Michael Lim Ubac, TJ Burgonio
Philippine Daily Inquirer
March 30, 2012
Farmers are threatening to mount protests unless President Benigno Aquino III breaks his silence on the contentious coconut levy fund after the Supreme Court ruling a year ago, which said a P60-billion block of shares in San Miguel Corp. (SMC) belonged to his uncle, Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco, became final.
“It’s sad that he has not spoken on the issue. He should speak up and tell us where he stands. We need him to straighten out the crooked ways of the Marcos regime,” Katarungan secretary general Danilo Carranza said by phone.
“Mr. Aquino should not make a distinction between farmers and his uncle when pursuing the ‘straight path’ (matuwid na daan) in governance,” he said.
The April 12, 2011, decision, has become “final and executory” and recorded in the Book of Entries of Judgments, according to a March 16 notice issued by Deputy Clerk of Court Ma. Lourdes Perfecto to petitioners and received by the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) on Tuesday.
A dissenting justice, now Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales, called the decision the “joke of the century” foisted on 3.5 million coconut farmers comprising the poorest of the poor Filipinos from whose toils a few cronies of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos amassed great wealth.
Senator Francis Pangilinan on Thursday also urged President Aquino to “correct this iniquitous situation wherein the largest contributors to the levy fund have not benefited from it and have remained poor and destitute.”
The petitioners—PCGG and farmers groups represented by former Senators Jovito Salonga and Wigberto Tañada—claimed that Cojuangco, in violation of fiduciary trust, borrowed funds from state-owned United Coconut Planters Bank (UCPB), of which he was then president, and six government oil mills to purchase 20 percent of the SMC stocks in 1983.
UCPB and the oil mills were acquired with the use of the levy, collected by the Marcos regime from farmers at an average of P60 per 100 kilos of copra from 1973 to 1982. The assets were sequestered after the dictator was ousted in the 1986 Edsa People Power Revolution while the PCGG pursued investigations of his ill-gotten wealth and that of his cronies.
Hold order urged
Carranza said the farmers expected the government to be as assiduous in protecting their rights to the coconut levy fund as it had been in running after former President and now Pampanga Representative Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who is facing corruption charges and is detained on charges of electoral sabotage.
While the farmers had lost the battle for the 20-percent block of shares in SMC, legally speaking, Carranza said the farmers were hopeful the government could devise a way to stay its transfer to the highly diversified conglomerate.
“Can the government take a stand for the coconut farmers? We’re asking them to take a stand, and say how they view this injustice to the farmers,” he said. “If there was an HDO (hold-departure order) against GMA, there should be a hold order on the coco levy.”
It is now the government’s call on how to go about this, he said.
In light of the court ruling becoming final and executory, farmers’ organizations would mobilize their members to protest the ruling before the high tribunal and the SMC by June, according to Carranza.
Funds clearly from farmers
“We’re aware of the legal manipulations in these cases. Somebody has to complain, otherwise, they’ll step on our rights. It’s ironic that this injustice is coming from a branch of government that arbitrates laws,” he said.
Vic Fabe, chairman of Pakisama, said farmers’ organizations had to meet to discuss further action on the 20-percent block of shares in SMC.
“Maybe there’s still a chance if we can prove that the decision by the justices is illegal,” Fabe said in a briefing Wednesday.
“We can’t say we’re giving up on the 20 percent. That decision is foolish. The fund clearly came from the farmers,” said Nestor Diego, a peasant leader.
Cojuangco’s 20-percent block in SMC comprised 494,881,157 common shares officially valued in January at P58.09 billion at P117.40 per share.
Another portfolio comprising a 24-percent block of SMC stock, designated as SMC-CIIF shares because it was acquired under the Coconut Industry Investment Fund in an elaborate scheme that involved 14 holding companies arranged by Cojuangco’s law firm Accra, is pending final resolution by the Supreme Court.
The high tribunal ruled in January that this block of shares belonged to the government to be used for the benefit of the farmers. The Philippine Coconut Producers Federation Inc., or Cocofed, has filed a motion for reconsideration of the decision, claiming the shares on behalf of 1 million farmers.
The court has shrugged off this claim, saying that the farmers which Cocofed said it represented were “faceless and nameless,” and worse, mere “nominal stockholders.”
In 2009, this block comprising 753 million common shares was converted into preferred shares pegged at P75 per share for a total value of P56.5 billion under a scheme pushed by the PCGG under the Arroyo administration and approved by the Supreme Court at a great loss to the farmers as SMC shares fetched as high as P180 apiece on the stock exchange. Dividends on these preferred shares had reached P8.8 billion as of January.
This 24-percent portfolio, plus other trust funds and treasury warrants comprising SMC shares, have a total value of P84 billion. The six companies in the Oil Mill Group have been valued at
P17 billion. In all, these assets acquired with the levy funds have a total value of P101 billion.
This money is the object of a trust fund being considered in the Senate and the House to protect it from corporate raiders and use it for the benefit of the farmers as the final resolution of the SMC-CIIF shares is being awaited from the Supreme Court.
Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, the author of one of the bills, wants to “liquify” these assets, let the government borrow the proceeds for development projects and use the interest to modernize the coconut industry and ameliorate the conditions of the farmers and their families comprising a quarter of the country’s population.
Although the coconut industry is the biggest export earner among agricultural crops, it has received little support from the government, according to reform-minded activists.
This is the segment of the population that lives below the poverty threshold of less than a dollar a day and allowed to fend for themselves with little government assistance while the levy funds cases dragged on in the courts.
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