Commentary

Coconut farmers facing a new evil

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It’s hard to be poor, goes an eternal adage. That is the lot of our coconut farmers. In 1973, the martial law government imposed a levy on their produce.

The levy helped the coconut industry. Coco mills were put up, a coconut bank was established; and ultimately, the coco funds were loaned to acquire the controlling stock of giant San Miguel Corp. (SMC).

But that did not benefit one whit the coconut farmers. They remained dirt poor as they were in 1973 when the martial law government started collecting the levy.

Came Edsa I. The impoverished farmers complained and a 26-year court struggle followed. It was a David-and-Goliath fight. The industry that benefited from the levy was against the farmers. The government supported the farmers half-heartedly. The farmers fought alone.

Their original claim of 47-percent of SMC stock was whittled down to 24 percent. That 24-percent stake consisted of common shares. To add insult to injury, the government inexplicably agreed to the conversion of the 24-percent stake in common shares into preferred shares, reducing its value considerably.

With that watered-down value, the Supreme Court finally decided and wrote finis to the case, declaring that SMC assets in the name of 14 holding companies set up under the Coconut Industry Investment Fund (CIIF) and the Oil Mills Group (OMG) were purchased using the coconut levy and are therefore “owned by the government to be used for the benefit of all coconut farmers and for the development of the coconut industry.”

The industry players are extremely happy with the decision, but the farmers are disillusioned.

Will the farmers get their money back? How much will go to the farmers and how much will go to the industry, the twin beneficiaries according to the Supreme Court. That is the pivotal question.

The farmers are interested in the cash that will go to them.

Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala provided the answer for the government. The coconut farmers, he proclaimed, should not expect cash. The coco levy money will be spent to rehabilitate the industry. The rehabilitation of the industry will thusly give the farmers employment and work benefits. In plain language, the farmers, with the sweat of their brows, must work again to enable them to receive the court-awarded benefits they had fought for.

The Alcala prescription, if that reflects the position of the administration, is exactly the same as the evil that the martial law government promised the farmers when they collected the levies from them, which in turn was used to buy the controlling interest in SMC. The farmers did not benefit from that investment, directly or indirectly.

The farmers for 26 years fought to recover their money only to be told that they have to work all over again to get their just reward.

The farmers are not entirely satisfied with the Supreme Court decision. But better a loaf than no bread at all. The decision is clear and peremptory—“to be used for the benefit of all coconut farmers and for the development of the coconut industry.” The development of the coconut industry is not a precondition for the farmers to receive the benefits of the tolls collected from them. They are divisible.

The farmers were betrayed once by the martial law government, they should not be betrayed twice, this time by the administration.

The Alcala position is inconsistent with the straight path template. Needless to state, the farmers’ plight is a human rights case.

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