Small Coconut Farmers meeting

Zamboanguita, Philippines. 17th October 2014

Invited in morning to join the local coconut farmer’s review meeting by my father-in-law, and told I could also meet there the regional Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) advisor (PCDM). My father-in-law was wearing his green ZASCOFAMCO short sleeve shirt and smiling widely – he then left for the meeting.

I had a swollen tonsil and sore throat and was intending to stay at our house, but after a shower I rode my motorbike to the meeting with my sister-in-law as passenger.  The meeting was a few kms away in the small town of Zamboanguita.

There was a pleasant atmosphere with a wide range of participants.  The meeting programme has been scanned in below for reference…

Small Coconut Farmers meeting programmeSmall Coconut Farmers meeting

About 60 coconut farmers. No young men coconut farmers, 3 young coconut farmer women. About 10 elderly coconut farmer men and 15 elderly coconut farmer women. About 40 middle aged coconut farmers mostly women. About 8 advisors or organisors from PCA. Some talks were to be given by coconut farmers.

Venue pleasant with one large rectangular white board at the front filled with the name and date of the event. Microphone provided for speakers. No computer or internet facilities.  Refreshments were at the back and served by two girls of about 20 years old.

I introduced myself to 3 young male PCA advisers and inquired their names and if they were going to be speaking.  I mentioned that my father-in-law was one of the coconut farmers. Two of the young men advisers went onto the verranda: I joined them and tried engaging them in conversation – explaining a bit about the issue with bees and poor pollination with coconuts but they were evidently reluctant to get into any conversation. I went back in to the conference room and then met the regional PCA adviser who had just arrived.

Note 1: I had met the regional PCA adviser in October 2013 when I visited him in his Dumaguete City office, just before I took the ferry to Bohol to stay for a day with a friend at Bohol agricultural college.  I had explained to him that since there were no honeybee colonies in the lower lying coconut areas south of Dumaguete that I was mainly looking for the T. biroi  stingless bee species since it was meant to be a good pollinator of coconuts and other crops.  He recalled having seen a white box with some Kiwot and thought it an interesting ‘technology’. I needed to catch the ferry and I gave him my contact details. He gave me his calling card.

Everybody stood in the meeting for the opening prayer and a message was read out from the Municipal Major of Zamboanguita who did not visit the meeting. (The mayor’s house is about 1 km away and the mayoral office was a short distance away.) Most of the coconut farmers had travelled down from villages such as Nasig-Id several kms away or from much further away via difficult roads.

The introductory event was about 15 minutes long and the speaker used the microphone and stood at the front near white board with the title of the event. There was some contribution from the audience.

Further speakers used the microphone and no visual items.  A few questions were asked by coconut farmers and there were one or two contributions from advisors. No hand-out notes were provided or paper information was provided to the farmers, and nor were any writing paper and pens provided so that the audience could take notes.

At the break for refreshments I asked the regional PCA adviser if I could give a short contributory talk. I asked for a white board pen and a pen was found.

The next event was a group discussion and all the chairs were arranged in 4 large circles, and each circle was joined by one or two advisors. After the event the regional PCA adviser took the microphone and told the audience sitting in the 4 circles that I would give the next talk.

I walked to the front and he joked that I was going to speak in Cebuana and I joked that I could only speak Tagalog but hoped that everyone could understand my English.

The 4 large circles were re-arranged into horseshoe shapes. I asked people to come closer into more of a crescent shape. The advisers were sat at the back, and 2 of the advisers said that the chairs were OK where they were. I told them that I had a sore throat and was going to draw on the whiteboard with quite small writing. Another adviser said I could use the microphone. I spoke into the microphone and explained again that it would be better to move closer. The majority of the audience moved their chairs closer, and several women moved much closer. Most of the advisers still sat at the back of the room. While the audience arranged into a crescent shape I wiped the whiteboard clean and removed the large event title – I knew I was going to feel a bit emotional since I was aware that I might be providing information which could be a ‘surprise’ for some in the audience.

I decided to paint first a little introductory story, that when their ancestors first arrived in the Philippines about 60,000 years ago it was covered in vegetation. There were coconut trees, a version of the mango and other fruit trees, but not bananas at that time. There would have been many Petuykan honeybees and Ligwan honeybees from the sea shore right up into the mountains, including where we were sitting now.

I drew 2 line axis charts on each half of the white board and opted to put just 2003 on the bottom left hand side of each.  I talked without the microphone (but loud enough that everyone could hear me) and drew downward sloping yield lines for mangos, coffee, slightly less for coconuts. Then on the right side I drew upwards sloping yield lines for rice, sweetcorn and sugarcane. My voice was drying up (sore throat and emotion) and someone offered me the microphone.

I asked everyone in the room what was the difference between mango/coffee/coconuts and rice/sweetcorn/sugarcane. The room went quiet and I waited and asked them again. (I looked around the room to encourage anyone to join in including the advisors.) A woman at the front said the ones on the left were fruit, I agreed and wrote ‘fruit’ at the top.

I waited and there was no noise in the room. (From my teaching experience I appreciated that this is actually a sign that the audience was engaging with the question.) Someone said that the ones on the right were cereals so I wrote ‘cereals’ at the top.

I asked if there were any other differences and there were no offers so I drew a fluffy head at the top of the right one with little dots. I got the offer from someone of ‘pollen grains’ – I said in an affirmative tone ‘Yes!’.

I drew a approximate cross section of a flower on the left with a brief accompanying description, and then on the right a bit lower down the outline shape of a corn cob with tassles. I waited a bit.

Why are rice yields rising? I asked. There were no offers so I drew lots more dots on the fluffy flower and told them when they go past the rice fields near Malatapay there was always plenty of wind, and in fact there is wind in here and that there were also billions and billions of pollen grains all around us on my arms and brushed my arms – everywhere. It is amazing because they are so small that you can’t see them and that you needed to use a microscope. (I heard some noises and shuffles from the back where the advisors were sitting.)

I added some more dots from the fluffy head to the cob tassles and tapped the ‘sticky tassles’ as I put it.

‘If you wanted to have a baby (looking in the general direction of a group of women) you need a man – yes?’  (The faces of the women moved into a half grimace/smiles etc.) ‘Oh yes you would’ – I tried to joke – the plants are having sex too! – I added.

There were a mixed range of expressions from the audience after this observation.

‘How about the fruit?’ I asked. The room was very quiet. Someone said ‘The pollen grains cause pollination to create seed’ or something like that. I bent over and opened my hand in that direction and could see the various expressions on the faces. ‘The male pollen grains are pollinating the female part of the flower’ – I added.

‘The plants are having sex too!’ I emphasised in a paced way. I was feeling emotional and said again ‘The plants have sex.’

I waited a bit for people to think a bit and started to sit, but got up and pointed at the flower. ‘What about sex for the flower?’ – paused – ‘Where are the putyokan!?’.  The room was quiet and someone said ‘mountains – or something about mountains’. ‘They are up in the tall trees in the mountains – yes!’ I said slowly. I cupped my right hand over the top of the flower and moved it side to side- ‘The putyokan bee is putting pollen on the flowers!’ and pointed in the general direction of the mountains behind me.

‘The ligwan bee is also putting pollen on the flowers, every time it lands on a flower it helps the plant have sex.’ I said trying to ensure that everyone realized that all the bees were involved.

It was clear that quite a few of the women amongst the coconut farmers realized the importance of this information, and probably several of the men. I tried to gauge the reaction from the advisers but it seemed they were still thinking about it.

I went on to briefly explain that because there were now so few bees and other pollinating insects in the lowland areas that not enough of the fruit plants were being properly pollinated to get good yields. (I tried illustrating this by putting my hand in the air in a half-joking manner saying – ‘I’m a flower, I’m a flower’ – ‘please find me!!’).

I remember holding the chair to sit down and looking across the audience and saw an older lady in tears behind her glasses and she had to put her handkerchief over her mouth and nose. The regional PCA adviser sat on the table at the back with his right arm over something and had a stunned ‘open face’ expression.

To the ladies near the front who seemed most affected, I tried to say – ‘I’m sorry – but it’s not your fault. The honey hunters are killing the bees but they are not to blame because they didn’t know either!’ (I knew some of the coconut farmer families in the area and that some family members participated in honey hunting.)

I went on further to explain that if the honey hunters used some different methods, the bee colonies could recover and that I hoped to have information leaflets available soon.

I was sitting on the chair at the front and emotionally drained. The room seemed embarrassingly quiet and I could not remain at the front but walked somewhere off to the right side.

I am not sure how long the room was quiet for – maybe a minute or so, and I recall looking back and seeing the regional manager walk though the middle of the audience from the back to the front and pick up the microphone to introduce the next event.

I went outside the room to the toilet and then leant over the table outside and sent a text to my wife back in England which was …

Very sore throat but gave a talk today to a roomful of small coconut flowers with quite a few agricultural advisors in the room. I explained as best I could the overall picture for the crop yields. The whole room got the picture. It was quite emotional. It is finally starting to unravel thank God. Im sure it wont stop here now. Love Daddyxxx” 1.44pm, 17 Oct

(The typo I only noticed later that evening.)

I rejoined the meeting after a while, and would have expected at least a few people to approach me for a chat, but nobody did. Some of the women signaled their recognition to me just with glances. None of the advisers showed any interest, but the two young ladies serving the refreshments were interested in the disappearing bees and declining crop yields, and we had a pleasant conversation. (One of the refreshment ladies was a newly qualified nurse, and was hoping to nurse in central America. The other lady was a trainee elementary teacher.)

None of the PCA advisors used any visual aids or offered paper take-away information for the audience, but gave their talks using just the microphone. During a talk by the regional PCA advisor on the ‘Cocolisap pest’ I twice put my hand up to ‘ask a question or contribute’, but although he saw the hand he would not accept the question, either during or after his talk. It seemed as if questions were not really expected or encouraged during advisor talks, and due ‘deference’ was preferred.

The talks given by the coconut farmers themselves were much more inclusive with active participation from the audience. For one talk a large map had been prepared and stuck to the whiteboard, and for another event a large paper timetable had been prepared and put on the whiteboard. As an observer, it seemed quite clear that more preparation and effort had been put into the voluntary events given by the coconut farmers than the events given by the advisors on the PCA payroll.

It seemed that during the rest of the meeting and as people left, the farmers and advisers were too uncomfortable to get into conversation with me. However, I wanted to try once more to speak to the regional PCA adviser to show him this website, or at least to ensure that he looks at it in future to better inform himself of the critical issues. (I had emailed him several times before with information but had never got a response.)

Before the regional PCA adviser could get into his large shiny white 4×4 parked all day in front of the market, I ensured that he came with me to the town internet cafe a short walk away. He said he had email and tried to give me his calling card. I told him I had emailed him many times already, and it would just take a few minutes of his time to show him this website which he could find very useful.

He was evidently very uncomfortable in the small internet cafe with various young people looking at us. He insisted on standing as the system started up and the website appeared but at least he saw the yellow banner with a honeybee on it. He insisted that he had to go and once again offered me his calling card – I told him that he could always contact me using this site if he wanted and I would reply. He then hurriedly left the internet cafe.

(Any participants at the meeting are invited to leave a comment on the form below, but it is highly likely that the great majority of them will not have access to the internet – unlike the regional PCA advisor.)

Text to wife in evening…

“Hi. Am drinking and on the porch listening to crickets. Im afraid that talk that i gave earlier appeared to go home but there was no proper understanding since noone even asked questions that show glint if true understand. I just opened a chink but it closed within minutes. I can(nt) do ceranas unless i can get enough appreciation of the issues etc. I am planning to have a personal meeting in Cebu with the other.. scientist who is excellent link. We have to plan how to get the filipinos to understand the issues since the thing will not succeed if cannot get a big enough reinforcing filipino people with true understanding.” 12.31 am 18 Oct.”


This morning, after playing some basketball I took the two young filipino boys and their friend for a swim. We walked across the main highway from Dumaguete to Zamboanguita, and then down through the coconut plantation between which was growing thick shrubs of green invasive wind-pollinated weed. In the distance was a carabao and a man steadily plouging it up to plant sweetcorn. I explained again to the 3 boys the importance of understanding ‘pollination’, as we wound our way down to the beautiful sandy beach by the calm sea.

Along the beach we walked past a chilled-out bunch of idle Filipino men and past some stray dogs. (These two common and unsettling features are often cited as reasons why tourists are preferring to choose other Asian destinations.)

We walked a bit further along to a beach resort where earlier I had promised to give out some ‘awareness leaflets’ when they were ready. The lovely small resort had no guests, and there was a lady filipina receptionist with her child. She stood up to greet me, and I asked if the owner was around. She called across to a bamboo hut and a girl of about 20 appeared. She said – ‘Hi- we met when you were swimming by the beach!’. I said “Hi [N…], how are you?”. She said “Fine, how are you?”…

I asked her if the owner was in and she went with us to meet the lady Filipina owner. I had to explain how the leaflets could not be printed by the shop before I was to fly back to England.” She said ‘That’s OK’.

I told the two ladies that it was not OK really, and that I can right now give them some really helpful information that might improve their business. They said ‘OK – bye’ [I had turned as if to go.] I insisted that they write down this website name  [Later note: N… has since let me know that they have found the site very informative.]

After the 3 boys and I had our swim, we walked back past the 8 young filipino men under the shade by the beach. I say ‘Hi’ and they say ‘Hi’. I say ‘How are you? – What’s this big black thing flying around over here??’ A couple of the men about 30 years old ambled around the coconut tree trunk, and I point to a solitary bee visiting pink flowers on the sea shore. ‘Grasshopper?? – guessed one. I say ‘No, No, this here – it’s landing on these flowers – oh look look it’s going to that other flower?!’  ‘OHHH Boyoban!’ – he exclaimed. Then he showed a jabbing action on his bare forearm “It bite!”. (I say nothing to this for I expected this sort of reaction – even though it clearly was visiting flowers and not interested in ‘biting’ anyone.)

I say ‘What about those big bees? – You know – the ones which hang from the trees??’. ‘Oh Putyokan he says – you can get 500 for the honey!’. Ahh I told him my honey makes me a lot more than that – I show him the solar-powered divers watch on my wrist.’ He grins at me and I grin at him – and the 3 boys look-on. I say ‘Right now I can tell you how you can make some much better money!’ I look at his eyes and watch his face, and looked down at his ragged clothes, and then back up again into his puzzled eyes. I say in a steady clear voice ‘I can tell you right now how you can make much more money with my honey!’ He just looks me blankly in the face, and then I glance at the 3 boys and say ‘You know lads, we really must be getting back – I have lots of work to do.’

I amicably turn away from the blank-faced man and wait to hear if he says anything. He just turned back to his friends and went back to lie down in the shade.

On the walk back to our house, we go over some of the learning games which I hope will encourage them to be willing to ask questions and to be curious about the world around them, because I want them to live in a better Philippines and have better prospects.

Under the big fruitless mango tree I look down into their eyes. Now I want to ask you something – ‘What if the President of the Philippines told you that we are going to war with China?!’  I watch their faces. Angelo says “I can ask why”. Tonton says “I can ask how”.

I watch the eyes closely of Idny since I am most worried about his ability to develop an inquiring and intelligent mind. He used to be an incredibly bright kid who I played games with, and he used to be so inquisitive. The nameless methods of education used in so many schools to try and get kids to remember things is having such a bad effect on him. I keep watching his eyes and keep waiting and the other boys watch too since they know what this means. He keeps struggling but they flicker and he comes though as he tries to break out of the mind-lock: ‘I can ask Why and How’ he quietly says.

Note 2: Despite the circumstances described above, and also having been informed by both text and email of this post the regional PCA adviser has not yet responded by phone, text or email although he has access to all these means of communication. There may be several reasons for his inability or unwillingness to engage with the situation, but it is clear that the quality of the ‘advice’ given by the PCA advisors to the coconut farmers has some limitations that need review.

Note 3: Since the meeting I had many conversations with a wide variety of rural people in the Zamboanguita area (including a few who had been at the meeting) before I left on 1st November, and the interest and ‘open-mindedness’ is striking. Until just recently they tell me that they just did not know about the connection between bees and fruit crops – some had heard of ‘pollination’ but did not understand it. They themselves often volunteer statements such as ‘bees are very important’ to confirm their appreciation. On occassion a habal-habal driver tells me he has done some honey-hunting in the past but is interested now to help in some way (without expecting money).

Note 4: The printers could not print the information leaflets before I was due to leave the Philippines. Due to the many uncertainties with adequate and effective distribution after I had left, it was necessary to limit my personal costs and so I needed to cancel the printing. However, I believe that the PCA could cost effectively help the coconut and other farmers by funding the printing and distribution of such leaflets, since it is very clear that this information should be made available.

I appreciate that for some readers the events described will seem ficticious, but they are 100% true.  These events are provided as a snapshot of some key underlying problematic issues that are evident in many rural communities in the Philippines.

I also appreciate that my viewpoint is from the background of an English university scientific education and from my western teaching experience.  Even taking into account a different cultural context it is clear that there are ways in which the PCA could improve the effectiveness of the advice offered to the coconut farmers. The PCA are in an almost unique position of being responsible to millions of coconut farmers, and surely therefore have a duty to ensure that desperately needed and relevant evidence-based factual information is provided to their advisors and thereafter to the coconut farmers and their rural communities.

[The awareness leaflets offered on this website are ‘copyright free’ and can be amended if needed by the PCA and could easily be distributed at meetings very cost effectively. Black and white prints can be relatively cheap to produce. The existing evidence shows that there is enormous potential for catalysing some long-term agricultural, economic and social improvements in rural areas.]

Note 5: Added 25th November 2014. I am very happy to note that the Philippine Coconut Authority has responded positively to this post and is in the process of preparing awareness leaflets for distribution to coconut communities.

About Julian

Julian Wright is a British agricultural scientist married to a Philippine teacher, who has a house and some land planted to coconuts and other crops near Dumaguete in the Philippines.
This entry was posted in Apis cerana (Ligwan), Apis dorsata (Putyukan), Apis mellifera (European), Bee populations, Beekeeping, Crop yields & pollination, Educational materials, General posts, Honey hunting. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *