Government, farmers to ink coco levy fund settlement deal

Proponents would need to run consultations among a wider group of coconut farmers over the proposal, to assume a legal clout to convince the antigraft court, SandiganBayan to allow the coconut farmers to have the sole claim to the multi-billion peso shares of stock in the San Miguel Corp. (SMC).

Speaking at the First National Coconut Farmers Convention here Friday, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said that the agreement would be the way to flow back to the farmers what was due them from the levy fund if the agreement would be cleared by the proper courts.

She said the deal has to be approved by the Sandiganbayan and should not be nullified by the Supreme Court.
She said public bidding of the SMC shares bought through the levy fund may proceed after the legal impediments would have been taken cared of.

She said the deal included the putting up of a foundation that would manage and control the fund" to ensure maximum benefits to coconut farmers".

Arroyo said the government would initially manage the foundation but it would be transferred to farmers' groups. She said the Department of Finance, the Presidential Commission on Good Governance and the Office of the Solicitor General have worked hard in coming up with a solution that would be acceptable to everyone.

Arroyo spoke to more 8,000 members of coconut farmers associations and cooperatives, mostly from the southeastern part of Mindanao, and who filled the University of Mindanao gymnasium during the last day of the national convention.
The coconut levy fund was 27 percent of the SMC shares and was estimated to value P64 billion.

Davao Archbishop Fernando Capalla cited at least 24 national coconut farmers groups who would sign the agreement after consulting with their members. Capalla is among the prime movers of the Bishops-Ulama-Priests-Pastors-Lumad Conference (BUPPFALUC), which organized the convention.

Capalla said around 96 percent of coconut farmers favored the proposed amicable settlement during initial consultations. He said BUPPFALUC and the coconut farmers were expecting the resolution of the coco levy fund issue this year.

Charlie Avila, BUPPFALUC information officer told reporters they were looking at submitting the proposed agreement to the government by March, after it would have been sent around the country for consultations. Arroyo urged the holding of more consultations so the process will involve a wider coverage.

"This agreement is an important step to return to you whatever is due to coconut farmers," she said.

Coconut farmers were levied P0.55 for every 100 kilogram of copra or dried coconut meat they sold to millers and exporters for 10 years since 1971. This became known as the Coconut Investment Fund (CIF). Nine years later the Coconut Consumers Stabilization Fund (CCSF) was created and through it farmers were taxed an additional P15 for every 100 kilos of copra they initially produced.

The levy was raised to P100 per 100 kilos of copra, according to a primer prepared by the militant peasant organization Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP or Peasant Movement in the Philippines).

Reportedly the coconut levy fund has grown to P130 billion as of 2004, yet coconut farmers claim never to have benefited from it. Leaders of coconut farmers' groups told MindaNews they were invited to listen to the President as she will make an announcement on the coconut levy fund.

Many of those interviewed after Arroyo spoke said they are hopeful it will be resolved soon. But some of the participants do not share that. A leader of a small coconut farmers organization in Manay, Davao Oriental told MindaNews they came all the way from afar just to listen to Arroyo. The source said they could not be tempted to believe what's happening until they see the deeds.

Last year, BUFFALUC pledged to push for more awareness on the controversial coconut levy issue in a forum here.

The religious group came up with an action plan pushing for an information drive to help coconut farmers.

The group said it decided to produce a primer, which would contain the details and all the necessary information regarding the coco levy issue.