Landmark coco levy trust fund bill hurdles Congress

MANILA, Philippines – After more than 4 decades, the coconut levy trust fund bill finally hurdled Congress, but farmers are still worried about the kind of law that would be passed. (READ: The politics of the coco levy scam: From Marcos to Noynoy Aquino)

Voting 19-1, the Senate on Monday, March 19, passed on 3rd and final reading Senate Bill 1233 or the Coconut Farmers and Industry Development Act . The House passed a similar measure in September 2017.

Only Senator Risa Hontiveros opposed the passage of the measure, citing the changes deemed to have watered down the bill.

Senator Francis Pangilinan, the sponsor of the measure, registered his yes vote “with reservations.”

Under Pangilinan’s original version backed by farmers, a Trust Fund Committee under the Office of the President, composed of government and farmer representatives, would be established to manage the P76-billion coco levy fund. This was the taxes imposed on farmers but ended up being used by Marcos cronies to invest in businesses. (READ: Coco levy fund scam: Gold for the corrupt, crumbs for farmers)

But Senate President Pro-Tempore Ralph Recto, with the support of the majority, amended the bill to grant a reconstituted Philippine Coconut Authority – the agency that was responsible for the misuse of the funds in the 1970s – the powers to supervise and manage the money and the industry plan.

“Ang Coco Levy Act na sana ang magtatama sa historical injustice na dinanas ng ating mga magniniyog. Sa paggiit ng Senado sa paraan ng pamamahala sa pondong ito at pagbalewala sa panukala mismo ng magniniyog, Mr President, my dear colleagues, muli lang natin silang ninakawan,” Hontiveros said.

(The Coco Levy Act was ment to correct the historical injustice that our coconut farmers experienced. But because the Senate insisted on this manner of managing this fund, and set aside the proposal of the farmers themselves, Mr President, my dear colleagues, we are robbing them once more.)

Recto also made the coconut farmers’ money subject to congressional approval for “transparency” – meaning, the funds would be included in the General Appropriations Act or the annual national budget. Farmers say this is against the Supreme Court ruling that the funds should be used only for the coconut farmers and the development of the industry.

“More than a year after we submitted Senate Bill Number 1233, we are now faced with an amended version that we believe is far from what we expected,” Pangilinan said.

“The negative consequences of such a process is that…the funds will be appropriated for programs and projects that may not be identified in the Coconut Farmers and Industry Plan. Mr President, sad to say, such prescription in SBN 1233 removes the essence of a Trust Fund. This, I believe, veers away from the Supreme Court rulings on the coconut levy funds,” he added.

Still beneficial?

Recto, for his part, maintained the Senate version would be more beneficial to the farmers, citing the automatic annual appropriation of P10 billion on top of the funds.

"I maintain there is no debate as to the need that the levies must now be enjoyed by the people who paid for it. The divergence is on how to plow it back. I vote yes to this bill because it mandates a system that will lead to the efficient use of public money," Recto said.

Coconut farmers, however, said the controversial fund would not be part of the government coffers in the first place if it weren’t stolen from them during the Marcos regime.

Ed Mora, lead convenor of Kilus Magniniyog, earlier told Rappler: “Sa totoo hindi kami plastic, masakit talaga sa amin 'yun. Ang pondong ito ay di kusang lumitaw para ibigay sa pondo kundi pinagsikapan ito ng magsasakang nagpoproseso ng pagkopra, hanggang sa paglalanggas, nabawasan ng buwis kaya nakaipon ng bilyong piso. Iyon talaga ay galing sa magsasaka.... Ang nangyayari ngayon di gustong pasalihin ang magsasaka…. Ang totoo, na-etsapuwera kami sa labanan na 'yun."

(Truth be told, we are not pretentious, it really hurts us. This fund did not appear in an instant just to be given to government. This was the product of hard work of coconut farmers, who were taxed that's why we have this billions of pesos now. It really came from the farmers.... What's happening now is they don't want to include the farmers.... The truth is, we were excluded from that fight.)

Now that both chambers of Congress have approved the measure, a bicameral conference committee would be convened to thresh out differences between the two versions.

Pangilinan said he is hopeful that lawmakers would see the “wisdom” of the original version, which he said was a product of consultation among farmers. – Rappler.com

Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is Rappler's lead reporter for media, disinformation, and democracy. She won an ILO award in 2017. She received the prestigious Fulbright-Hubert Humphrey fellowship in 2019, allowing her to further study media and politics in the US. Email camille.elemia@rappler.com

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