Agriculture chief backs farmers on coco levy
Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala said he was squarely on the side of the coconut farmers should a “window” reopen in the controversial “coco levy” case at the Supreme Court under new Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno.
But the head of the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA), Administrator Euclides Forbes, said the prospects were slim the Supreme Court would reverse its April 2011 decision awarding a 20-percent block of San Miguel Corp. (SMC) shares to businessman Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco.
In a press conference at the PCA office in Quezon City, Alcala said: “If ever there will be a window for this discussion, in favor of the coconut farmers, I am of course squarely on the side of the farmers. That’s where I side.”
Appeal to Sereno
Farmers’ groups recently made a public appeal to Sereno to reopen the case.
In April 2011, the Supreme Court ruled the block of shares, comprising 20 percent of SMC—494.8-million common shares valued at P58 billion at P117.40 apiece—belonged to Cojuangco, who was a known crony of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos but is also President Benigno Aquino’s uncle.
The high court dismissed charges that Cojuangco used money deposited in state-operated United Coconut Planters Bank, of which he was president, to purchase the SMC block in violation of his fiduciary trust, and shrugged off the rap that he was a Marcos crony.
The 20-percent stake was part of the 47-percent block of SMC shares the government sequestered in 1986 on suspicion it was illegally acquired using the coconut levy imposed on coconut farmers by the Marcos dictatorship.
The other 27-percent block was diluted to 24 percent with the entry into SMC of Japanese brewer Kirin. In January, the Supreme Court ruled that the 24-percent chunk of SMC shares belonged to the government, which must use the funds for the benefit of the coconut farmers.
Alcala said due process must be followed, and the people should wait for the Supreme Court to thresh out the matter.
Forbes, however, appeared less optimistic.
“With regard to the coco levy case, it seems the decision is already well-defined. With the 20-percent block of shares, I think it would be far-fetched to reopen that case because there is such a doctrine as immutability of judgment,” he said, meaning the ruling was considered final and executory.
“Since there was already an entry of judgment, based on my little understanding as a lawyer, it’s going to be difficult to reverse that,” he told the Inquirer.
In the meantime, Alcala said, the PCA should stop depending on the promise of the coconut levy funds.
“That’s the reason why, for a long time, the PCA budget was so low, because every year they expected the decision on the coco levy fund to come out. It’s like someone pregnant who never gives birth,” Alcala said.
Farmers will survive
The good news, he said, was that now the government had comprehensive programs for the coconut industry that would reach the farmers, which were funded under the General Appropriations Act.
“So with or without the coco levy fund, we will push and we will alleviate the livelihood of the farmers… with or without the levy fund, the coco farmers will survive,” he said.
As for the 24-percent block of SMC shares that was awarded to the government, the case is being appealed by the Philippine Coconut Planters Federation, or Cocofed, which is claiming ownership of the shares on behalf of unnamed farmers.
But Forbes said he believed the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in January that the shares belonged to government would be upheld as well.
“I have not seen any decision of the Supreme Court reversing a decision it had made unanimously. So I expect that that decision will no longer be reversed… We expect that the proceeds will eventually go to the coconut farmers,” he said.
While the case is on appeal, Forbes suggested that the interest and dividends in escrow could be released to help the coconut industry.
“I’ve been telling Task Force Coco Levy that the Solicitor General can already file for a motion for partial release of the dividends in escrow—which is about P10 billion now,” he said.
“If you think about it, an amount like P2 billion is already a huge help in the development of the coconut industry,” Forbes added.
Alcala said this was also how the Department of Agriculture felt.
“The department’s stand is that even the interest arising out of the 24-percent (block of SMC shares) should be used in the meantime because the coconut farmers have been suffering for a long time,” he said.
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