Coco levy fund: Duterte's failed promise

MANILA, Philippines – Two years into his presidency, President Rodrigo Duterte has failed to keep his campaign promise of returning the more than P75-billion coconut levy fund to farmers. (READ: Coco levy fund scam: Gold for the corrupt, crumbs for farmers)

In 2016, Duterte made a promise before coconut farmers that he would return the coco levy fund in his first 100 days in office. The coco levy refers to the tax imposed on farmers under the Marcos administration but was used to buy and invest in the businesses of the late dictator's cronies. 

Farmers hoped, waited, and waited some more. After more than 750 days, their hope – once so strong it prompted them to vote for the former mayor – has dimmed.

Duterte himself had signed a manifesto in front of coconut farmers, saying he would push for a law seeking to establish a trust fund for the management and utilization of the funds. 

Now, the bill pending in Congress is far from ideal for coconut farmers' groups.

The Senate and the House of Representatives already passed their respective versions. Yet, 4 months after their approval, the bicameral conference committee has yet to thresh out the major differences between the two versions, with panel members citing a lack of quorum.

"It was initially scheduled in July during the break but due to conflicting schedules, we had to move it. The soonest schedule will be after SONA (State of the Nation Address), a week or two weeks after," AAMBIS-Owa Representative Sharon Garin, head of the House technical working group, told Rappler on Wednesday, July 18. Garin has been pushing for the coco levy bill in her last 3 terms in Congress.

It's just a hiccup in the process, she said.

This is, after all, the farthest the controversial bill has ever reached since 1986. In the past 16th Congress, the bill passed in the House but failed in the Senate. (READ: The politics of the coco levy scam: From Marcos to Noynoy Aquino)

Yet, coconut farmers feel betrayed by the President.

"Nananawagan kami sa Pangulo na sa halip na paglaanan ng panahon ang pagbabago ng Saligang Batas ay tugunan niya ang pangangailangan ng mga maliliit na magniniyog. Maaari siyang magsimula sa pag-direkta na i-convene ang bicameral conference committee at ipasa na sa lalong madaling panahon ang Coco Farmers' Trust Fund," Jhun Pascua, convenor of Kilus Magniniyog (KM), said in a statement.

(We call on the President that instead of spending time on changing the Constitution, he should address the needs of small coconut farmers. He can start with directing that the bicameral conference committee must convene to pass the Coconut Farmers' Trust Fund bill immediately.)

"Iyon ay kung may natitira pa siyang katiting na 'tapang at malasakit' para sa aming sektor (That is, if the President still has a shred of 'gut and compassion' for our sector)," Pascua added.

Palace, Duterte ‘silence’

Joey Faustino, executive director of the Coconut Industry Reform Movement (COIR) lamented the lack of executive push on the issue.

He was there when Duterte and his running mate, now Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, told Quezon farmers that they would return the farmers' rightful money.

"Frustrating and depressing because I heard the person say it live. I was there. And he's doing nothing now that he [is] the President. The coconut farmers malungkot sila kasi naniwala sila (are sad because they believed him). They all believed that this President would not be tainted but turns out just the same," Faustino said.

"'Pag ako'y nahalal na presidente, ipagpala ng Diyos, ibabalik ko sa inyo 'yung coco levy (If I become president, God willing, I will return to you the coco levy). I will force the issue with Congress," Duterte earlier said.

At the time, Duterte even used the coco levy issue to distance himself from other presidential candidates, saying they could not make a stand because they were funded by former ambassador Eduardo "Danding" Cojuangco, the Marcos crony known to be the brains behind the fund. (READ: Danding, coco levy mess rile up Poe, Roxas camps)

"You all know some candidates cannot speak about the coco levy because the one spending for them is Danding. They are beholden. So how can they make a stand?" Duterte said in Filipino in 2016.

Months after, however, he admitted receiving campaign money from Ramon S. Ang, president and CEO of San Miguel Corporation – one of the companies bought by the coco levy funds – and a protégé of Danding Cojuangco.

The last time Malacañang held a technical working group on the coco levy bill was in 2017, said Faustino. After that, it's been silence from the Palace.

"Wala nang balita (There's been no news). What's worse is we noticed during the first months of President Duterte, there were 3 people we monitored talking about coco levy – Duterte himself, [Finance Secretary Carlos] Dominguez, and [Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel] Piñol. Why the sudden silence now?" Faustino said.

COIR and KM farmers have been asking Duterte to keep his promise and indeed "force" the issue with Congress filled with his allies. But so far, luck is not on their side.

"He's got a lot of campaign promises na hindi niya itutuloy (which he would not keep)… and maybe this is one of those," Faustino said.

They had requested that the issue be mentioned in his previous SONAs but to no avail. 

"We have been calling for him to mention it in his past SONAs. After two SONAs na 'di namin nakuha (that we didn't get what we were asking for), all the more we lose our hope," Faustino said.

"He's been doing it all along for other bills like the death penalty, lowering of age [of criminal responsibility], why not do this for his campaign promise, coco levy? He can exert influence. Kung gugustuhin, maraming paraan. Kung ayaw, maraming dahilan (A person who wants to do something will have many ways to do it while someone who does not want has many excuses)."

Anticipating deadlocks

The bicam is expected to be bloody, with major differences between the House and Senate versions.

The House is pushing for a trust fund committee to manage and supervise the funds – similar to what coconut farmers want. The committee will be composed of government and farmer representatives.

The bill removed the maximum 5-hectare requirement for farmer representatives, meant to protect the poor. In short, even farmers who own big businesses and corporations could still sit in the panel and have a say on the use of funds.

The Senate totally altered the essence of the original bill. Senators voted to expand the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA), instead of creating a Trust Fund Committee attached to the Office of the President. The PCA was the same agency responsible for the collection and misuse of the taxes in the 1970s.

It was Senate President Pro-Tempore Ralph Recto who pushed for the amendment, saying the creation of another committee would bloat the bureaucracy and delay the process.

The Trust Fund Committee would have granted farmers a bigger role in managing the P76-billion coco levy fund, together with government officials. 

Garin said this would be the heart and center of the bicam discussions on the bill. The House would stand its ground, she added.

"We're standing our ground because of so many consultations with farmers, academe. We have not had opposition in terms of the version that we had. We will stay with that. We'll see how to reconcile," Garin said.

Senator Francis Pangilinan, sponsor of the bill in the Senate, could only hope that the provision on the committee be restored in the bicam.

Another issue is the timeline, as the country nears another election year. The bicam has practically only until September to finalize the bill, as lawmakers would be busy by then in preparation for the 2019 elections. October marks the filing of their certificates of candidacy.

But Garin is confident the bill would pass this year. It is not Congress' character, she said, to throw away a measure that is already in the final legislative stages.

"Sana naman kasi 3 terms na ako, sana maiwan ko ito sa mga farmers (I really hope so because this is my 3rd term and I really want to leave this legacy for the farmers). Personally, I really want this done. I'm very hopeful. This is the farthest we've gone," Garin said.

NPC, Danding hand?

COIR's Faustino blamed politics and the influence of Cojuangco and his allies for the delay and the watered-down version of the bill.

Faustino said a bicam was set for May 29 but was later on postponed, supposedly owing to the election of Vicente Sotto III as Senate president. Sotto is a member of Cojuangco's political party, the Nationalist People's Coalition (NPC).

"We felt it agad (immediately) that this is what's going to happen. What could have happened, prior to May 29? All we could think of is the change in leadership, it's NPC. To us, the change in leadership sounded like things are not going to move," Faustino said in an interview.

Sotto insisted they had no hand in the delay and in Recto's amendment.

"Ang dami nga namin dapat tanong doon (We had many questions about the bill) but we didn't [ask them] because I supported the bill. We did not have any hand in the amendments... Their (farmers' groups) leaders were there most of the time," Sotto said in a text message.

Faustino also said majority of the bicam panel are NPC members and allies.

"75-80% of bicam on this bill is NPC, landowners, landlords... It's Danding's political influence," he said.

The Senate contingent includes Senate agriculture committee chairperson Cynthia Villar, and senators Recto, Pangilinan, Francis Escudero, and Joseph Victor Ejercito.

Villar, Recto, and Ejercito voted to remove the Trust Fund Committee while Escudero is a former member of the NPC and was supported by the party in his vice presidential bid in 2016. Rappler tried to get Escudero's comment but has yet to get a response.

Aside from Garin, the bicam members from the House include:

Lobregat's mother, the late Maria Clara Lobregat, is among the known Marcos allies who benefitted from the coco levy. Escudero, the mother of the senator, and Tan are members of the NPC.

Nograles and Lobregat earlier filed a House bill that wants a management corporation or a government owned and controlled corporation, not a Trust Fund Committee, to handle the management of the fund. A separate farmers' group, the Confederation of Coconut Farmers' Organizations of the Philippines (CONFED), known to be allied with Cojuangco, backs this measure.

Garin, for her part, claimed there were no attempts by Cojuangco or his people to influence the House.

"In the end this has been a priority measure.... Everybody just wants closure. I don't think, the SMC, even Cojuangco intervened in the drafting. I can speak for us, the House. 'Di na nakialam. Ang ano nito ay social justice (They did not intervene. This bill is really for social justice)," Garin said.

However, advocates and farmers who have long been fighting for the return of the coco levy funds – in the Supreme Court, in Congress, and on the streets – refuse to believe that.

All eyes are now on the bicam as they finalize the much-awaited bill. Farmers have no choice but to hope that it will finally become a law in the 17th Congress or until 2019.

If not, the bills would have to be refiled in both chambers. Many coconut farmers have already died waiting in vain.

As Ed Mora, farmer and lead convenor of KM, earlier said: "It's not like this issue only started 5 years ago. This has been going on for how many decades now. When will we get it, when all of us are already dead?" – Rappler.com

Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is a multimedia reporter focusing on media, technology, and disinformation.

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