House OKs bill creating trust fund for coconut farmers

MANILA, Philippines – Voting 216-7, the House of Representatives on Monday, September 25, passed on 3rd and final reading a bill that would create a trust fund for poor coconut farmers, based on existing laws.

House Bill Number 5745 or “An Act Establishing the Coconut Farmers and Industry Development Trust Fund and Providing for its Management and Utilization,” however, was opposed mostly by legislators representing progressive groups.

Sa matagal na pakikibaka ng mga magsasaka para mabawi ang bilyun-bilyong Coco Levy Fund na dinambong noong Martial Law at ang Supreme Court na nagdesisyon na dapat ibalik ito sa kanila, sa pagpasa ng panukalang ito, muli na namang ninakawan ang mga maliliit na magsasaka sa niyugan,” said Anakpawis Representative Ariel Casilao, explaining his opposition to the bill.

(In the years that farmers have fought to get back billions from the Coco Levy Fund that was stolen back in the martial law era and after the Supreme Court decided to give it back to them, the passage of this bill once again steals from poor coconut farmers.)

The Coco Levy Fund was created in 1971 under President Ferdinand Marcos and his cronies. It was a law that imposed taxes on coconut farmers’ products. The farmers were promised a share in the returns of investments using the fund. 

Decades later, poor farmers have yet to reap the benefits of their contributions. (READ: Coco levy fund scam: Gold for the corrupt, crumbs for farmers)

Legislation that would speed up the use of the coco levy fund is listed as an urgent measure, based on an August 2017 Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council meeting. It is also a priority measure in the House.

Returning the coco levy fund to farmers was among Duterte’s promises when he ran for president in 2016.

The bill, should it be passed into law, will compel the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG), an office created to recover assets stolen during the Marcos era, to conduct an accounting and audit of coco levy assets, including investments, disbursements, and expenditures linked to the fund. The Commission on Audit will check this report.

The recovered cash assets will then be deposited in the trust fund. “The Trust Fund shall be used exclusively for the ultimate benefit of coconut farmers and farm workers as embodied in the Coconut Farmers and Industry Development Plan,” reads the bill.

The bill sets the following conditions in the management of the fund:

A committee, which will oversee the implementation of the development plan, will be composed of 6 government officials and 9 representatives from coconut farmers’ organizations.

Genuine justice?

Bayan Muna Representative Carlos Zarate, who also voted no to the bill, said the final House version of the measure was very different from the version they had filed.

Sa katunayan ay nabaligtad ng HB 5745 ang makatuwirang kahilingan ng mga magniniyog,” he said.  (In fact, HB 5745 did the opposite of what the coconut farmers wished for.)

Hindi kinikillala ng HB 5745 na ang coco levy funds ay sapilitang kinolekta ng diktadurang Marcos mula sa mga magniniyog, at upang makamit ang katarungan ay dapat itong maibalik ng buo sa kanila,” said Zarate. (HB 5745 does not recognize that the coco levy funds were forcibly collected by the Marcos dictatorship from the farmers, and, for justice to be served, the entire amount must be returned to them.)

He added: “Ang laman ng HB 5745 ay mas nakatuon sa pag-agaw ng coco levy funds sa mga magniniyog, at pabalat-bunga lang ang sinasabing magiging pakinabang nila dito. Sa madaling sabi ay naging anti-magniniyog at anti-magsasaka po ang laman ng HB 5745 kaya namin ito tinututulan.”

(HB 5745 is focused on grabbing the coco levy fund from farmers; to say that they will benefit from it is lie. To cut a long story short, this bill is anti-coconut farmer, and that is why we oppose it.)

Zarate and Casilao are members of the Makabayan bloc, an alliance of progressive groups in the House. Once members of the majority, they recently bolted the bloc.

Another member of Makabayan also opposed the measure. “This government continues to malign farmers by non-acknowledgement of their struggle and denial of social justice they have been fighting for,” said Gabriela Representative Arlene Brosas

She added: "This is to be likened to the SDO or Stock Distribution Option of farmers in Hacienda Luisita in which the farmers did not really benefit from the imposed system. We want more participation from the basic sectors, therefore the coconut farmers should be given the full involvement to decide on the coco levy. HB 5747 continues to deceive and deny farmers and peasants of their right to coco levy fund. Passage of said measure will continue to bring injustice to our farmers.”

Counterpart measures are pending before the Senate. – Rappler.com