Coco levy fund bill to be fast-tracked: Pangilinan

Posted on January 26, 2012

THE SENATE committee on agriculture and food will fast-track its recommendation on a measure seeking to use levy proceeds collected during the Marcos regime to projects that will benefit coconut farmers.

“The committee report will be ready for signing within the next few weeks and can be sponsored on the floor next month,” Senator Francis N. Pangilinan, committee chairman, told BusinessWorld in a text message yesterday.

He was referring to the reported decision of the Supreme Court on its session on Tuesday to reconvey to the government 24% of shares in San Miguel Corp., which is equivalent to 753.8 million shares and estimated to be worth about P100 billion.

Such shares, registered under the Coconut Industry Investment Fund (CIIF), were found to have been bought using funds from the coconut levy, a form of tax imposed by then president Ferdinand E. Marcos on farmers during the 1970s.

Mr. Pangilinan said his committee is “reconciling the different bills filed on the matter.”

“I recommended the passage of the measure proposed by... [Senate President Juan Ponce] Enrile [but it is] subject to a number of amendments,” he said, but did not disclose the provisions that will be amended.

Senate Bill (SB) 2378 or the Coconut Farmers Trust Fund Bill filed by Mr. Enrile, seeks to place 27% of SMC shares and all other coco levy proceeds in a trust fund to benefits poor coconut farmers.

SB 2378 was also supported by the ways and means committee chaired by Senator Ralph G. Recto.

Mr. Recto had asked Mr. Pangilinan to channel the coco levy funds into research and development initiatives of the coconut industry. The proceeds are also being considered to support scholarships for children of coconut farmers.

Mr. Recto, however, said in a separate text message yesterday that the Senate “will have to discuss with [Finance] Secretary [Cesar V.] Purisima [the executives] ideas on the use of funds.”

Discussions with the Executive on the issue have been planned for a “common direction” on the use of funds, he said.

Meanwhile, the government has welcomed the Supreme Court ruling, but has yet to determine its next steps pending the release of the court decision.

“We’re very happy with it,” Agrarian Reform Secretary Virgilio R. de los Reyes said in a phone interview yesterday.

“The government will determine how this is going to be utilized for the benefit of the coconut farmers,” he said.

An interagency task force composed of the Department of Agriculture (DA), Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR), National Anti-Poverty Commission and the Philippine Coconut Authority (Philcoa) will discuss what to do with the funds, Mr. de los Reyes said.

“We must remember that many of the agrarian reform beneficiaries are coconut farmers so the DAR will assist the lead agencies which is DA and Philcoa to help [the farmers],” he said.

For his part, CIIF President Jesus Arranza said that the court decision “is a good victory for the coconut farmers.”

“This is good because finally it has been cleared that this is owned by the government, held in trust for the coconut farmers,” he said.

“At the same time, for companies which are farmer-owned and have loans, perhaps they can use [the fund to pay] the interest [so that the fund for debt payment can become an] income.”

Mr. Arranza, however, said that the CIIF has yet to make specific and final plans pending receipt of the court’s decision.

Sought for comment, Presidential Commission on Good Government spokesman Nick Suarez said: “We welcome the decision of the Supreme Court that these funds are public funds that belong to the government.”

The funds should “be utilized for the development of the coconut industry for the coconut farmers,” he added, although admitting that the agency has yet to receive a copy of the decision. -- Antonio Siegfrid O. Alegado with A. E. Barrameda