakes are used in the preparation of dishes such as laing, ginataan, bibingka, ubehalaya, pitsi-pitsi, palitaw, buko, and coconut pie.

Coconut jam is made by mixing muscovado sugar with coconut milk. Coconut sport fruits are also harvested. One such variety of coconut is known as macapuno.

Its meat is sweetened, cut into strands, and sold in glass jars as coconut strings, sometimes labeled as "gelatinous mutant coconut". Coconut water can be fermented to make a different product—nata de coco (coconut gel).

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