MANILA – Senatorial candidate Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan on Friday asked his fellow aspirants to commit to making the Coco Levy Trust Fund Bill a priority once elected into office, and let the 25 million coconut farmers and their families benefit from the P73 billion fund.
His call came after presidential candidate Grace Poe drew flak for blaming the Aquino administration for the delay in the passage of the bill. Poe critics have pointed out that the bill was passed by the House of Representatives last year and was certified as urgent by the President. The legislative measure remained with the Senate.
“Mga apat na dekada nang hindi napapakinabangan ng ating mga coco farmers ang pinundar nilang pera na kinamkam ng mga crony ng Martial Law. Sobrang tagal na ang paghihintay ng ating mga magsasaka (It’s been almost four decades that our coco farmers have not benefited from their contributions to the fund that Martial Law cronies have claimed for themselves),” Pangilinan said in a statement.
The former Presidential Assistant on Food Security and Agricultural Modernization, who was also concurrent chairman of the board of the Philippine Coconut Authority from May 2014 to September 2015, said there is an urgency to pass the bill as coconut farmers are among the biggest and poorest sectors of Philippine society.
Around 25 to 33 percent of Filipinos are dependent on the industry. And according to National Anti-Poverty Commission estimates, poverty incidence among coconut farmers is 60 percent.
“Bukod pa sa napakahirap ng buhay ng ating mga mangongopra, malaking bahagi ng ating mga taniman ay coconut farms,” Pangilinan said.
Government records show that of the total 10 million hectares of farmlands, 3.5 million are planted with the so-called tree of life.
HISTORY OF COCO FARMERS’ STRUGGLE
For a long time, the fund has been stuck in court disputes until the Supreme Court awarded in 2012 a 24-percent bloc of the Coconut Industry Investment Fund-San Miguel Corp. (CIIF-SMC) shares, bought with coco levy funds, to the government to be used for coconut farmers and the industry.
From September to November 2014, 71 coconut farmers marched from Davao to Manila to seek public and government support for their call to release the then P71 billion of the coco levy fund made finally available to them by the Supreme Court decision.
Acting on the coconut farmers’ appeal, in March 2015, Malacanang issued two executive orders that aim to give coco farmers access to their fund, detailing the judicious steps to be taken and the stakeholders involved in the process.
Executive Order 179 requires the “inventory, privatization, and reconveyance and in favor of the government of all coconut levy assets, including but not limited to the shares of stock in the United Coconut Planters Bank (UCPB), Coconut Industry Investment Fund (CIIF) Companies and CIIF Holding Companies, as well as the 5,500,000 San Miguel Corporation shares registered in the name of the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG).”
EO180 ordered the “immediate transfer and reconveyance of the coconut levy assets to the government and use them for the Integrated Coconut Industry Roadmap and the Roadmap for Coco Levy.”
In June 2015, the Supreme Court temporarily stopped the implementation of the two executive orders through a temporary restraining order.
In October 2015, the House of Representatives passed on third reading the Coco Levy Trust Fund Bill. The Senate only went as far as period of amendments even with the President certifying the bill as urgent.
‘COCO FARMERS NEED TO BENEFIT FROM THEIR MONEY ASAP’
The coco levy fund started as 55-centavo-per-100-kilogram fee collected from each coconut farmer beginning in 1973, purportedly to be used to stabilize the domestic price of coconut-based consumer goods like cooking oil. The Philippine Coconut Authority was used as conduit for these collections that increased to P20 in 1974 to finance the development of a hybrid coconut tree. Many coconut farmers who opposed or questioned the collected levies for which they did not benefit were harassed, imprisoned, and killed during Martial Law.
“Matagal nang pinaglalaban ng mga magsasaka natin ang karapatan nila sa kanilang pera, kailangang pakinabangan na nila ito (Our coconut farmers have long struggled for their right to their money, they need to benefit from this fund),” Pangilinan said.
“Tumatanda na ang mga magsasaka natin, nagkakasakit. Marami ang hindi napapaaral ang mga anak dahil sa kahirapan. Tulungan natin silang wakasan ang gulong ng kahirapan. Kailangan nating galangin ang kanilang matagal na pakikibaka at isulong ang batas na ito (Our farmers are ageing and getting sickly. Many are unable to send their kids to school due to poverty. We should help them end the cycle of poverty. We should respect their struggle and push for this law),” he added.
“Para rin ito sa kinabukasan ng ating bayan. Kung ang marami sa atin ay nananatiling mahirap, hindi uunlad ang bayan natin (This is also for the future of our nation. If many of us remain poor, our nation will not prosper),” Pangilinan said.