THE House of Representatives on Monday approved on third and final reading the bill creating the coconut levy trust fund.

With 221 affirmative votes, six negatives, and zero abstentions, legislators passed House Bill No. 8136, the proposed Coconut Farmers and Development Trust Fund Act. The measure seeks to mobilize coconut levy funds collected decades ago into programs designed to rehabilitate and modernize the coconut industry.

The levy, billed during the Marcos administration as a means of investing in the industry’s development, but actually redirected to purchase stakes in San Miguel Corp. and United Coconut Planters Bank, is now valued at around P76 billion.

President Rodrigo R. Duterte made it a campaign promise in 2016 to return the funds in his first 100 days in office. He vetoed a previous version of the bill last year, saying in his veto message that the measure failed to “accelerat(e) the further utilization of coco levy assets and funds for the benefit of our marginalized coconut farmers and the coconut industry.”

Deputy Speaker and Party-list Representative Sharon S. Garin, who heads the technical working group evaluating the measure, said in a statement that getting the bill signed into law would provide “much-needed relief for the families of coconut farmers who have long waited for their share.”

“With the COVID-19 pandemic choking agricultural supply chains, the situation of small coconut farmers will continue to worsen should the enactment of the bill be delayed,” she said in a statement.

Citing a 2013 report by the National Anti-Poverty Commission, she said the poverty rate among coconut farmers was between 41 and 60%.

The bill’s approval is a “good news to our coconut farmers and a boost to the industry,” Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) Administrator Benjamin R. Madrigal, Jr. told BusinessWorld in a Viber message Monday.

Mr. Madrigal said the PCA has asked stakeholders to identify their “requirements for consideration or inclusion in the would-be proposed program for the levy fund” and to encourage all farmers to join the national registry system for the sector.

“We are now organizing a regional and provincial coconut industry stakeholders forum as a venue for info dissemination, coordination and consultation,” he said.

The bill is expected to benefit around 3.5 million coconut farmers from 68 provinces. The eligibility cutoff is set at ownership of five hectares of coconut land or less.

The bill calls for the trust fund to be maintained for 99 years, supporting the Coconut Farmers and Industry Development Plan (CFIDP) to be drafted by the PCA.

The measure creates a Coco Levy Trust Fund Board, composed of coconut farmers and their organizations, industry associations, civil society organizations, academic experts, and other stakeholders.

An initial allocation of P5 billion has been authorized for the PCA to organize the trust fund and prepare the CFIDP. The Department of Finance will manage the trust fund. — Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza