No farmers' say in coco levy funds? Pangilinan, Recto clash

MANILA, Philippines – Senators are set to vote Tuesday, March 6, on whether or not farmers should have a representation in the handling and supervision of the more than P80-billion coconut levy funds or taxes imposed on them during the Marcos administration. (READ: Coco levy fund scam: Gold for the corrupt, crumbs for farmers)

This stemmed after a deadlock between Senator Francis Pangilinan, sponsor of Senate Bill 1233, and Senate President Pro-Tempore Ralph Recto.

Recto wants the deletion of the Trust Fund Committee, which under Senate Bill 1233 includes 5 government officials and 6 farmers representatives. But Pangilinan opposed it.

On February 26, Recto argued that the creation of another agency under the Office of the President would "bloat the bureaucracy" and said the Department of Finance (DOF) and the Bureau of Treasury (BTr) could instead do the committee's task.

Pangilinan argued: "We understand where the good senator is coming from. But in this case, however, the committee representation includes farmers representatives. We believe they have to have greater role in the disposition, investments of the fund."

But Recto, pointing out an earlier amendment of Senator Cynthia Villar, said: "All funds anyway would be invested in government securities (with less risk), no need for investment guidelines." 

"Let us assume, for the sake of argument, what would a farmer know with regard to the timing of the securities so on and so forth?"

Pangilinan said: "We will concede that a farmer may not necessarily be an expert in this particular aspect of determining an investment plan. However, it is their fund.… In the interest of transparency and to ensure that the farmers representatives are present when these funds are invested, there would be greater chance at least of the fund not being misspent."

February 28 debate: Soul of the measure?

Pangilinan said he still could not accept the proposed amendment, especially after consulting with coconut farmers' groups, including former senator Bobby Tañada and former Quezon representative Oscar Santos.

"After consulting with them earlier, including Senator Boby Tañada, he said the farmers' representation in this committee, you can liken it to the soul of the measure. The tragedy of the coco levy fund was that it came from the farmers and yet today, because of their non-involvement in decision-making, it has led to billions being collected and yet farmers remain impoverished," Pangilinan noted.

But Recto said: "When it comes to diagnosing the ills, I share the same findings with my colleague. 9/10 live below poverty line... Kung sino pa ang magniniyog, siya pa ang 'di makabili ng kahit isang kutsara ng mantika (It's the coconut farmers themselves who can't buy even a spoonful of cooking oil)."

Despite pushing for the deletion of the committee, Recto said: "'Di natin sinasabi dito [na] do not consult the farmers, hindi natin sinasabi 'yun (We're not saying do not consult the farmers. We're not saying that)."

Pangilinan, defending the need for the committee, said it has many other roles aside from providing investment guidelines.

Under the bill, the committee would have the authority to supervise the implementation of the Coconut Farmers and Industry Plan, approve disbursement from the fund, exercise ownership of the Coconut Levy Assets, and approve actions from other agencies on the sale and disposition of assets, among others.

"If we, as proposed delete the committee, and in place have the DOF and [BTr] decide on the investments, the investment itself is just one of the powers of the committee. The decision to privatize the oil mills is also a power lodged with the committee. Approving disbursements is also lodged, the sale and disposition of these assets, and therefore we see the need for farmers' representation [on] the committee and not just leave these powers to the government."

Coconut Industry Reform Movement, in a statement, sided with Pangilinan:

"Yes, both the sector and government. This provides the essence of trust that jointly makes decisions regarding utilization, management, and administration of the fund. Trust is essentially, for the organized sector, a matter of active participation, controls, and transparency."

What now?

The Trust Fund Committee, especially the inclusion of coconut farmers, is a product of years-long debate. The 2014 Supreme Court final ruling, which declares the farmers as owners of the coconut levy funds, made a big push to bring the discussion to where it is now.

The ruling awarded shares of San Miguel Corporation – bought using taxes collected from coconut farmers – to the government. The same decision ordered funds "be used only for the benefit of all coconut farmers and for the development of the coconut industry."

On February 28, Pangilinan quoted Tañada, who said the farmers' representation on the committee is like "the soul of the measure." Even the term representation is filled with issue, as there are coconut farmers from rich families who want a stake in the money. After all, they said, they, too, paid the taxes.

While there is an argument that it would add another layer which could further delay the process, it also serves as the fruit and symbol of the decades-long struggle and labor of coconut farmers, some of whom have died waiting in vain. These are some of the people who marched 1,750 kilometers all the way from Davao to Manila in 2014 to cry for social justice.

The debates on the farmers' inclusion highlight another feature of the coco levy saga: the continuing distrust of coconut farmers in government, from the Marcos administration up to the present, which made the promise to return the funds in the first 100 days. (READ: Return coco levy to farmers? Duterte's promise and political will)

It is now up to members of Congress to decide. The role of farmers is just one key provision of the bill. Clearly, it still has a long way to go, as it remains pending in the House committee. (READ: The politics of the coco levy scam: From Marcos to Noynoy Aquino)

If and when both chambers give their nod, they would then convene a bicameral conference committee to thresh out the disparities. After all, it is expected that in a controversial measure, the two versions would have numerous differences. – 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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