THE COCO levy trust fund law must benefit the country’s estimated 3.5 million coconut farmers, especially the smallholder farmers, Senator Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan said on Monday as the Senate continues to discuss the bill seeking to actualize the Supreme Court decision on the estimated P105 billion levy initially collected from them.
“Kailangang bantayan ang pagpasa ng batas na ito. Bagamat gustong-gusto na ng mga magniniyog na mapakinabangan na ang pondong ninakaw mula sa kanila, sinasabi rin nila sa atin na kailangang bantayan ito lalo na’t ang daming nakawan ng government funds na nangyayari ngayong pandemya tulad ng P15 billion sa PhilHealth,” said Pangilinan.
“Farmer representation is the heart of the coco levy trust fund measure. Pera ito ng mga magniniyog that’s why they must have a bigger say on how these funds are to be used,” he added.
In a consultation between coconut farmers and the Office of Sen. Pangilinan last Friday, coconut farmer Ed Mora of Kilus Magniniyog raised the issue of coconut farmer representation in the trust fund committee.
“Napakahalaga na mayroong farmers sector sa trust fund committee para kasama sila sa pagdedesisyon sa pera ng magsasaka,” Mora said.
Specified definition for smallholder coco farmers
In last week’s interpellation of the committee report under Senate Bill 1396, Pangilinan also raised several questions particularly on the absence of a limit on the covered land area for coconut farmers, which pertains to smallholders.
The President’s veto message stated that the version of the coco levy fund measure in the previous Congress “may disproportionately benefit wealthy coconut farm owners more than the smallholder farmers who desperately need the government’s affirmative assistance.”
“Baka hindi makinabang ang small coconut farmers,” said Pangilinan.
Pangilinan, who initially sponsored the coco levy measure in the previous Congress, mentioned that the Senate bill passed on third reading provided for the definition that a coconut farmer shall refer to an owner of a coconut farm that is not more than five hectares. Unfortunately, this provision was deleted during the bicameral conference.
In response, Sen. Cynthia Villar, sponsor of the measure, said the definition will again be included during the amendments period to avoid a repeat of a veto.
President Duterte vetoed the coco levy fund measure in February 2019 citing possible violation of the Constitution on provisions establishing a perpetual trust fund, lack of “vital safeguards”, and provisions which “may disproportionately benefit wealthy coconut farm owners more than the smallholder farmers who desperately need the government’s affirmative assistance.”
Then in his July 2020 State of the Nation Address, the President urged both Houses of Congress to pass the trust fund measure for the coconut farmers.
In 2014, the Supreme Court affirmed with finality the decision issued by the Sandiganbayan in May 2004 that awarded the 24% shares of San Miguel Corporation worth P71 billion (now estimated at P76 billion), which was bought using taxes collected from coconut farmers during the Marcos administration, to the government.
The same decision ordered funds to “be used only for the benefit of all coconut farmers and for the development of the coconut industry.”
“The coco levy fund is a product of injustice. Pera ito na kinamkam mula sa kanilang bulsa sa paniwalang mapapaunlad nito ang kanilang kabuhayan. We must right this wrong in our collective history. It has been more than 40 years and we must make sure the farmers have a voice in the planning, management, and utilization of the trust fund,” Pangilinan said.