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House leader calls for quick passage of coco bill

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With the Supreme Court ruling affirming the decision of the Sandiganbayan in 2004 that declared as public funds the 24 percent block or 753,848,312 shares in San Miguel Corp. (SMC), House Deputy Speaker and Quezon Rep. Lorenzo "Erin" Tanada III on Sunday called for the immediate passage of a measure that would establish a trust fund for the country's coconut farmers.

House Bill 5070 entitled "An Act Establishing the Coconut Farmers' Trust Fund to Provide Adequate Financial Protection to the Coconut Industry and its Workers, Providing for the Management Thereof," authored by Tanada, together with other bills of the same nature, has yet to be heard by the House committee on agriculture. A similar bill has been filed by Senator Juan Ponce Enrile in the Senate.

"We are talking here of at least P54 billion. That’s the estimated worth of the 24 percent SMC block shares that the Supreme Court has declared as public fund. That amount should immediately be put to use to rehabilitate the coconut industry and lift coconut farmers out of poverty," he said.

Coconut farmers, together with fisherfolks are among the identified poorest sectors in the country.

In order to utilize the fund, Tanada said there must be a clear mandate either from Congress or from the President through an Executive Order (EO), on how this fund can be utilized.

"I have worked closely with advocates for the recovery of the coco levy through the Multi-Sectoral Task Force in the crafting of HB 5070 and I understand that a draft Executive Order for the President’s consideration has been submitted by the task force," he said.

"I am sure the coconut farmers would be truly grateful if the President steps up and signs an Executive Order so that the P54 billion fund can already be utilized. It has been a long and arduous wait for them," he said.

Meanwhile, the group Katarungan said the SC ruling on the coco levy is "a major but still incomplete victory for the small coconut farmers."

"The government has yet to make its plan clear with regard to the utilization of the coco levy. And until the government assures small coconut farmers that the recovered coco levy fund will be used for the benefit of small coconut farmers, then and only then can coconut farmers claim total victory," said Danny Carranza, secretary-general of Katarungan.

The 24 percent share forms part of the 47 percent block of SMC shares sequestered by the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) in 1986 on suspicion that it was part of the ill-gotten wealth of the late President Ferdinand Marcos.

The said shares are currently being held in escrow account by the PCGG at the Land Bank of the Philippines and the Development Bank of the Philippines.

Carranza said the responsibility of ensuring that small coconut farmers will be the beneficiaries on the 24 percent SMC block now lay in the hands of President Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III.

"We would welcome a clear and categorical statement from the President that the recovered levy will be utilized for the anti-poverty program and the implementation of a pro-small coconut farmer development roadmap," he said.

For his part, Ed Mora, leader of Pambansang Kaisahan ng Magbubukid sa Pilipinas (PKMP), said it is high time for the President "to lay his cards on his true plans in alleviating poverty particularly to the poorest of the poor small coconut farmers."

"The fund utilization of 24 percent shares should be directly benefit poor coconut farmers through the poverty reduction roadmap," he said.

Mora said they would be vigilant to ensure significant farmers' voice, or representation in the proposed trust fund council that will be created once the proposed bill is passed.

By Lilybeth G. Ison -PNA/ PIA9-ZBST




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