Sula: When the ocean gets sick

“May lagnat ang dagat” was how a Filipino weatherman figuratively explains the other night the abnormal condition of the Pacific Ocean.

The feverish condition of the largest ocean on earth is popularly known as “El Niño” or “The Child” in Spanish.

And El Niño isn't just about the weather, mind you.

I got to learn of El Niño in the 70s when I was working in the coconut industry. The price of copra – a major export commodity – was skyrocketing at the time, reaching as high as, if I remember correctly, as P600 per 100 kilos.

El Niño was partly attributed to the unprecedented price spiral.

El Niño, which shows up every Christmas season --- which explains the name – near the coast of Peru, had decimated abundant plankton in the area which served as food for anchovies, the main source of livelihood for Peruvian fishermen.

As a result, anchovies had to migrate elsewhere, leaving the Peruvians with no catch and livelihood.

Anchovies are vital ingredients in animal feeds. With no anchovies in the market, millers had to find a suitable protein-rich substitute, like copra. That's how El Niño drove copra price through the roof.

At the time it happened, the country was under martial law and the price of fossil fuel drastically went up as the Arabs imposed a cartel through its monopolistic group, the OPEC.

Against this backdrop, the rising price of copra – which is processed mainly into coconut oil – became a real concern for the Marcos government – or dictatorship, if you will.

Coconut oil – apart from being a regular requirement in Filipino dishes – is an important component of such basic commodities as soap, biscuits, etc. (Yes, my dear, that glossy part on your beauty soap and your favorite cracker is coconut oil).

To prevent the rise in the cost of coco products from aggravating further people's restiveness, particularly the poor, the Marcos government threatened to take over the coconut industry.

In response, industry leaders proposed a win-win solution: subsidized coco products prices in lieu of takeover.

A subsidy fund was eventually set up through a Marcos decree that imposed a levy on copra sales.

Indirectly, the levy paved the way for the establishment of a coco farmers bank, the United Coconut Planters Bank or UCPB and other corporations, including an insurance firm.

It also led to the controversial P100 billion levy fund that, up to now, remains in questions as to its ownership, notwithstanding the Supreme Court decisions.

Perhaps, the coco levy may have helped shore up for as long as it did the Marcos regime.

Certainly, it made then Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile more popular and powerful, considering that, at the time, one third of the Filipinos were dependent on the coconut industry.

It also made a lot of other rich and powerful people richer and more powerful, sadly at the expense of the impoverished coco farmers.

With another El Niño now upon us, although a mild version were are told, the coconut industry may get a boon out of it.

Copra prices may rise again, as it they did in the 70s, along with coco derivatives. But the impact may be different this time around because the condition is different.

Oil prices have dropped continuously. There is no dictatorship to threaten an industry take over, if ever. (Enrile is out on bail but he's no longer the same cocky, powerful man in his heyday when he threatened to create a coconut cartel, an idea that was more hubris than anything else.)

The economy is also in a much better shape than during those highly lamented times.

But the El Niño is still a threat, mostly to the poor. (Is the government prepared, by the way?). It can also be a factor in the political climate that is now brewing as we approach the 2016 presidential race.

The effects of El Niño can have serious ramifications in the lives of the Filipinos (drought, rice and water shortage, brown-outs, etc.) in the immediate future. Along with money and power, it could help decide the future of presidential wannabes.

It would be silly, if not naïve, not to factor that in the political calculus. Kuya Kim, in a sense, is also literally and politically correct when he says “ang buhay ay weather, weather lang.”


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