Farmer groups oppose House bill on Coco Levy Fund

Published December 17, 2020, 6:00 AM

by Madelaine B. Miraflor

On the anticipated release of the P100-billion coco levy fund, another veto is coconut farmers’ last hope after the House version of Coconut Farmers and Industry Trust Fund (Coco Levy Act) was passed on third and final reading and turned out to be “worse than the Senate version of the law”.  

That, if President Rodrigo Duterte will not intervene before the law gets through the bicameral, where both houses of Congress will consolidate two versions of Coco Levy Act.  

(MB FILE, Keith Bacongco)

“I called the staff of Congressman Mark Enverga [Quezon 1st District and chairman of the House’s agriculture committee] to insert the provisions that we want in the bicam, but if this is not possible, this is the right time for President Duterte to veto the law again,” Pambansang Kilusan ng Magbubukid sa Pilipinas (PKMP) Chairman Eduardo Mora said in a phone interview.

“Another veto will be President Duterte’s best Christmas gift for us. Otherwise, the coco levy fund will just run out after being exhausted by different government agencies,” he further said. 

Joey Faustino, leader of the Coconut Industry Reform Movement, also said in a text exchange that following the passage of the House version of Coco Levy Act on third and final reading, coconut farmers now “intend to write an urgent letter to the President to tell him that this is far from what he had promised years ago”.

“HB [House Bil] 8136 mirrors the atrocious details of SB [Senate Bill] 1396, e.g apportioning annual allocations to government agencies, some of which do not even have any participation at all in the industry,” Faustino said.

   “8136 is silent on the obligation of the state to re-convey the monies in full, it merely says P5 billion on the first year. It is promoted by the Speaker to benefit small farmers but the provision on the definition of a farmer deliberately missed out the five-hectare limit. It is even worse than that of the senate. It’s simply a hoax and is bound to benefit only the government,” he added.

The passage and implementation of the Coco Levy Act will pave the way for the release of the P100-billion coco levy fund, which came from the taxes imposed on coconut farmers by the Marcos administration and its cronies from 1972 to 1981.

The Senate version of the law was passed in October this year and was equally opposed by coconut farmers’ groups.

In both versions of the law, a trust fund will be created where the coco levy fund will be deposited. This will be handled by the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA), which will have reconstituted board members composed of five government officials and three farmers-representatives.

The law also requires the PCA to come up with a coconut industry roadmap that will serve as the basis for fund allocation of coco levy.  

First, coconut farmers don’t agree that PCA can effectively handle the fund and they also think that it should be them who should lead the creation of the roadmap, said Rene Cerilla, policy leader of Pambansang Kilusan ng Samahan ng mga Magsasaka (PAKISAMA) and a farmer-leader from Lopez, Quezon.

Also, Mora argued that in terms of voting and making a decision on how the coco levy fund will be spent, farmers are already outnumbered in the PCA Board, having only three representatives.
What the farmers want now, according to Faustino, is for Duterte to intervene soon so he can “inject social justice to the law” and “so that he can finally good his promise”.

“Farmers want the bill to be passed a long time ago. This is a trust fund of coconut farmers, not the government,” Faustino said.

“Something needs to be done before the bicameral,” he added.

Otherwise, just like what Mora said, Faustino agreed that the last resort will be to call Duterte to veto the law again.

To recall, the previous consolidated house and senate version of Coco Levy Act was vetoed by Duterte last year, which also gave farmers hope.

Upon vetoing the bill, Duterte said the proposed law lacked safeguards and that its provisions “do not reflect our ultimate goal of accelerating the further utilization of coco levy assets and funds for the benefit of our marginalized coconut farmers and the coconut industry”.

During his state of the nation (SONA) last year, the President urged both Houses of Congress to pass a “more responsive version” of the law, which has not been fulfilled even until now.  

Meanwhile, PCA Administrator Benjamin Madrigal, Jr. said the passage of HB 8136 should be considered “an early Christmas gift from our President and our legislators to our coconut farmers”.

“PCA Management and the Governing Board strongly support and laud the vigorous effort by both houses of Congress and the current administration to finally pass this bill into law, after so many decades of waiting,” Madrigal said.

For his part, Omi Royandoyan, executive director of Centro Saka, said the House and Senate versions of Coco Levy Act are just “basically a privatization of both funds and the assets”.

On Monday, Business Bulletin reported the questionable provisions Coco Levy Act such as the annual allocation of portions of the P100-billion coco levy fund to several government agencies, some of which have had no participation in coconut industry development at all.

According to farmers, the annual allocations from the coco levy fund to several government agencies will “lock up the funds to several different bureaucracies that would further disenfranchise the coconut farmers.

Based on the farmers’ groups interpretation of SB 1396, the annual allocation of coco levy fund will be shared by the following agencies: Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) as the lead agency tasked to handle the fund; Department of Agriculture (DA); Department of Science and Technology (DOST);

Department of Trade and Industry (DTI);Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA); Land Bank of the Philippines (LANDBANK); Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH); and Commission on Higher Education (CHED); among others.

Such interpretation follows the utilization of the trust fund based on the actual provisions of SB 1396, which includes the development of shared facilities, crop diversification, empowerment of coconut farmers’ organizations and cooperatives, provision of scholarship programs, marketing of coconut products, creation of health and medical program for farmers, credit provision, infrastructure development, and training of farmers.