A coconut farmers’ group said the proposals of Representatives Emil Ong and Ben Evardone, Sen. Ralph Recto and the National Anti-Poverty Commission regarding the use of the coco levy funds will benefit traders and corrupt bureaucrats, not the small coconut farmers.
By INA ALLECO R. SILVERIO
MANILA — Proposals on how the Aquino government should use the controversial P70 billion ($1.66 billion) coco levy fund are coming one after the other, but coconut farmers are not keen on any of them.
The Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) and the newly-formed claimants movement Coco Levy Funds Ibalik sa Amin (CLAIM) have thumbed down proposals by two lawmakers that the coco levy funds be used as price subsidy in the wake of sinking prices of copra. Copra is the common name for desiccated coconut. It refers to the coconut meat after it has gone through the desiccation process where moisture is removed from it. Desiccation is done either through baking or sun-drying.
Last week, Northern Samar Rep. Emil Ong and Southern Samar Rep. Ben Evardone made the suggestion to Pres. Aquino that the coco levy funds should be used to help increase copra prices. Based on reports, copra prices have severely gone down to P4 to P7 ($0.09 to $0.16) from P44 ($1.05) per kilo as of three years ago.
In an interview with the Philippine Daily Inquirer Sunday, Ong explained that three coconuts are needed to make one kilo of copra, making one coconut worth only P1.30 ($0.03) each. He said many coconut farmers are currently in serious debt. He said many traders have stopped buying copra, which, in turn, resulted to the children of copra farmers dropping out of school.
Ong’s suggestion is for the government to add P2 ($0.05) for every kilo of copra sold by farmers. The over-all amount to be taken out of the coco levy, Ong said, would only amount to P10 billion ( $238 million) for one year.
Ong said the government should subsidise copra prices until it increases again and the farmers have recovered from the effects of the current oversupply and the low demand from European markets.
For his part, Evardone said he is in favour of using the coco levy fund to help the industry.
In recent months, the Philippine Coconut Authority (Philcoa) has reported that many copra-dependent families are hurting from the crash in copra prices.
The prices of copra have reportedly fallen to a range of P28 to P31.50 ( $0.66 to $0.75) )per 100 kilo, but many desperate farmers are forced to sell their copra at even lower prices of P5 to P10 ($0.12 to $0.24) per kilo.
Both lawmakers also suggested that all coconut farmers be considered automatic members of the conditional cash transfer (CCT) program. In the scheme, the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) gives handouts at a maximum amount of P1,500 ($35.70) a month to select poor families.
Sen. Ralph Recto, in the meantime, said the coco levy funds should be used to modernize the coconut industry to include the manufacture of coconut -based products.
“Better infrastructure should be built leading to coconut farms. The children of coconut farmers should also be given educational assistance as well as proper health care,” he said.
More than eight million Filipinos are coconut famers while another one-third of the population rely on the coconut industry for their livelihood. Coconut farmers, like farmers in other plantations also suffer from excessive land rent, high production costs and low farm gate prices of agricultural products.
During the Marcos regime, coconut famers were forced to pay a levy of P15.00 ($0.36) per 100 kilos of dried copra for 10 years from August 1973 to August 1982.
Improve the coco industry but not at the expense of poor farmers
All these suggestions were thumbed down by the KMP and Claim, who said that only unscrupulous traders will benefit from such proposals.
“It is highly unacceptable that these traders who are the main culprits in the so-called collapse of copra prices will be the ones to be subsidized by the coco levy funds. It is this proposal that will trigger social unrest,” said KMP deputy secretary general Willy Marbella.
Marbella also rejected Senator Recto’s proposal.
“Recto’s proposal, to use our money under the guise of coconut industry modernization and development, are exactly the same justification used by former dictator Marcos and his crony Eduardo Cojuangco when they force-collected the coco levy funds from small coconut farmers. The so-called modernization and development of the coconut industry is for the benefit of corrupt bureaucrats and not for small coconut farmers.”
Marbella, a member of Claim’s coordinating body, insisted that the coco levy funds should be distributed in cash and used for socio-economic projects directly managed by small coconut farmers’ organizations and cooperatives.
“It’s not surprising that most coconut farmers do not trust the government to do what is right for them on this issue of the coco levy funds.It has been three decades since we and our fathers before us were forced to contribute to the coco levy fund, but we never benefited from it. The governments that succeeded Marcos failed to return the money to us, or even prove that they were sincere in improving the coconut industry so that hundreds of thousands of coconut farmers and their families would be able to improve their economic welfare. Now it’s the Aquino administration that has the money: we don’t trust it either. The president and his family won’t even abide by the law and by standards of genuine social justice and surrender Hacienda Luisita to the rightful farmworker-beneficiaries, how can we trust the government to do what is moral and just when it comes to the coco levy funds?”, he said.
Initially, the CLAIM said that since small coconut farmers no longer have receipts and certificates, beneficiaries can present certificates of membership in small coconut farmers’ organizations and cooperatives, as well barangay certificates and other proof. It also said that those who have proof or evidence like receipts, certificate of stocks in oil mills and the United Coconut Planters Bank, also qualify as beneficiaries. Small coconut farmers’ organizations and cooperatives can also become beneficiaries of socio-economic projects.
Marbella said that by all means, the government should develop and improve the coconut industry, but argued that it shouldn’t do so at the expense of coconut farmers and their coco levy fund.
“The fund should be released to the coconut farmers to use and dispose of as they see fit. It’s unfair for the Aquino government to manipulate even a single centavo of the fund when it did not contribute even a single centavo to it. The lives of coconut farmers would be far improved if they receive their share of the fund in cash. Letting the government use it would be akin to squandering the funds: we don’t trust the Aquino government or its anti-corruption slogans. It has done nothing to win the battle against corruption, in fact it continues to shelter and protect the corrupt,” he said.
In the Visayas, the Samahan han Gudti nga Parag-uma ha Sinirangan Bisayas (Sagupa-SB) said they also support calls for the immediate distribution of the coconut levy funds. The group’s secretary general Nestor Lobico said the government’s plans to use the funds should not be allowed to push through because it will mean denying the coconut farmers their rightful due.
In Eastern Visayas, some 1.7 million coconut farmers and their families rely on coconut farming in plantations spanning 649,030 hectares.
Lobico said the coco levy funds should be immediately distributed because the Aquino government might use it as campaign money to support its candidates in the May 2013 elections.
Paghugpong sa Mangunguma sa Panay kag Guimaras (Pamangas) secretary general Chris Chavez also said that rather than implement any of the proposals being made by the government and lawmakers like Ong, Evardone and Recto, the government should enact into law House Bill 3443, or the proposed Small Coconut Farmers’ Trust Fund Act filed by Anakpawis Rep. Rafael Mariano to systematize the process of returning the coco levy funds to its rightful owners, the small coconut farmers.
The two groups also expressed support for House Bill 5070, filed by House Deputy Speaker and Quezon fourth district Representative Lorenzo “Erin” R. Tañada III. The proposal aims to finance coconut industry programs and help coconut farmers increase their productivity, develop coconut-based enterprises and promote anti-poverty programs.
Regulate the resicada system
In the meantime, Mylene Santoa, spokesperson of Pinag-Isang Lakas ng mga Magsasaka sa Quezon (Piglas-Quezon), challenged lawmakers that if they are sincere in efforts to alleviate the poverty of small coconut farmers, they should move for the abolition of the resicada system, and other deductions.
“The cash distribution of the coco levy funds would be a great help for our family especially in the face of very low copra prices and so many unjust deductions like the 15 percent resicada,” Santoa, said. She is also a member of Claim’s coordinating body.
Under the resicada, an amount is deducted from the farmers’ selling prices of copra by reason of its moisture content. Traders established the system originally to determine the moisture content of copra, but eventually, they used the system to bring down copra prices.
Santoa said the resicada system is arbitrary because it is imposed by traders without the use of moisture readers.
“Traders use their own supposed ‘sound judgment’ to determine the moisture content of copra, but farmers all know it’s just a way to bring down prices,” she said.