Old scam, new suit
Are we being set up for another in the unending series of farces that bedeviled the coconut levy and impoverished millions of small farmers?
Look at the April 7, 2014, draft order before President Aquino. “Providing Administrative Guidelines for the Utilization of the Coco Levy Assets” proposes the privatization of what’s left of the levy, after the Marcos dictatorship’s plunder. A multisectoral consultative committee is proposed; the Philippine Coconut Authority will implement the measure.
That’s like “asking Marcos crony Eduardo Cojuangco and the Philippine Coconut Producers Federation … to manage public funds,” protests Omi Royandoyan of Centro Saka and Alyansa Agrikultura. Those who plundered “will again lord it over the industry.”
Scientists call the coconut “the tree of 999 uses,” providing food, roofing, even toothpicks. Mr. Aquino presented the tree’s 1,000th use as export jackpot in a State of the Nation Address. The Philippines sold 16.7 million liters of coconut water last year, and rising.
But will we have the juice to sell? Or must we direct would-be buyers to next-door Indonesia? It has 3.74 million hectares planted to coconut, and it has replanted far more than we have.
Coconuts here grow in 68 of 79 provinces and sprawl over 27 percent of agricultural land. But most were senile even before Supertyphoon “Yolanda” obliterated over 15 million trees and left a problem: Restoration will take six to nine years.
“With two of these palms, a family of 10 can sustain itself,” marveled historian Antonio Pigafetta (1491-1534). This Venetian was among 18 of Ferdinand Magellan’s original 240-man crew who made it back to Europe. Coconuts are a fixture in color-drenched Fernando Amorsolo paintings.
This palm provides livelihood for more than two million Filipinos. Most till slivers of land; others are landless tenants.
Factor in their families: 10 million use this tree and bring in foreign exchange. “He who plants a coconut tree plants food and drink, vessels and clothing, a home for himself and a heritage for his children,” South Sea islanders say.
Marcos’ Presidential Decree No. 276 ruled that the coconut levy was owned by cronies “in their private capacities.” If PD 276 is not scrubbed as unconstitutional, “Marcos found a legal way to steal,” wrote then Inquirer columnist Antonio Carpio, now senior associate justice of the Supreme Court. And the decree continued to plunder decades after the dictator’s death in Hawaiian exile.
Under Marcos, the Floirendos got bananas and Roberto Benedicto oversaw sugar.
Cojuangco was coconut czar. Cojuangco’s party tried—but failed—to impeach Chief Justice Hilario Davide after the Supreme Court declared the levy public funds.
Before People Power II erupted, President Joseph Estrada signed Executive Orders 313 and 315.
“Erap delivered the levy—estimated at over P100 billion—to cronies,” the Sun Star noted. “It was grand larceny that needed ever-larger doses of hypocrisy.” The Supreme Court scrubbed Erap’s EOs.
Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo dissipated the levies recovered by the Davide Supreme Court, which declared them public funds. The “Brat Pack”—congressmen allied with Cojuangco—tried but failed to impeach Davide. The Inquirer published former solicitor general Francisco Chavez’s analysis on how coco levies were laundered to bankroll San Miguel purchases.
Arroyo justices in the Supreme Court voted to let Cojuangco keep 16.2 million San Miguel Corp. shares, bought with taxes. Cojuangco’s P56.3-billion SMC shares were “final.” Thus, blank SMC stock certificates, abandoned in a Malacañang vault when Marcos scrammed for Hawaii exile, “legally” belonged to Cojuangco.
“Joke of the century,” snapped then Associate Justice, now Ombudsman, Conchita Carpio Morales. Cojuangco “used for his personal benefit the funds entrusted to him.” Cojuangco’s stake in SMC was “built on the sweat of coconut farmers,” now Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno noted. “Prescription, laches or estoppel will not bar future action to recover unlawfully acquired property by public officials or dummies.”
So what’s the alternative?
Revive and certify as urgent former representative Erin Tañada’s House Bill No. 5070, “An Act Establishing the Coconut Farmers’ Trust Fund to Provide Adequate Financial Protection to the Coconut Industry and Its Workers…”
The levy is a public fund. The Tañada bill would set up a special trust fund to ensure that the 27 percent of the Coconut Industry Investment Fund is safeguarded in perpetuity. Come to the farmers’ aid, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines urged Mr. Aquino.
Coconut farmers’ groups, along with Bishop-Ulama-Pastors conferences, back the creation of a trust fund from the sales of SMC shares, for the industry’s rehabilitation. They also urge an updated census of coconut planters.
“Ownership and control of coco levy funds shifted over 40 years under four presidents,” scientist Jurgenne Primavera wrote in her book on coastal flora. It swung “from presidential associates (coco levy cronies) during martial law to government by sequestration after People Power.”
Farmers were favored through the Davide Court decisions, and then “back to presidential associates with negotiated settlements.” The disgraced Corona Court winked at Cojuangco pocketing the small coconut farmers’ levies. “How did … P150 billion from half a million farmers end up in the pockets of so few?” Primavera wondered.
Thousands of farmers went to their graves clutching worthless coconut levy certificates. Now, we could have the old scam resurface decked in new clothing. “For greed, all nature is too little,” Seneca once warned.
(E-mail: [email protected])
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