Discontent remains over coco levy law

Published March 4, 2021, 12:19 AM

by Manila Bulletin

President Duterte last Friday signed Republic Act 11524 creating the “Coconut Farmers and Industry Trust Fund,” using some P75 billion known as “coco levy funds” generated from taxes collected from coconut farmers, millers, refiners, exporters, and other sectors of the coconut industry during the Marcos administration.

The coconut farmers were taxed through various laws and levies through presidential decrees during the martial law years, The government collected P15 to P20 per P100 earned by the farmers in their sale of copra. By 1982, the coco levy funds amounted to P70 billion.

The funds were supposed to be used to develop the coconut industry, but they were instead invested in various companies of Marcos cronies, including big oil mills. Coco farmers’ protests grew and became part of the growing anti-Marcos movement in the countryside.

Farm leaders of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas said that during the campaign for the presidency in 2016, President Duterte promised he would “return the coconut levy to you at the soonest possible time.” In 2019, Congress passed a bill to manage the return of the fund to farmers, but the President vetoed the bill reportedly for lack of “vital safeguards.”

The new law which he signed last Friday still has no safeguards, said leaders of the Coconut Industry Reform Movement. More bureaucracies have been added, “while participation of farmers remains limited.”

Under the new law, P5 billion of a P75-billion trust fund would be released to the Philippine Coconut Authority on top of its regular budget. The amount of P20 billion would be placed in a trust fund to be managed by the government. All coco levy assets now in the name of the Philippine government would be sold within five years and the proceeds would go to the trust fund.

Under RA 115524, the investment of the coco levy fund would be handled by a committee composed of officials of the Departments of Finance, Budget and Management, and Justice. Rehabilitation and modernization of the industry is in the hands of a reconstituted Philippine Coconut Authority.

The group Sentro Saka had lobbied for equal farmer representation in all assets funded with coco levy funds. But the way the law has been designed, it said, there is no guarantee that farmers will benefit from the coco levy fund and assets.

There is thus this continuing discontent among many coconut farmers over the billions of pesos collected from them during the Marcos years. The huge amount is now a trust fund in the hands of a government body charged with the development of hybrid seed farms and nurseries, training of farmers, research, crop insurance, organizing cooperatives, scholarship programs, health and medical aid programs for farmers and their families.

It does not look like the farmers will get back the money taken from them during the martial law years. But they should be able to see concrete benefits to them from the projects to be undertaken by the reconstituted Philippine Coconut Authority.