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Blood money

/ 12:38 AM April 23, 2016

HE FESTERING issue of the coconut levy fund briefly surfaced at the second presidential debate, when Grace Poe was challenged about her stand on it. The challenge was not unexpected given that among her biggest backers is tycoon Danding Cojuangco, who was among the Marcos associates behind the tax scheme that generated billions of pesos from coconut farmers nationwide during martial law. These farmers have yet to benefit from the fund, now said to be worth P100-P150 billion, the control of which Cojuangco has battled the government for years. But at the debate, Poe said that the ball was no longer in Cojuangco’s hands, that the government has control of the fund, and so should bear the onus of any further delay in the distribution of the money to the rightful beneficiaries. If she became president, she declared, she would ensure that the fund would be remitted swiftly and directly to the farmers.

Poe was challenged in that regard by Jejomar Binay, who posed the question: Is she certain that the money is still there? The senator said she was, but the Vice President said his camp had studied the matter and found that the fund is no longer available. “Pinag-aralan o pinadaan sa Philrem (Did you study it or did you route it through Philrem)?” riposted Poe, in an out-of-nowhere dig at Binay over allegations then circulating about his connections with the controversial money remittance firm. The jab did its work: Binay got worked up defending himself, the spotlight swung back to the larger issue of corruption—and the matter of the coconut levy fund was forgotten by everyone, and dropped for good for the rest of the debate.

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And so it has been for the last 40 years: the monumental injustice of millions of pesos forcibly extracted from the toil of destitute coconut farmers never for once benefiting their lives. The case has bounced from one post-Edsa administration to the next with no definitive resolution, and the issue merely became fodder for political grandstanding during elections.

The money itself, which eventually found its way to the coffers of blue-chip conglomerates such as San Miguel Corp. and United Coconut Planters Bank under the names of Cojuangco, Juan Ponce Enrile and other Marcos associates back then, has become subject to years of labyrinthine paperwork and murky legal maneuverings, seemingly all designed to frustrate the one just resolution on how the blood money should be handled—that it be returned to the farmers who are its rightful owners.

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A recent report by Fernando del Mundo in the Inquirer detailed how much the farmers under martial law bled to fund the coconut levy that was supposedly set up for their welfare: “For every P250 earned from copra, the farmers gave up P60 as tax. It was big money at a time when the daily wage was P4 per day,” said activist lawyer Oscar Santos, a contemporary of Enrile. The P9.6 billion that was officially reported to have been collected over nine years is a vastly understated sum; the estimated true figure is nearer P200 billion.

Instead of being used to develop the coconut industry, the levy not only became the bedrock wealth of certain Marcos cronies, it was also used to “showcase circuses of the ‘smiling martial law’ regime,” as the report put it. Among the Malacañang extravaganzas the coconut levy funded were the Miss Universe contest, the world chess championship between Anatoly Karpov and Viktor Korchnoi, and the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier “Thrilla in Manila.” Over 3.5 million farmers in 25 million households, meanwhile, had to live not only with the feudalistic agrarian system in the countryside, but also with the compounding misery of an oppressive special tax imposed on their labors.

In September 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that some P71 billion worth of SMC stocks belonged, not to Cojuangco, but to the government, to be “used for the benefit of the farmers…” But the legislation defining the terms of that use—whether, essentially, to designate a government agency or agencies to manage the money as a trust fund, or to establish a more direct mechanism for distributing the money to farmers—remains pending. The House of Representatives has passed its own version of the bill, but its counterpart is stalled in the Senate.

It’s been four decades of waiting for the farmers, and three decades of wrangling by legal eagles on this issue, but still the beneficiaries remain bereft. It’s a case that cries for urgent closure by the incoming administration, under whose leadership that might be.

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TAGS: coconut levy, Danding Cojuangco, Elections 2016, Grace Poe, Philrem
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