The march of the 71
The march of the coconut farmers from Davao to Manila was meant to dramatize their peculiar predicament: Despite a Supreme Court finding that the coconut levy funds collected and used by the Marcos administration almost four decades ago actually belonged to them, they have not yet benefited directly from the funds. The original route and schedule of the march were designed to focus attention on what is owed them: 71 coconut farmers, 71 days, over 1,700 kilometers to represent the P71 billion that was collected from them, plus accumulated interest.
To his credit, President Aquino received the farmers in Malacañang last Wednesday, pledging to back the bill that would specify how the farmers can use the total amount of P71 billion, and promising to consider writing an executive order to establish a Coconut Farmers’ Trust Fund.
“The best course of action I see is to craft a law. This would ensure that the next generation would enjoy the benefits brought by the coco levy funds and we would be spared from any legal obstacle in the future,” he told the farmers. He also said he understood the need for an executive order to be issued while the bill was pending, to ensure that the interests of the small coconut farmers are protected.
The farmers, who formed the group Kilus Magniniyog (Coconut Farmers Movement), said they were happy with the President’s promises. Their statement, however, was more categorical than that of Mr. Aquino’s.
“Matapos ang diyalogo at pirmahan ng ‘summary of agreements,’ masaya kami dahil naaayon ang mga nasabi at napagkasunduan sa aming dalawang pangunahing panawagan—ang itatag ang coconut farmers trust fund sa pamamagitan ng executive order, at ang itulak ang pagsasabatas nito (After the dialogue and the signing of the ‘summary of agreements,’ we are happy because the discussion and agreements are aligned with our two main demands—the setting up of a coconut farmers trust fund through an executive order, and the push to turn this into law).”
All’s well that ends well? Not exactly, at least not yet. The fact that the farmers felt the need to dramatize their situation is telling; almost four decades after clever, cruel minds in the Marcos inner circle conceptualized the coconut levy scheme, and over a dozen years after the Supreme Court found that the funds were imbued with public character, the money itself remains just out of the coconut farmers’ reach.
For one thing, two years after the Supreme Court ruled on the issue with finality, no entry of judgment has been released. (There is a partial motion for reconsideration of the 2012 ruling, which the Court has not yet resolved.) The farmers’ forthright statement (best read in the original Filipino) recognized this limitation.
“Alam at nauunawaan namin na kailangan maglabas ng entry of judgment ang Supreme Court para lubusang mapatupad ang desisyon pabor sa magniniyog—kaya din naging bahagi ito ng aming panawagan at dumaan ang martsa sa SC. At nandito muli kami ngayon para hilingin ang agarang aksyon (We know and understand that the Supreme Court must issue an entry of judgment to fully implement the decision favorable to the coconut farmers—which is why we also appealed to and marched past the SC).”
For another, the weight of the years spent waiting for justice not only to be rendered but also implemented has taken its toll on both the individual farmers and on national institutions. We do not doubt the Aquino administration’s sincerity in doing right by the coconut farmers (at least there is no evidence that the President is speaking on one side of the mouth, while sending secret signals to the other side of the Cojuangco clan involved in the coconut levy scam). But at the same time we cannot understand why, if the administration was, as the President told the farmers, “on your side,” it had to wait for the marchers to finish their 1,700-km ordeal. The President or his representative could have met them somewhere along their route, perhaps even before they left Mindanao.
Our point: The preparation of the executive order will take several weeks, the passage of a new law will take several months, the sale of the levy-funded United Coconut Planters Bank will take place next year, if the Supreme Court finally resolves the case. The delay may mean nothing to administration officials or associate justices alike, but to the small coconut farmers waiting for tangible justice, it will mean more distress, it will entail more hardship. It is time the country’s institutions moved with more urgency, and marched at the farmer’s pace.
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