10:36 PM July 15th, 2013

July 15th, 2013 10:36 PM

After nearly three decades and five presidents, the promised assistance to millions of coconut farmers remains elusive. Many of those years were spent—some were actually wasted—on tedious court litigations against private persons who had benefited from the controversial coconut levy funds. Last week, the Supreme Court ruled with finality on yet another case involving the money collected from the farmers during the Marcos regime.

The high court ruled on Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco’s “commission” in the form of shares of stocks that he received after negotiating the acquisition by the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) of First United Bank, the predecessor of United Coconut Planters Bank. The high court noted that Cojuangco, a known Marcos associate, had in effect received public assets then worth P10.88 million, given his admission that the PCA paid the entire acquisition price for the bank using levy funds. The high court also upheld the Sandiganbayan ruling on July 11, 2003, declaring the government the owner of 72.2 percent of UCBP, which the PCA bought using levy funds.

The amount involved in last week’s ruling may run into the millions of pesos but will definitely pale vis-à-vis the value of the sequestered shares of San Miguel Corp. that the Supreme Court ruled in January 2012 as belonging to the coconut farmers, for being acquired using coconut levy funds. The shares, equivalent to 24 percent of SMC, were valued at P84 billion back then.

On Oct. 5, 2012, a day after the high court ruled with finality that the shares belonged to the government on behalf of the coconut sector, SMC formally turned over P57.6 billion to the government-owned Coconut Industry Investment Fund, which is mandated to assist the more than three million coconut farmers nationwide, as payment for 700 million preferred shares redeemed in September. (The 24-percent stake in SMC that was the subject of the high court’s decision was converted into 700 million redeemable preferred shares.) No less than Cojuangco awarded the check to then CIIF president Jess Arranza.

Despite the string of legal victories for the coconut sector, the pressing issue is how best to use the money to immediately help the coconut farmers. At the turnover of the funds to the CIIF in October 2012, Arranza said the amount would help fund programs benefiting the coconut industry and its farmers, adding that part of it would go to research and development (R&D) as well as livelihood programs for the farmers.

Last January, the First Coconut Farmers and Industry Stakeholders’ Summit was held and industry groups expressed support for the government plan to create a trust fund to hold the coconut levy funds. Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala raised a salient point: the investment of the levy funds in safe instruments so that the interest could be used for projects with an “immediate impact” on the industry. Some groups have suggested that the fund be used for coconut planting and replanting, seed farm development, fertilization and pest control, provision of livelihood and credit for business capital, scholarships, R&D for technologies to benefit the industry, and provision of insurance and health coverage for farmers.

The question now is: What is keeping the government from initiating these activities? The Presidential Task Force on the Coco Levy Fund, which is to determine where the recovered coconut levy funds should go, has been in place since 2010. It is composed of representatives of the Presidential Management Staff, National Anti-Poverty Commission, Presidential Commission on Good Government, PCA, and the departments of agriculture, agrarian reform, finance, and budget and management.

There is not an iota of doubt that the money should be used to help only the coconut farmers. The Supreme Court has said so, and reiterated this fact in its order last week when it pointed out that the funds reconveyed to the government “shall be used only for the benefit of all coconut farmers and for the development of the coconut industry.” The high court’s ruling on the 24-percent block of SMC shares was issued with the same caveat.

The Aquino administration must now make the right moves to benefit the coconut industry, in particular the small farmers who still account for a big portion of the rural poor. These farmers paid that levy. It’s time they benefited from it.

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