Final version of coco levy bill shatters farmers' hopes

MANILA, Philippines – Farmers’ hopes were shattered after Congress approved the questionable final version of the coconut levy bill on Wednesday, August 1. (READ: Coco levy fund scam: Gold for the corrupt, crumbs for farmers)

The coco levy trust fund bill or the Coconut Farmers and Industry Development Act was among the campaign promises of President Rodrigo Duterte. 

The approved version mandated the Philippine Coconut Authority to stand in place of the farmer-backed Trust Fund Committee to utilize, manage and administer at least P71 billion in cash and billions more in assets. The PCA is the agency behind the anomalous imposition of coco levy on coconut farmers under the Marcos regime.

The coco levy refers to the tax imposed on farmers under the Marcos administration but which was used to buy and invest in businesses of the late dictator's cronies.

"Gusto namin reconstituted PCA para isang overhead na lang. Kasi mahirap iyong maraming committee, maraming gastos. So sini-simplify namin iyong management, para less ang overhead para lahat ng pera mapupunta for the benefit of the coconut farmers,” Villar told reporters after the one-hour meeting of the bicam.

(We want a reconstituted PCA so there will be only one overhead. It is difficult if you have different committees, it means more spending. We simplified the management so less overhead, the money will go to the farmers.)

Farmers said the final version approved by the bicameral conference committee is similar to the original scam.

“Sa totoo lang, nangangamba kami ngayon sapagkat nakikinita namin na maaaring kailanganin pa ng isa pang batas para sa kanilang mungkahi na ireconstitute ang PCA kapalit ng Trust Fund Committee – ang nasa aming original proposal. Ibig sabihin, maaaring magtagal na naman ang aming paghihintay at pakikibaka bago makamit ng mga mahihirap at maliliit na magniniyog ang bunga ng coco levy," Kilus Magniniyog convenor Rene Cerilla said in a statement.

(The truth is we are now anxiously waiting because we foresee that there may be a need for a new law to accommodate their proposal to reconstitute the PCA in place of the Trust Fund Committee—the provision in our original proposal. This means our struggle might yet again be extended before poor and small coconut farmers gain benefit from the coco levy.)

"This is a dead law. It’s empty,” said Joey Faustino, executive director of the Coconut Industry Reform Movement (COIR.)

Faustino earlier told Rappler that farmers marched from Mindanao to Manila in 2014 to fight for the creation of the trust funds, only for such provision to be deleted in the final bill up for Duterte's signature.

Farmers opposed the PCA’s central role, citing the involvement of the agency itself in the coco levy scam. They also said that it would be hard for the PCA to focus on the complexity of the coco levy funds because the it is “overburdened.”

It was Senate President Pro-Tempore Ralph Recto who proposed to remove the provision creating the committee, which former senator Wigberto Tañada had called the “soul of the measure. Recto said creating another layer would just “bloat” the bureaucracy.

The reconstituted PCA would consist of 4 representatives from the government, one from the industry, and 6 coconut farmers – two each from Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao.

Other provisions

The final version also removed the fixed term on the life of the fund, as both the Senate and the House agreed to allow the existence of the bill until the fund runs out.

It also 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 bicam panel also set P5 billion as the yearly amount to be drawn from the coco levy fund. The P5-billion fund will be spent on: shared facilities (30%), scholarship program (15%), empowerment of coconut farmer organization and their cooperatives (15%), farm improvement to encourage self-sufficiency (30%), and health and medical benefits (10%).

This is on top of the automatic appropriation of P10 billion to the annual budget of the PCA.

Senator Francis Pangilinan, principal author and sponsor of the Senate bill, placed on record his reservations on the final version. He specifically opposed the removal of the 5-hectare limit and the deletion of the trust fund committee, among others.

"I cannot agree in that regard and therefore I have my reservations in respect to these amendments," Pangilinan said.

"I place on record that I would have wanted the bicam to restore some of the provisions that were not adopted in the Senate. In fact, it was in the House version, but now, it's no longer in the House version which is the perpetual nature of the fund and the creation of the trust fund committee," he said.

Aside from Villar and Pangilinan, others present in the bicam were Representatives Jose Panganiban Jr (ANAC-IP), Danilo Suarez (Quezon 3rd District), Arthur Yap (Bohol 3rd District), Sharon Garin (AAMBIS-OWA), Celso Lobregat (Zamboanga City 1st District), Manuel Sagarbarria (Negrs Oriental 2nd District), Edcel Lagman (Albay 1st District), Evelina Escudero (Sorsogon 1st District), Angelina Helen Tan (Quezon City 4th District), and Cecilia Leonila Chavez (Butil).

In his 3rd State of the Nation Address, President Rodrigo Duterte called on Congress to approve the bill. In 2016, Duterte promised to return the funds in his first 100 days but failed.  (READ: The politics of the coco levy scam: From Marcos to Noynoy Aquino) – 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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