Church people join farmers’ march for coco levy funds
SAN PABLO CITY—Peasants led by Church people and activists have joined a 160-kilometer march from Lucena City in Quezon to Manila to demand the return to farmers of billions of pesos in allegedly stolen coconut levy funds collected during the martial law years.
The march, which started on Thursday with some 100 farmers, has now more than 170 participants.
Jansept Geronimo, secretary of the Coalition of Coconut Farmers of Quezon, said representatives from Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino, Akbayan and other Laguna-based farmers groups met the marchers in San Pablo City and joined the Quezon farmers on the third day of its scheduled six-day hike to Manila.
“We expect the marchers to grow in numbers from more ‘sympathy walkers’ as we get near Manila,” Geronimo said by phone on Saturday as the group reached Calauan, Laguna, around noon.
He said Oscar Santos, 82, a reform activist and former Philippine Coconut Authority chairman, and Fr. Edu Gariguez, executive secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines’ National Secretariat for Social Action (CBCP-Nassa), joined the marchers in Calauan on the way to their next stop over in nearby Los Baños town.
Another priest from the Prelature of Infanta, Fr. Jojo A. Eranista, 63, who has dedicated his ministry toward the poor tribal settlers in Quezon, has been part of the march since it started.
Eranista and his tribal group joined the march hoping that finally the poor coconut farmers would be given the coco levy funds, he told the Inquirer during the stopover in San Pablo City.
The dictator Ferdinand Marcos imposed the levy, which at one point reached as high as P100 per 100 kilos, from 1973 to 1982. An audit after Marcos was ousted in the 1986 Edsa People Power Revolution showed P9.7 billion had been collected from the farmers, but the undeclared levy ran as high as P70 billion.
Court records showed that proceeds from the tax on farm-gate sale of copra by the farmers, deposited in United Coconut Planters Bank (UCPB), were used to acquire majority stocks in San Miguel Corp. in 1983. Worth P2 billion then, the stocks, which were earlier sequestered, were estimated to be worth around P200 billion now.
The Supreme Court has yet to resolve some of the cases involving the levy.
Wet and shivering
Geronimo said the march, dubbed “Lakas Magniniyog! Bawiin ang coco levy!”, under intermittent rains had started to take its toll on some of the hiking farmers. More than 20 marchers have complained of cough, colds, headaches and body pains after they finished the first leg of the march at the Catholic church in Candelaria town.
“All of us were wet and shivering. Two women marchers had slight fevers. But after taking medicines, hot soup and a good night sleep, we’re all again raring to go. Miraculously, everybody is in high spirit,” Geronimo said.
He said a medical team, including an ambulance, was monitoring the health condition of the marchers.
Geronimo said the marchers were encouraged by the outpouring of sympathy and support by the residents along the Maharlika Highway, most of them also coconut farmers.
“The residents were waiting for us to pass. They gave us financial assistance, water, coffee, bread, boiled bananas and sweet potatoes as energy booster to sustain us during the march. Some of them even marched with us up to the town proper,” Geronimo said. “We did not expect the warm show of support along the route. Some of the marchers cried with joy.”
On Friday morning, 20 cyclists from the Quezon Bikers Club braved the bad weather at Lucena to follow the marchers. At the back of the cyclists’ uniforms were printed: “Coco levy ibalik sa magniniyog.”
“This is our own way of expressing our solidarity with the struggle of our province mates,” said Rommel Edaño, Quezon provincial administrator and leader of the bikers.
He said they also brought with them medicines and other supplies from the provincial government.
“We will also coordinate with other bikers groups in Laguna to assist and support the marchers,” he said.
The march started to attract international attention after the “Assembly of the Poor,” one of the biggest nongovernment organization in Thailand, expressed solidarity with the struggle of the Filipino coconut farmers.
“Though we cannot join you in person, we stand united in spirit with you to denounce the economic and political violence and injustice against the poor and the powerless, of all forms,” the organization said in a statement forwarded to the Philippine Daily Inquirer by Joann Fernandez, media relations officer of the group Katarungan, one of the protest organizers.
Ed Mora, head of the Panlipunang Kapisanan ng mga Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (PKMP), said they were hoping the government would be on their side this time. “We hope the Supreme Court would give us a Christmas gift by finally ruling in favor of the coconut farmers who genuinely own the coco levy funds,” he said.
Geronimo said he was hopeful that the Supreme Court would rule in favor of the farmers, like it did when it granted the thousands of farmworkers of Hacienda Luisita the right to own the sugar estate.
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