March 19, 2018

Mr. President, may I explain my vote.

On November 9, 2016, the Committee on Agriculture and Food, which I then chaired, came out with the original Senate Bill No. 1233, the proposed Coconut Farmers and Industry Development Act, which was crafted with the active participation of farmers organizations and their representatives from whom levies were extracted for their supposed benefit, the same farmers who have fought for about 40 years in the courts, in the streets, and now in this legislative hall to get justice, the same farmers organizations and their representatives for whom I am lending my one voice and one vote here in the Senate.

SBN 1233 was formulated with three major objectives in mind: (1) to create the mechanism for the mandates prescribed by different Supreme Court decisions on the disposition of some of the coconut levy assets; (2) to conform to governmental procedures on management and utilization of the available coco levy funds; and (3) to realize the aspirations of the coconut farmers on how the coco levy funds can be managed, invested, allocated, and utilized.

With these in mind, SBN 1233 proposed the establishment of a Trust Fund that is separate from the funds of the national government and dedicated for the benefit of the coconut farmers and the development of the coconut industry as ruled by the Supreme Court. The Trust Fund was designed, specifically, to be an off-budget source of funds for programs and projects identified in the Coconut Farmers and Industry Development Plan, which would necessarily be prepared by the coconut farmers themselves, with the ultimate objective of raising their productivity and increasing their incomes.

To manage, invest, and allocate the utilization of the Trust Fund, a Trust Committee was proposed to be created, composed of five government agencies and six farmers representatives, 2 for each island grouping of Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. The Trust Committee was also envisioned to manage the non-cash coconut levy assets, which includes property in Paris and is estimated to be worth about P30 billion, and to determine whether to retain or privatize, based on the needs of the coconut farmers these assets. The Trust Committee was supposed to be distinct and separate from the Philippine Coconut Authority, as we also recognized the challenges facing the capacity and capability of the PCA organization in achieving these concerns.

More than a year after we submitted SBN 1233, we are now faced with an amended version that we believe is far from what we expected. We had hoped that only minor changes would be imposed on our version. But unfortunately, the wish of the majority in the Senate, expressed and formalized through a vote, has to be respected.

As proposed and amended last Monday, SBN 1233 will have a Trust Fund that is not separate from the General Fund, it is a Fund that is now similar or the same to that of a Special Account in the General Fund, where monies or funds from the Trust Fund to be used for the ensuing year will have to be included in the National Expenditure Program and appropriated through the General Appropriations Act. The negative consequences of such a process is that, which I continue to hope would not happen, the funds will be appropriated for programs and projects that may not be identified in the Coconut Farmers and Industry Plan. Mr. President, sad to say, such prescription in SBN 1233 removes the essence of a Trust Fund. This, I believe, veers away from the Supreme Court rulings on the coconut levy funds.

Secondly, instead of a Trust Committee, the PCA Board was reconstituted to reflect, almost fully, the proposed membership of the Trust Committee. This removes the creation of a new but small bureaucracy, and absorbed the idea of having more farmers representatives in the PCA Board. For us, the creation of the Trust Committee and its small secretariat is a minor issue as we place greater importance in recognizing the multi-faceted nature of improving the lives of our coconut farmers and in promoting productivity and encouraging business enterprises for the coconut industry. As I have observed when I was the Presidential Assistant for Agricultural and Fisheries Modernization, and likewise ventilated by our coconut farmers, the PCA lacks, or does not have full capacity, to plan and implement multi-varied programs and projects affecting the lives of our coconut farmers.

Despite all of these, Mr. President, I am still confident and hopeful, that this august chamber, and its representatives as a Senate Panel to the Bicameral Conference on the Coconut Farmers and Industry Development Bills, will see and appreciate the aspirations of our coconut farmers, as well as their decades-long struggle, and the mandates of the Supreme Court rulings, and come out with a true Trust Fund that is special in nature, and outside the appropriation process.

Mr. President, and to my colleagues, thank you for giving the time and approving this Bill, so that, at the soonest possible time, funds can be made available to uplift the conditions of our coconut farmers, the poorest of our farmers, and immediately rehabilitate and develop the coconut industry.

With these sentiments, Mr. President, I vote Yes with reservations, hopeful that the Bicameral Conference Committee will see the wisdom of the original SBN 1233.