The past 12 months working on a government funded project about Pili (Canarium ovatum and luzonicum, Engl.) served as an eye-opener for me, forcing me to evaluate, re-think, critique, and even challenge the way I think as well as challenge the prominent “systems” at work within the Pili industry.
The project allowed me to visit some of the remotest areas in the provinces of Albay, Camarines Norte, Camarines Sur, and Sorsogon. It was a chance for me to witness the promise, potential, and challenges confronting the people, varied cultures, habitat, ecology, and industry that revolve around this spectacular fruit.
The project also gave me the opportunity to experience first hand how national and local government agencies connect (or disconnect) with the different communities and how decisions and programs currently affect the lives of people that make up the industry that revolves around this spectacular fruit.
The project also reinforced the constructs of a condition I coined a few years ago and published in a different blog on “democratic feudalism” where both powerful private and political personalities and their families use the loopholes in our system of democracy and government to further their interests and feed their greed forcing the impoverished to serve the roles of what I call modern-day “serfs” who are “fatally” submissive to every whim of “landlords” whether these “feudal (land) lords” be real or symbolic in nature.
In this first post, we need to first define what a system is before we go deeper into our discussion (by way of future posts). A system is simply how we function or how we do things and how we interact with each other and with our surroundings (socio-economic and socio-political) and environment. Clearly, based on our study, the Pili industry is not that different from other systems and industries that have already “made” it global. Besides the difference in product, the only other thing that differentiates the Pili industry from other high value crop industries (to-date) is the industry’s failure to evolve or break-free from the “how we’ve always done it” attitude and way of thinking into how big market players do business in our ever increasingly connected world economy.
The Pili industry is made up of several market layers (or market tiers) with assemblers making up the bottom tier of the industry. This bottom tier gets connected with end-buyers through micro-buyers and traders (also known as “compradors”) and between assemblers, micro-buyers, and traders, are a series of “commissioners” who mark-up selling prices with little to no material investment and who, incidentally add a substantial “price disadvantage to Pili” without providing any material value to the product or a differentiation to the services they offer the industry. Processors and retailers purchase their raw materials either from traders or directly from assemblers who make the effort of transporting their harvests to city markets around the Bicol region.
During my more than 12 months of study immersing myself in the Pili industry, I consciously took great pains to “see things the way they were” and not to view things using an existing view from known “industry experts” – giving me the chance to learn, listen, and hear an abundance of counterpoints consisting of a lot of “unspoken” conditions which have remained “unspoken” until now.
I will try to maintain a structure to my discussions (although this might be difficult at times) to help you draw the most out of reading these posts. So, allow me to share some of these observations with you…
An issue that needs to be immediately addressed and rectified is the perpetual impoverished condition of assemblers, who despite more than a decade of harvesting Pili, are still unable to afford even the most basic of necessities that are crucial to their health and that of their family. From the data I gathered on the ground, these farmers continue to be in a state of conflicting priorities and confusing assumptions. Assemblers often find themselves at the losing end of transactions and often also find themselves taken advantaged. Hearing that their elected officials are dedicating funds to help better their lives is not something new to a majority of assemblers. A good number of those we spoke to simply shrugged their shoulders but continued to extend their time to help our study hoping that this time something would happen. They are quick to state that these sort of programs only benefit a few key players and corrupt government officials. Despite this, they remain hopeful. A barangay captain of one the Barangays in Bulusan that we spoke to even told us that a lot of people have visited their town bringing with them false hope as these people apparently never returned to them nor did they feel, much less experience, any improvements to their lives and lifestyles, after securing whatever data they needed from them.
Interesting enough, they made me realize that they were very much aware of the millions of pesos allegedly poured into Pili programs to help them and their industry, and were quick to point out deficiencies on the part of national agencies in the way the funds were being managed, the poor and shady purchasing decisions, and often the wrong audiences these agencies have chosen to partner with. For example, most of those who participated in training sessions and received “Pili seedlings” were tenants who had very little control over what they could and could not plant on the land they are cultivating (if they had any to start with). They were also quick to candidly point out how some of the reports from national agencies about the industry are either bloated or completely fictitious. But despite their clamor, what is important is the lasting impression they left with me. I had the privilege of meeting people who knew no pretense, they were as genuine as genuine gets. Hands calloused, skin darkened, and faces wrinkled from working unprotected under the heat of the tropical sun with most bearing the physical signs of cuts and injuries from the hazards of harvesting Pili products, these assemblers warmly welcomed our study team with smiles and provided us with assistance and more importantly, credible and honest answers.
Another is the continued disparity between how national agencies perceive the industry and how key industry players view their industry, as well as how these key industry players view the different agencies involved in their industry. The key market players we interviewed openly showed their frustration and disappointment toward the various national agencies and bureaus involved with Pili. With businesses and investments hanging in the balance, they clamored for credible data that isn’t sugar-coated, to help them make sound business decisions. They complained about the pretentious and protectionist attitudes of the employees of national agencies who act as though the funds they dispensed were their own and not sourced from the coffers of taxpayers, and about the incredulity of data they provide the industry. The number of willing participants among the ranks of key market players in the industry who support developmental activities is rapidly diminishing as most already consider such activities as full of promises, pomp and circumstance, but lacking in substance and genuine economic delivery.
Yet another issue that requires immediate attention and intervention is the superficial and uncontrolled pricing (farm gate prices) assigned to Pili raw materials. As I had stated earlier industry players are operating to the disadvantage of the Pili industry as a whole. This pricing method is based on the “apparent” realities of supply and demand. They allege that the supply is insufficient to meet local demand while at the same time storing several hundred metric tons of the same only to release it when supply is at its most scarce. Instead of making supplies available to spur economic activity across all facets of the industry, hoarding becomes a standard practice thereby limiting benefit only hoarders. While hoarders claim that they carry the brunt of the risk, in reality, with a long term storage life exceeding 10 months and with minimal overhead costs to prepare the dried nuts for storage, and the fact that the demand for Pili is apparently increasing on an annual basis since 1998, these hoarders are exposed to very little to no risk. The pretense that engulfs the way of living and trading practices of hoarders poses a substantial risk to the continued viability of the industry as a whole. Hoarders are literally killing the industry and stunting its potential for growth.
But why is it so important for the Pili industry to break through? The long and short of it all is that the industry is a true-blue, sustainable economic channel that is will curb the trends of poverty as much as it is a genuinely environmentally conscious economic vehicle that imbibes environmental conservation. Unlike other programs, the Pili industry is made up of industrious people and is non-discriminating. It is comprised of men and women who understand the value of hard work and only need that their hard work be properly recompensed.
In general terms, the industry is very capable of making a substantial breakthrough but remains bridled and inhibited. What bridles and inhibits the industry is the unwillingness of market players to entertain new ways of doing things. On the one hand, assemblers refuse to change despite knowing that they are being taken advantaged because of the quick cash they receive from unscrupulous traders. Traders on the other hand also refuse to change because of the profit margins they have been enjoying for the past several decades that fund their jet setting lifestyles.
Inhibitor from Breaking Free
My observation is that the industry refuses to change out of sheer arrogance. Arrogance stemming from their flawed confidence that there is no other product that can replace Pili and that high quality Pili can only be sourced from Bicolandia. This however, is false as parts of Samar, Leyte, Batangas, and Negros Occidental are currently producing Pili and in the case of Negros Occidental, processing Pili products year round. Although industry proponents from Bicol are quick to criticize the quality of nuts sourced from other parts of the country that produce Pili, this criticism is subjective, and at best can only partly be true for food products but holds no material significance when it comes to using Pili as a raw material for non-food, but high value products (cosmetics, health and wellness, pharmaceuticals, and as an industrial raw material, etc.) and goods.
Market breakthroughs will only happen once industry players realize that Pili holds higher market value when processed as raw materials for non-food products such as for cosmetics, health, and pharmaceuticals; once the industry changes its market structure; and, once new economic channels are introduced that would make the practice of hoarding financially detrimental for hoarders. The industry needs to break free from the old system of trade if it is to breakthrough as an industry that produces a differentiated and globally competitive product.
In future posts, we will be dealing with each of the systems exhaustively and provide, toward the end of each, discuss possible solution models which the industry players can employ given the varying operating contexts, to better itself and the Pili industry as a whole.
We will also be posting important information about the various commercial applications where Pili or raw materials extracted from Pili is a key ingredient, market access and information relevant to the industry, as well as stories that will help readers develop their micro-enterprises into world-class enterprises.
Until next time…