FULFILL CAMPAIGN PROMISE, HELP THE COCONUT FARMERS
It is sad to note that in his two-hour State of the Nation Address, the President missed the chance to urge Congress to finally render justice to almost a fourth of the Filipino population, the millions of poor coconut farmers and their families. This justice has been excruciatingly elusive for almost 50 years now, adding to their burden generation after generation.
I am referring to the fruits and benefits that had been due decades ago to the poor coconut farmers via the coco levies. In the Batasan Pambansa in 1984 I saw what was terribly iniquitous about these controversial coco levy funds. I filed a resolution to audit the funds in order to make sure that the benefits reach those who were in dire need. The rubber-stamp Batasan merely brushed it aside. Later, I was warned not to take it up anymore as it would be precarious under martial law.
In 1986 Marcos fled to Hawaii with the fall of his dictatorship. I again went back to Congress under the presidency of Cory Aquino and filed the resolution to investigate the said funds. I did not, however, get enough support from my fellow legislators. This was about the same time that the Presidential Commission on Good Government was created and tasked to recover ill-gotten wealth. This led to the filing of various cases in court against Marcos and his cronies, the coco levy cases included.
Upon finishing my term in Congress in 1993, I went on to address the issue with civil society organizations. We organized the Coconut Industry Reform Movement with the primary purpose of getting the coco levy funds utilized for the benefit of the poor coconut farmers. We involved ourselves with lobby work for appropriate legislation, filed our own pleadings in courts for swift resolution of the cases and launched campaigns for the Executive to give due attention to the decades-old social injustice. We tried with all our might to mobilize the three branches of government on the issue. One would think that coordination between branches of government should have happened effortlessly without any intervention by civil society. But that simply was not the case on the issue of the coco levy funds. The political and economic influence and reach of those involved in the cases far outweigh the powerlessness and poverty of the millions of coconut farmers.
But fortunately these efforts have not gone simply unnoticed. In 2012, after almost 30 years of litigation, the Supreme Court rendered decisions with finality declaring certain portions of the assets bought with coco levy funds to be of public nature and owned by government in trust for all the coconut farmers. It took yet another two years and a courageous march by a set of coconut farmers under the banner of Kilus Magniniyog from Davao City to Malacañang in 2014 to gain the attention of all three branches of government. The Supreme Court finally rendered an entry of judgment on their final decision. President Benigno Aquino III issued an executive order on the utilization of the recovered coco levy funds that was later questioned in Court. He also issued a certification of urgency for a bill establishing a trust fund for the coconut farmers. The legislature tackled the Coconut Farmers and Industry Trust Fund Bill to govern utilization and ensure that benefits accrue to the poor coconut farmers. The House of Representatives passed it on third reading but the Senate committee dropped it for no announced valid reason.
Now with the 17th Congress, and under the Duterte administration, the Coconut Farmers and Industry Trust Fund Bill remains an issue. President Duterte, during his campaign, committed to give the benefits due the coconut farmers via the coco levies. The executive included the bill in the list of priority legislation.
With some P75 billion cash recovered in the hands of the Bureau of Treasury since 2012; appropriate bills filed in the legislature such as Senate Bill No. 1233; and with the bills included in the list of the executive’s priorities, why could it not merit an extra push?
So much time and effort have been put into this uphill battle which unquestionably passes on continuing deprivation to the millions of coconut farmers for decades. It is, indeed, depressing that, until today, the coconut farmers are still left to push for their own rights and claim to social justice. OSCAR “KA OCA” SANTOS, Coconut Industry Reform (COIR) Movement, firstname.lastname@example.org