Farmers say justice ‘remains elusive after 40 years’

Published March 1, 2021, 6:00 AM

by Madelaine B. Miraflor

On signing of Coco Levy Act

The Coconut Farmers and Industry Trust Fund Act or Coco Levy Act, which will result in the release of the P100-billion coco levy fund, has now been signed by President Rodrigo Roa Duterte, but its supposed beneficiaries are claiming that no justice or campaign promise has been served.  

“Social justice on the coco levy issue remains elusive after more than 40 years,” said Joey Faustino, leader of the Coconut Industry Reform Movement.

The coco levy fund is the taxes collected from coconut farmers by the Marcos administration and its cronies from 1972 to 1981.  

(MB FILE, Keith Bacongco)

Duterte signed the act Friday night, or a few days before the Coco Levy Act will lapse into a law, which has been pending in his office since January of this year.

The law, now Republic Act (RA) 11524, orders the Philippine government to dispose of P75-billion worth of coco levy assets in the next five years to establish a trust fund for the benefit of the coconut farmers and the development of the industry.

Under RA 11524, only coconut farmers who own not more than five hectares of coconut farm shall benefit from the coco levy fund distribution.

Unfavorable provisions

RA 11524 is the senate version of the Coco Levy Act or Senate Bill 1396, which House of Representatives decided to adopt in December as an amendment to House Bill 813.

Following this move by House, Kilusan para sa Ugnayan ng mga Samahang Magniniyog (KILUS Magniniyog), which is a massive organization of different farmers’ groups in the country, immediately wrote a letter to Duterte, appealing to veto the Coco Levy Act because of its unfavorable provisions. 

Before the bills were separately passed on third and final reading last year, KILUS Magniniyog also sought for a meeting with senators and congressmen regarding their concerns about the proposed law but to no avail.

“His campaign promise? PRRD apparently vetoed the lesser bad version of the 17th Congress to sign and approve a worse version of the 18th Congress,” Faustino said over the weekend.

To recall, the Coco Levy Act was first passed in 2019, but Duterte vetoed it because it 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”.

One of the unfavorable provisions of RA 11524 is the lack of farmers’ representation in the reconstituted Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) Board, which will oversee the disbursement of the coco levy fund.
Under the law, the PCA Board will be composed of Department of Agriculture (DA) Secretary as Chairperson; Secretary of the Department of Finance (DOF) as Vice Chairperson; Secretary of the Department of Budget and Management (DBM); Secretary of the DOST; Secretary of DTI; and PCA Administrator.

Then only three members from the coconut farmers sector (one each from Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao) will be part of the board.

Pambansang Kaisahan ng Magbubukid sa Pilipinas (PKMP) Chairman Eduardo Mora earlier told Business Bulletin 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.

Rene Cerilla, policy leader of Pambansang Kilusan ng Samahan ng mga Magsasaka (PAKISAMA) and a farmer-leader from Lopez, Quezon, also believes that it shouldn’t be PCA that should draft the Coconut Farmers and Industry Development Plan, which should serve as a guide on how to utilize a portion of the coco levy fund. 

As is indicated in RA 11524, PCA should come up with such a roadmap and should have it approved by the President. As part of the process, the agency must consult with coconut farmers.

Cerilla, however, said that it should be the other way around and that farmers should be the ones that will lead the creation of the roadmap because they know what is best for the industry. 

Another provision of the RA 11524 that is deemed unfavorable to coconut farmers is the annual allocation of portions of the coco levy fund to several government agencies, some of which have had no participation in coconut industry development at all.

According to KILUS Magniniyog, 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 RA 11524, the annual allocation of coco levy fund will be shared by the following agencies: PCA as the lead agency tasked to handle the fund; 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.

These agencies are then ordered to take into account the distribution of the annual allocation of the coco levy trust fund, which shall be used for the construction of shared facilities for processing (10 percent); farm improvement through diversification and/or intercropping such as projects on livestock, dairy, poultry, coffee, cacao production (10 percent); development of hybrid coconut seed farms and nurseries, to encourage self-sufficiency (10 percent); and empowerment of coconut farmer organization and their cooperatives (10 percent).

The allocation also includes the provision of scholarship program (10 percent); health and medical program, ten percent (10 percent); credit provision (10 percent); infrastructure development (10 percent); training of farmers in farm schools (10 percent); and planting and replanting (10 percent)”.

Federation of Free Farmers (FFF) Board Chairman and former Agriculture Secretary Leonardo Q. Montemayor questioned such allocation, particularly the one on coconut planting/replanting, fertilization, and intercropping.

He said these are already among the regularly funded programs of the national government.

“In effect, coconut farmers will now be made to finance these programs themselves, inasmuch as the coconut levies were collected from them in the first place,” Montemayor said.

In December last year, amid the growing opposition against the Coco Levy Act, Agriculture Secretary William Dar has made an appeal to coconut farmers to give the law a chance.

“My view is that maybe we should give it a chance…. And let the law be implemented properly,” Dar said.

He also said that the immediate passage of the Coco Levy Act will help revive the country’s coconut industry, which is now “a sleeping giant”.

In the end, Faustino said that “with deepest sympathy, we accept the passing of the Coconut Farmers and Industry Trust Fund Act”.

COIR is part of Kilus Magniniyog, which includes members from Pambansang Kilusan ng mga Samahang Magsasaka (PAKISAMA), Pambansang Katipunan ng mga Makabayang Mambubukid (PKMM), Kalipunan ng Maliliit na Magniniyog ng Pilipinas (KAMMPIL), among others.