Participants crowd around Ariel Arzaga of Brgy. San Miguel, Roxas as he sifts through a batch of freshly-roasted cashews coming straight from improvised ovens.

Residents of District I were given hands-on instruction on the proper techniques for shelling, processing, and converting cashew nuts into viable products as part of an alternative livelihood model.

The Cashew Processing Livelihood Program is a community service responsibility project of Palawan Electric Cooperative’s District I Director, Maylene Ballares, sponsored by Vivant Energy Corporation, Delta P. Incorporated, JCI Puerto Princesa Oil, and Palawan Producers Cooperative.

Running from September 6-8, the program aimed to show residents of District I an alternative livelihood that they could do at home. However, Ballares mentioned that the program was initially pitched to the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) as far back as 2019, and was only recently realized due to the pandemic.

Ballares was curious about the expenses of cashew production process, as she herself owned a cashew-selling business, and wanted to make sure that the resources for the program were of quality. “Tinawagan ko si DTI in 2019 kung pwede ako makameet ng trainer na nakakaalam on whole nut processing kasi ang roasting ay mahal. Di ko alam kung paano yung processing, bakit mahal?” said Ballares.

DTI recommended Ariel Arzaga from Brgy. San Miguel in Roxas, Palawan. Arzaga has worked in construction and as the chairman for the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program for the Department of Agrarian Reform in San Miguel, Roxas, but has been processing cashew and cashew products since 2005 as additional income.

Arzaga said he was eager for the chance to teach handmade cashew processing and indeed had waited years for PALECO’s livelihood program to commence.

Arzaga stated a need to pass on the knowledge of handmade cashew processing, himself being taught by his own aunt in his childhood in Brgy. San Miguel in Roxas, known as the cashew capital of the Philippines.

One of the 20 participants in the three-day program is Eva Fuertez from Brgy. Maunlad, was awed at the hard work and labor it took to produce roasted cashews, which was a favorite treat of her and her husband, and was eager to form a group with her friends to do the same.

“Pagkakakitaan naman namin ito pagkatapos, pwede pang hanapbuhay, kaya nagpapasalamat po kami sa PALECO,”  Fuertez said.

Fuertez said that, after day one of the program, she now understood why the cashews she bought from Cuyo cost P 1,000 per kilo. With a smile, she showed off burn scars on her forearm, that she didn’t notice until she got home from the first day of the program.

The burns come from the caustic sap found on the outer shells of cashew, which contain urushiol, an oily organic compound found in plants like poison ivy and poison sumac which can cause irritation to the skin.

Arzaga taught them how to properly shell the cashews by hand, and although the participants used gloves, Fuertez mentioned that she might have leaned on to the table too much due to her excitement on their first day.

On their second day of the program, the participants were taught how to extract whole nuts from the cashews using the kalukati (a hand-crank slicer) and a sikwat (a metal instrument shaped like a crowbar)- equipment which will be given to them, along with their cashew products, by the end of the program.

The third day of the program was dedicated solely to making products out of the extracted whole and split nuts from the cashews, cooked in improvised ovens made out of empty oil cans. Arzaga brought recipes and ingredients for cashew brittle, bandi, cashew candy, and cashew butter to be given to the participants.

Although there were more split nuts extracted than whole nuts, Ballares took it in stride, saying that the process was the most important thing that the residents should learn during the program.

Ballares, herself a member of the Palawan Producers Cooperative, was adamant that there will be no wasted material during the program, as JCI Oil Puerto Princesa was monitoring if the project was sustainable.

“Siyempre we know that cashew nuts is seasonal, kaya ngayon yung nakaipon na kasuy lang ang meron at yun yung pinagpapraktisan nila (…) at pagdating po panahon na ng pag-ani mayroon silang mabebentahan through the Palawan Producers Cooperative,” said Ballares.

The cashew shells were to be given to Menillo Rabina of Palawonder Research and Development, an inventor and member of Palawan Producers Cooperative. Urushiol is commonly used for anti-fungal treatment, and has been used to treat warts on skin.

Ballares also mentioned that 95% of cashew nuts produced in the Philippines came through Puerto Princesa City, although they now had international competition in Thailand and Vietnam, since they had automated cashew processing.

Ballares added that Leah Panaligan of Roxas also had an automated process for cashew extraction, but that “nothing beats the original, so sana yung original ay ma-spread natin.”

Arzaga as well noted that processing cashew is an art that has brought many jobs to his hometown, saying that nothing beats the satisfaction of doing something by hand.

“Hahanap ka talaga kung sipag at tiyaga lang. Doon sa amin medyo marami na rin ang umangat dahil sa kasoy, madami na rin ang grumaduate dahil sa sipag ng magulang para maglabor,” added Arzaga.