Let a coconut farmer census be taken

Rudy Romero

A proposal has been made for the establishment of a trust fund the income of which would go toward financing projects intended to benefit the coconut farmers of this country. The corpus of the trust fund would be the proceeds of the levy on coconut farmers – the coconut levy – that was collected by the martial law authorities on every 100 kilograms of copra the farmers produced. Asked why it was necessary to take the trust-fund route, the proposal’s author said that the identities of the proposed fund’s beneficiaries have not been established.

One really has to give it to the author of the trust-fund proposal. There seems to be no end to the effort to prevent the return to the coconut farmers – or their heirs – of the coconut levy collection, which the Supreme Court in a landmark decision characterized as funds “imbued with public interest.” His disingenuousness, and that of similarly minded individuals before him, is unbelievable.

If ever there was a phrase that has been over-abused in this country, it is “the coconut farmers.” During the decades following the end of martial law, “the coconut farmers” has been used to describe a group of people said to be so large, so indeterminate and so unwieldy as to necessitate their being represented by institutions – mainly Cocofed (Federation of Coconut Farmers of the Philippines) or the ACCRA law firm – professing to be representors of the interests of “the coconut farmers.” Because the farmers are too numerous and too disorganized, the government would have great difficulty getting anything done, the Cocofed and other self-appointed protectors of the coconut farmers’ interests have consistently manifested to the government. Unfortunately for the farmers, the government accepted this argument and has from the outset dealt with Cocofed et al in the making of policy relating to the coconut levy.

Left out of the equation have been the coconut farmers’ own organizations, to which the self-professed farmers’ protectors, in coordination with the martial-law military intelligence apparatus, attached leftist organizations’ brands. Needless to say, the farmers’ organizations are not trained in and wise to corporation-law principles and maneuverings.

Another argument advanced by the proponent of the trust-fund idea is that it makes little sense to give the coconut levy funds back to the farmers because their numerousness will ensure that they will receive very little money – around P10,000 per farmer, by his estimate – if the return of the funds were effected today. That, surely, is a non-argument. The funds belong to the farmers. Their coconut levy payments were made in the form of a tax – that is really what the Supreme Court meant by its “imbued with public interest” pronouncement – and they want their levy money refunded. They have been waiting for the refund for over three decades. The amount that each of them will receive, whether P10,000 or not, is of no moment. If P1,400 of CCT monthly payments means a lot to their family budgets, how much more a refund of P10,000 (or more)?

Back to the we-don’t-know-who-the-coconut-farmers-are argument of the trust fund’s proponent. This contention is unacceptable. The nation’s record keepers are able to maintain the statistical data on 55 million voters, 32 million Social Security System members, over 4 million CCT beneficiaries and the millions of beneficiaries of GSIS, Philhealth and other government programs. They surely can cope with the need to identify and list down the names – or legal heirs – of the coconut farmers who during the martial law period had been a part of their production income taxed away from them by an unjust and insensitive regime.

Let the government conduct a census of the current coconut farmers in the approximately 47 provinces in which the tree of life is grown. Because LGUs (local government units) are the most knowledgeable in this regard, let the barangays work closely with the census-takers. And let UCPB (United Coconut Planters Bank) or CIIF (Coconut Industry Investment Fund), both of which were acquired with coconut levy funds, finance the census if funding is or should become a problem.

The census having been undertaken and completed, the author of the trust fund proposal will no longer be able to claim that “We don’t know who the coconut farmers are.” With coconut-farmer identities established, refund of the coconut levy funds can begin. At long last.