For centuries, coconut oil has been used across the world in cooking and as a beauty cupboard must-have. Yet despite being treasured by many countries as one of their most magical exports, it’s only recently that the Western world has sat up and started to notice this exotic food.
Coconut oil is one of the most in-demand products right now. In fact, beloved by natives living in the South Pacific, India, Thailand and Hawaii, coconut oil and its many uses is now celebrated across the world.
Made in the Philippines
From reading your jars of Lucy Bee coconut oil over breakfast, you may – or may not! – have noticed that our oil is both made and produced in the Philippines.
Our coconut oil is certified Fair Trade and we’re passionate about supporting the area and everyone who lives there – and that’s why it’s so important to us that we learn all there is to know about these beautiful islands and their people.
The Philippines – Where Are They?
So, where are these islands? Based in Southeast Asia and close to both Borneo and Vietnam, the Republic of the Philippines is set in the heart of the Pacific Ocean. A group of more than 7,000 beautiful islands (although just 11 are populated), the capital of Manila is perhaps the most widely-known destination, although it’s the city of Quezon which is the most populated.
The Philippines themselves enjoy many highs and lows and, as with much of Asia, are islands of complete extremes. On the one hand, the country’s economy is booming and emerging as a real power player. Yet, on the other, nearly a quarter of the population live in poverty (the gulf between rich and poor is constantly growing, as you’ll soon see), while the threat of terrorist attacks is ever-present.
Hot and humid, the islands themselves boast stretches of stunning coastline, yet many are volcanic and covered in tropical rainforest and mountains. The Philippines also experience frequent earthquakes, with around 20 a day recorded. However, most of these tremors are too weak to be felt - the last major earthquake was in 1990.
With a population of close to 100 million people (compare this to the UK, which has just 63 million people living here), the islands are actually a lot busier than you’d think. Although the majority of people live on the Republic’s island of Luzon, this cluster of islands forms the 12th most populated country in the world. However, life on these producer islands is vastly different to our own, as you’ll soon see.
You may remember that, November 2013, the Philippines was hit by the devastating typhoon Haiyan. The typhoon – the deadliest natural disaster in the country’s history - killed more than 5,000 people and affected more than 10 million others. Winds of up to 195mph also destroyed millions of homes, businesses and livelihoods, wreaking chaos across the region.
Cities were torn apart, with entire neighbourhoods ruined. People were forced to queue for everything, from food and water to information about their families and loved ones. Meanwhile, hospitals were also damaged, meaning the ill and elderly were left to be treated in filthy conditions.
Sadly, it affected those in the coconut farming industry more than most. The coconut farmers saw their livelihoods largely destroyed by the typhoon, with more than 33 million coconut trees trashed by the winds. These same farmers are now massively dependent on aid – scarily 60 per cent were living in poverty even before the typhoon hit. This is why it’s more important than ever that we support these people, who are dependent on agriculture to survive.
Life in the Philippines
The islands are a perfect blend of both Eastern and Western culture, thanks to the strong influences of previous Spanish and US colonialism.
In fact, the islands are more like the Western world than you’d realise – the Philippines are, for example, the second most populous country (following the United States) with English as an official language.
Sometimes, thanks to the beautiful architecture, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were visiting Spain. The huge Hispanic influence also means that many Filipinos have Spanish names or surnames, while many cities, roads and rivers have Spanish names too. The people also hold traditional festivities known as barrio fiestas to commemorate the feast days of patron saints.
After these years of Spanish rule, the Philippines also have a massive Roman Catholic community. In fact, it’s the only predominantly Catholic country in Southeastern Asia, with more than 90 per cent of the country’s population Christian. Of these, 80 per cent are Roman Catholic and the other 10 per cent Protestant.
Much of the rest of the population is Muslim, the majority of whom live in parts of Mindanao, Palawan, and the Sulu Archipelago. There are also a small number of Buddhists, Jews, Hindus and Sikhs.
Meanwhile, the American influence is also felt across the islands, meaning that the English language is widely-spoken and used. The US influence is also seen in the Filipino love for Basketball, fast food, Hollywood movies and Western music.
In fact, the relationship with America is strong, even away from the islands. The Filipino community is renowned for its caring nature (they were among the founding members of the United Nations) and many move to America to train as nurses in the country’s hospitals.
So, what of the food? Well, like the rest of the Filipino culture, the cuisine is a perfect mish mash - a blend of the islands’ rich history, with Hispanic, American, Chinese and other Eastern influences. Also, unlike in many Eastern countries, Filipinos don’t eat with chopsticks and, instead, use cutlery.
Dishes range from simple fare, such as fried salted fish, to paellas. However, most meals are based around boiled or steamed rice, small amounts of meat or fish, and fresh fruits and vegetables. As you know, the country is also famous for its coconuts, although more on that below!
Thanks in part to exports such as electronics, copper, fruit and – yes! – coconut oil, the Philippines’ economy is ever-growing. Last year, the country’s economy surged by 7.2 per cent and is now the 39th largest in the world – it continues to boom, despite the typhoon.
In fact, the Philippines is thought to be the fastest growing economy in Southeast Asia, and the second fastest in Asia after China.
However, as a newly-industrialised country, the economy is slowly moving away from traditional farming and agriculture and is, instead, starting to focus more on services and manufacturing. This is helping to boost its status as a growing country, and experts at Goldman Sachs reckon that, by 2050, the Philippines will enjoy the 14th largest economy in the world.
Despite this – and the fact that the unemployment rates are little more than 7 per cent - the daily income for 45 per cent of the population remains less than $2. Yep, less than TWO American dollars. Just stop and think about that for a second - how would your family cope on that?
As you’d expect, both economic development and distribution of wealth also varies massively between regions, with Luzon (home to the capital, Manila) seeing much of the lion’s share.
Many of the country’s poorest people live in small, wooden huts in rural areas and rely on agriculture for their living. Crops can be grown throughout the year, and include sugarcane, rice, coconuts, bananas, corn, and pineapples.
Rice is the main crop (around a quarter of the total farmland is used for growing rice) and is grown across many of the islands and regions. In fact, rice production in the Philippines has improved, meaning that there is now often enough leftover to export.
The Coconut Industry
Moving on to coconuts and the Philippines is one of the world’s largest producers of coconuts, making these tropical fruits one of their major exports.
Thanks to our growing love of coconuts, the coconut industry is booming. In 2012, the Philippines shipped out more than 1.5-million tonnes of coconut products (including oil) to the rest of the world - a 1.5 per cent increase from 2011.
In fact, wander across any of the Philippines’ many islands and it’s likely you’ll soon come across a coconut. Incredibly, a quarter of all cultivated land is dotted with coconut trees, meaning that around a third of the population is partly dependent on coconuts for their livelihood.
The coconut farmers haven’t always enjoyed working to huge demand, though. Coconut prices plummeted in the early 1980s, which was bad enough news for the farmers as it was. However, worse was to come as the United States spelled out catastrophe for the industry in 1988. The Americans – advised by nutritionists and experts - drew up new laws which forced foods using tropical oils to be labelled indicating the saturated fat content.
Of course, thanks to the boom in low-fat diets, this saw many shun coconut oil for years and years. It almost destroyed an already ailing industry, leading to protests from coconut growers, furious that similar requirements were not forced on oils produced in temperate climates.
We all know, the rest, though – and, thankfully, it’s happy news. Thanks to our ever-growing love for all things coconut, the farmers are starting to see a surge in demand. As early as 1995, the production of coconut in the Philippines saw a 6.5 per cent growth, surpassing Indonesia as the biggest coconut producer in the world.
Poverty remains a huge problem for many living in the Philippines, particularly for those living in rural communities.
As we already mentioned, the daily income for 45 per cent of the population of the Philippines remains less than $2, forcing many of those (almost 23 million, in fact) living in urban areas into slums.
In fact, around 20 per cent of the Filipino population falls below the poverty line, with 80 per cent of these people living in rural areas. For those living in these communities, agriculture is the main (and often only) source of income, meaning many depend on farming and fishing to support their families.
Those who are living in poverty tend to live in cramped and crowded homes which are packed with extended family. In fact, households of 8 or more members represent nearly a third of all the poor. You see, there’s a serious housing shortage in the Philippines, particularly in the capital of Manila. Although most live in their own homes, many houses lack basic facilities needed for health and sanitation, such as access to clean water.
To make the problem worse, the typhoon damaged huge parts of the Philippines, leaving much of the country in even more poverty. Many now live in shanty towns and rely on aid for food and water.
The coconut farms were hit particularly hard, with millions of trees destroyed by the extreme winds. Many fishermen were also left without a source of income, with the storm surge devastating 30,000 boats.
At the end of 2013, more than 29 per cent of the typhoon-affected population was dependent on food assistance, with more than a quarter sometimes going the whole day without eating.
As you now know, the Philippines has a rich culture, thanks to the islands’ ever-present Spanish and American influences. Why is this? Well, it’s all in the politics…
Before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century, most Filipinos lived in small, independent villages called barangays. These villages were ruled by local kings known as datus.
However, in the early 1500s, the famous explorer Ferdinand Magellan arrived on the islands and oversaw the beginning of Spanish colonisation. In fact, the islands themselves were named after Philip II of Spain, a 16th century Spanish king.
The Philippines then became part of the Spanish empire for more than 300 years, before the islands were taken over by America in the early 20th century. This came after a long rebellion against rule from Madrid, although independence was soon to follow.
Soon, after World War Two – and after a decade of self-rule - the Philippines was finally recognised as an independent nation, although the country remains close allies with America. What followed was a huge economic spurt and a flourishing democracy, but this started to crumble when President Ferdinand Marcos - a close ally of the US – came to power in the 1960s.
Despite initial public support, Marcos was a corrupt and repressive president, whose rule saw his country falter. President Marcos was accused of embezzling billions of dollars of public funds, but worse was to come – he imposed martial law in the 1970s, which eventually led to political repression, censorship, and human rights violations. Millions of Filipinos in this time lived in poverty.
Eventually, among growing public discontent and poor economic growth, the People Power Revolution – a bloodless uprising saw Marcos fall.
The country has remained a democracy ever since, with an American-style presidential system now in place. However, the political system has been hampered by problems and still is to this day.
In just 2001, President Joseph Estrada was forced out of office after protests at his corrupt rule, while there were a number of coup attempts against his successor, Gloria Arroyo, whose administration was wrought with political scandals.
Meanwhile, on the Republic’s southern island of Mindanao, rebels fought for a separate Islamic state (the country is largely Catholic). This 40-year conflict led to the death of more than 120,000 people, although a peace deal was reached in 2012 and paved the way for greater Muslim independence in the area.
However, although they’re close allies with the US on the war on terror, the Philippines remains at an ever-growing risk of terrorist attacks, thanks to various rebel organisations.
Scarily, there are four major terrorist organisations active in the Philippines today: The Moro National Liberation Front, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Abu Sayyaf and the New People's Army. The first three are Islamic groups based in the south, where most of the Muslim population live. However, the guerrilla group Communist New People's Army operates in the north and fights a long-running battle with the government.
Since 2000, there have been more than 40 major bombings carried out by Islamic groups, although they have mainly been in the southern regions of Mindanao, Jolo and Basilan. For this reason, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advise against all travel to south-west Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago.
The country is now divided into several dozen provinces, which are grouped into a number of larger regions. The National Capital Region (Metro Manila) has special status and the country is currently ruled by President Benigno Aquino III.
With many of us hitting nursery, pre-school and then school from pretty much the word ‘go’ (and that’s without even thinking about college or Uni), we often take our education system for granted here in the UK. Yet however much you hear it, that old cliché is true - not everyone’s as lucky as we are.
This rings true in the Philippines, where the education system isn’t always up to scratch, even though it’s compulsory from the ages of 6 to 12 (this, despite the fact that among 6-year olds, 14.5 per cent are not in school and 25 per cent are still in preschool). This is largely due to poverty, lack of awareness, and long distances to schools.
The education system there is largely modelled on the American high school system, with many children taught English as their main language. Yet despite the country’s government working alongside UNICEF to boost education levels – and the fact that education is free - there’s still a lot to be done.
Take, for example, child labour. We hear so much about it in the press, but the reality is shocking - in 2011, there were 5.59 million children in labour between the ages 5-17 (19% of the total relevant age population) in the Philippines. Despite access to free education, there were 1.5 million children of school age out of school in 2009.
Class sizes on the islands also tend to be large, partly due to a severe lack of teaching material and poorly paid teachers. In fact, the government has mostly focused on the primary education sector and has failed to fund the entire education system properly.
There are also soaring dropout rates among schoolkids in the region, with an increasing equality gap among students. UNESCO, for example, revealed in 2009 that children in the poorest 20% of the population receive ﬁve years less education than children from the wealthiest families.
In fact, the World Bank revealed that, in Filipino children aged 9 to 14, levels in Maths, Science and reading remain two levels below that of the international average. Education levels even vastly differ across the region, with almost 100% of students finishing school in Manila, but less than 30% graduate from school in Mindanao and Eastern Visayas.
The United Nations even revealed that the Philippines was the only country in the region for which youth literacy rates plummeted between 1990 and 2004.
Meanwhile, just 2.5% of the country’s GDP is spent on education – less than half that we spend here in the UK. This means there’s still a huge gulf in education levels between the Republic and the Western world.
However, things aren’t all bad. The Philippines’ National Statistics Office says that 93.4% of its population enjoy basic literacy skills, with primary education reaching most of the population. Many of the cities also enjoy good schools and education systems. In fact, many Filipino academics have gone on to graduate from US universities earned graduate degrees from U.S. universities.
As with most things, the health system in the Philippines varies massively, depending on wealth and status. While some of the hospitals in Manila are of Western standards, many rural areas don’t have access to basic healthcare at all, with many simply having to go without. And with the national health budget just $7 per person (Only 3.8 per cent of GDP is spent on healthcare, compared to 9.8 per cent in the UK) there’s only one hospital bed for every 769 people.
This stat is terrifying when you think about the stress which Typhoon Yolanda – the country’s worst ever natural disaster - put on the Philippines’ healthcare system. The typhoon wreaked utter devastation on the nation, with 582 public health facilities damaged or destroyed.
The typhoon has also led to widespread disease and illness – including mental health problems - with many families traumatised from the loss of loved ones or their homes. Many of these same families now have little or no access to clean drinking water, while support and nutrition for pregnant women also remains an issue.
Dr Julie Hall, the World Health Organisation’s rep for the Philippines, said: "Six months after the event, we are seeing the emergence of mental health problems in communities with people coming to terms with the enormity of their loss, whether of loved ones, homes or livelihoods.
"The WHO has been training local health workers in psychological first aid and community based mental health care to help address physical and mental health needs. We are also funding activities aimed at supporting the thousands of people disabled as a result of injuries caused by the Typhoon."
However, life expectancy rates in the Philippines remain fairly high at 69 years old (this compares well to the global average of 70). In fact, many consider the healthcare system in the country to be of a ‘good’ standard, thanks in part to the number of medics who have studied at American universities.
Much of the nation’s healthcare is provided privately (60 per cent of the country’s hospitals are privately-owned), although medicine is – for the most part – affordable to many. In fact, the Philippine government is required by law to offer basic healthcare – free at point of use - to all its citizens.
However, in many parts of the Philippines, disease is still rife. Relatively common illnesses, including diarrhea, influenza, chickenpox, measles and malaria, remain some of the most common causes of death in the country. Meanwhile, Tuberculosis (although cases have fallen by almost half in the last two decades), Typhoid, Cholera and the mosquito-borne Dengue are a big problem for many.
Due to lack of support, food, and money, many children also remain at danger of being malnourished. This problem grew dramatically following last year’s typhoon, with UN workers estimating that a huge 1.5 million children are now at risk of being malnourished in the area.
In fact, in 2011, the WHO revealed that 20.2 per cent of all children in the Philippines were classified as ‘underweight’. Meanwhile, children who are below the average height-to-age ratio remain at 30 percent. This comes despite government promises to end poverty and ‘extreme hunger’ by 2015.
Heartbreaking, isn’t it? Yet it’s impossible to bury your head in the sand - where two in ten children are currently undernourished.
How We Support Them
As you’ve now seen, life in the Philippines is pretty different to our own.
Take, for example, access to clean, safe, drinking water. In the Western world, we don’t even think about where our water comes from when we head to the tap for a glass, or to fill the kettle. It’s safe to say that many of us take it for granted. Yet, for many Filipinos, particularly those in rural communities across Mindanao, access to safe drinking water can be a matter of life and death.
Water in these areas is often filled with dirt and disease, all of which can cause severe illnesses. These waterborne illnesses are one of the leading causes of infant and small children's deaths.
However, there are many – like us – who are starting to lend a hand. Lucy Bee Coconut Oil’s Fair Trade premium has helped to build two wells, giving villagers access to safe water. With very little public transportation and limited access to health care, these simple hand-operated wells lessen the hardship of 200 people and may save many young lives.
How Does Fair Trade Work?
What many people don’t see is just how much we want to help. We’re passionate about reaching out and supporting these communities and helping to save lives, or change communities for the better. You see, Lucy Bee could buy the same products for less, but we (and we hope you) want to make a difference.
Our coconut products are all certified Fair Trade by the Fair Trade Sustainability Alliance (FairTSA) and the coconuts grow in agroforestry. Here tthe crops are grown among the natural tropical vegetation as this is one of most environmentally-friendly production systems around. Not only does agroforestry contribute to soil fertility, but it also leads to cleaner water and allows for other crops to be grown between the coconut trees.
So, how else do we help? Well, the coconut farmers our oil is supplied from are paid a fair price for the fruits they supply (around 7 per cent higher than they’d be paid by competing companies), with the price premium for our coconut oil helping to fund sustainable community development projects.
Because our oil is Fair Trade, all workers also earn at least minimum wage and are promised safe working conditions. These workers can also join trade unions, or organise themselves into the same unions.
The Barangays Project
Our initial stocks of Fair Trade Coconut Oil helped to fund the drilling of two wells in the Barangays (villages) of Concepcion, north of Butuan City, and Camanga, south-east of Butuan City.
Before the project started, it took the villagers up to two hours to fetch drinkable water. Next time you wander to the kettle for a cuppa, think of that…
With our help, by October 2012, the first well in Barangay Concepcion had been drilled. By early November, as is custom in the Philippines, the completed well was blessed in an inauguration ceremony in the presence of many villagers and some employees of the firm
The second well has now been completed in Barangay Camanga. The producer communities will soon meet to find the next community project so that, step by step, we can make difference in the life of these villagers.
Not only can they be proud that their work is compensated fairly, but they also have a voice in creating a community they can shape according to their needs.
Read Lucy's blog about going to the Philippines and seeing fair trade in action here.
About Lucy Bee
Lucy Bee is a lifestyle brand selling food, skincare and soap products all completely free from palm oil and with minimal use of plastic. Lucy Bee is concerned with Fair Trade, organic, ethical and sustainable living, recycling and empowering people to make informed choices and select quality, natural products for their food and their skin.