LUCENA CITY—Coconut farmer-leaders from across the country have called on President Benigno Aquino III to reclaim the multibillion-peso coconut levy funds invested in San Miguel Corp. (SMC), the food giant under the control of his uncle-tycoon, Eduardo Cojuangco Jr.
“We demand (from) the Aquino administration to immediately pull out the coco levy funds from SMC. It is the only way to break Cojuangco’s control over the funds and pave the way for its immediate return to small coconut farmers,” Willy Marbella, the spokesperson of the newly formed Kaisahang Pambansa ng mga Magsasaka sa Koprahan (Koprahan), told reporters.
Marbella was among over 200 delegates from the coconut-producing regions of Bicol, Eastern Visayas and Northern and Southern Mindanao who gathered at the covered basketball court in Barangay (village) Ibabang Dupay for the two-day “National Small Coconut Farmers’ Summit” that started here on Wednesday.
Marbella, deputy secretary general of the militant Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP), noted that most coconut farmers, who were still in their youth when the levy was imposed during the martial law regime in the 1970s, had died without seeing the benefits promised by the funds.
The funds, invested in SMC, are now estimated to be worth between P50 billion and P100 billion.
“Cojuangco has been controlling the funds for almost four decades now,” Marbella rued.
“Under the guise of developing the coconut industry, Cojuangco used the funds in private investments that enabled him to acquire and expand his business empire and interests which he turned into private domains of economic monopoly and dominance.”
Last week, the farmers suffered a setback in their fight for the return of the levy funds when the Office of the Ombudsman declined to pursue a plunder case filed by the KMP against Cojuangco.
The Ombudsman said the issues raised in the complaint had already been addressed by the Supreme Court, which declared that Cojuangco was the rightful owner of the 20-percent block of shares in SMC being claimed by the farmers as having been bought out of coco levy funds.
The 20-percent block of shares was part of a 47-percent block of SMC shares that the government sequestered after the Edsa “people power” revolution in 1986.
27% to gov’t
In January, the Supreme Court affirmed a 2004 ruling of the Sandiganbayan that awarded the 27-percent block of shares in SMC registered in the name of the Coconut Industry Investment Fund (CIIF) and its holding companies to the government, which has been holding it in trust for the country’s coconut farmers.
The 27-percent stake was, however, reduced to about 24 percent after it was diluted with the investment of Japanese brewer Kirin in SMC.
The summit participants also called for the enactment of House Bill No. 3443, or the proposed Coconut Levy Funds Administration and Management Act, filed by Anakpawis Representative Rafael Mariano that sought to set up the Coconut Farmers’ Fund for the rehabilitation and development of the coconut industry.