A long, unjust wait
WHEN THE Supreme Court ruled with finality in September 2012 that the coconut levy funds are public in nature, coconut farmers thought they would start benefiting from the billions of pesos collected from them during the Marcos dictatorship. But other legal impediments stood in the way. Yes, there remain roadblocks nearly three decades after then President Cory Aquino ordered the sequestration of all assets related to the coconut levy and initiated proceedings to give these back to the farmers who rightfully own them.
One such impediment—a case filed by the government-run United Coconut Planters Bank and insurance firm Cocolife claiming part of the 24-percent sequestered stake in San Miguel Corp. that was bought with coconut levy funds—was cleared only last week. The Supreme Court granted the petition of the Presidential Commission on Good Government seeking to set aside the 2013 order issued by a Makati regional trial court judge recognizing the petitions of UCPB and Cocolife.
The high court pointed out that the issue was settled in September 2012 when it ruled that the 753.85 million SMC shares constitute public funds and “shall be used only for the benefit of all coconut farmers and for the development of the coconut industry.” Voting 11-0, the high court also cited the importance of putting closure to the protracted litigation and ending “the 27-year battle for the judicial recovery of assets acquired through the illegal conversion of the coconut levies collected during the Marcos regime into private funds.”
The September 2012 ruling of the Supreme Court affirmed a 2004 decision of the Sandiganbayan, which awarded to the government the 24-percent block of sequestered shares being held by the PCGG in SMC, all registered under the levy-funded Coconut Industry Investment Fund (CIIF) and its holding companies. The Sandiganbayan ruled with finality that the shares, purchased with the levy funds collected from coconut farmers in the 1970s, should be used for the farmers’ benefit.
But the coconut farmers’ wait does not end with the Supreme Court decision issued last week. There remains one bigger legal hurdle: the case filed by a group called the Confederation of Coconut Farmers Organization of the Philippines (CCFOP) against Executive Orders 179 and 180. The CCFOP is accusing the Aquino administration of trying to control the use of the coconut levy funds through EOs 179 and 180, and the Supreme Court issued a temporary restraining order on the two EOs last June 30. EO 179 calls for the inventory, privatization and reconveyance in favor of the government of all coconut levy assets, including the shares of stock in UCPB, the CIIF companies, as well as SMC in the name of the PCGG. EO 180 seeks the immediate transfer of the coconut levy assets to the government and use these for the so-called Integrated Coconut Industry Roadmap and the Roadmap for Coco Levy crafted by the Aquino administration.
Speaking for the Aquino administration, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima called on the government and the public to be vigilant that this pending case would not succeed in reversing previous Supreme Court rulings declaring the coconut levy as public funds. She described the case as part of “last-ditch feeble attempts by powerful interest groups to once again rob coconut farmers” of what the high court has declared as theirs.
Indeed, coconut farmers continue to be deprived of the justice they deserve. The time for them to truly benefit from their decades of toil through scholarships, training, equipment and other services to be funded by more than P70 billion in levy funds is more than 20 years due.
As it is, the mechanics of how to return the money to its rightful owners is being blocked by the case pending at the Supreme Court. And it looks like the issue will pass unresolved into the next administration, and coconut farmers will continue to wait for the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Next year, it will be all of 30 years since the fight to return the coconut levy funds to their rightful owners began. It will not be called justice anymore if the farmers are made to wait a minute longer.
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