MANILA, Philippines—Impoverished coconut farmers cannot wait forever for the Supreme Court to ease their plight.
Secretary Joel Rocamora of the National Anti-Poverty Commission said Tuesday the Aquino administration was considering borrowing against the sequestered assets acquired with funds from a coconut levy imposed for nine years during the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship.
Rocamora said the move was necessary as the court was taking ages to resolve ownership of 24 percent of shares of stocks in San Miguel Corp., which the government froze after the ouster of Marcos in 1986 pending an investigation into whether the portfolio was part of the ill-gotten wealth the dictator and his cronies had amassed.
NAPC had drawn up a P10-billion, five-year “road map” to revitalize the coconut industry, Rocamora said. The first year of the program could be funded with loans.
“The plan is to borrow off on the coco levy,” he told the INQUIRER. “By June 30, the Aquino administration would be in power for one third of its term. We don’t have a lot of time. Whatever programs we want to do, these have to be felt by the people. We don’t want to wait forever,” he explained.
Rocamora said that Budget Secretary Florencio Abad had floated the idea to him. The Department of Finance has yet to weigh in on this, he said.
Last January, the Supreme Court affirmed a 2004 Sandiganbayan decision that the controversial portfolio, designated in judicial proceedings as SMC-CIIF shares, was acquired under the state-administered Coconut Industry Investment Fund in an elaborate, clandestine scheme involving 14 holding companies, and therefore belonged to the government.
The high tribunal said that this asset should now be used to rehabilitate the industry, wracked by falling harvest because of aging trees and climate change, and to ameliorate conditions of some 3.5 million coconut farmers and their families comprising a fourth of the nation’s population described as the “poorest of the poor.”
A motion for reconsideration has been filed by the Philippine Coconut Producers Federation and the case remains pending. The federation is claiming ownership of the bloc in behalf of 1 million unnamed coconut farmers.
An official paper submitted to a Senate committee inquiry put the value of this 24-percent bloc of 700 million shares of stocks at P85 billion, including interests and dividends.
A year ago, the Supreme Court, in a decision derided by a dissenting justice as the “joke of the century,” awarded another sequestered SMC portfolio, consisting of nearly 500 million common shares valued at P58 billion at P117 per share, to Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco, current SMC chair and uncle of President Aquino. Oppositors said Cojuangco had borrowed from United Coconut Planters Bank, which he then headed, to purchase the shares in 1983, violating a fiduciary trust.
The Aquino government plans to establish an interagency group to manage the assets that will be placed in a trust fund, according to Rocamora. He said no decision had yet been made on how much money should be borrowed against levy funds deposited in UCPB, which has been criticized for granting questionable loans to SMC.
He said poverty intervention programs would be implemented by his commission and the Department of Social Welfare and Development.
Aside from poverty alleviation projects, the money will be used for fertilizing the soil, replacing senile trees, and providing capital for agricultural enterprises for small farmers so that they can diversify their income sources.
About 3.4 million hectares of Philippine farmlands are planted with 340 million coconut trees, making the country the world’s biggest exporter of coconut products, according to the Philippine Coconut Authority.
Although the sector is the biggest dollar-earner in agriculture, it is largely neglected. Rural poverty incidence in coconut-producing provinces is 60 percent.
The commission has identified 609 poorest municipalities in the country of which 493 cultivate coconut.
In the first year of the road map, the funds will go to 153 municipalities in Camarines Sur, Leyte, Albay, Quezon, Sorsogon, Camarines Norte, Lanao del Norte, Northern Samar, Eastern Samar, Davao Oriental and Saranggani.
Militant groups had urged President Aquino to certify as urgent a bill that would establish a trust fund for coconut farmers, fearing that the levy assets would be diverted to finance agrarian reform and the distribution of Hacienda Luisita, which is owned by his family.
The Cojuangco-Aquino clan is seeking P10 billion as “just compensation” for the sugar plantation, which the Supreme Court in a unanimous decision in November ordered distributed to its 6,000 farm workers.