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Hail to the coconut farmer

While in exile abroad and watching political developments in the Philippines I read in British newspapers that the unjust taxation of coconut farmers will be the beginning of the end of the Marcos regime. I did not understand what they meant then. It is only now that I do. It is a scandalous taxation of the poor gained through deception. The money was taken from them but it was not used for developing the industry.  Has anything been done about it since? None. From Marcos to Noynoy Aquino is a long wait.

We now have a President in Duterte with an administration bent on righting wrongs to the poor sections of our society. Predictably he has promised to return the coco levy to the farmers. But in what form or shape? The money from the coco levy fund was not used to develop the coconut industry but for other get rich quick schemes of politicians and oligarchs. This has been the problem. The fund has been a tug of war between the rich and powerful against the poor and helpless.

 This column is by way of introduction and background for the more important article that will be published in this column tomorrow on what the farmers will do on their own with the help of young, forward-looking Filipinos.

What is the coco levy fund all about? Through the years the collection from the farmers has ballooned to P93 billion. It includes the P74-billion worth of San Miguel shares bought using coco levy and awarded by the Supreme Court to the government in 2014. It is big money, probably one of the biggest funds in the Philippines today. Contrast that with the source: it comes from farmers who are the poorest of the poor.

Every presidential candidate has promised it will be returned to the farmers. That is almost 45 years ago. Marcos and cronies, including Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco Jr. imposed coco levies or taxes on coconut products promising the farmers a return on the moneys they gave. It was an empty promise. To this day, the farmers have been shortchanged.

Let us see what Duterte will do in his time having made the same commitment as other presidents before him. He is known for his strong will despite critics who are making it hard for him to succeed. He said “the issue is personal because his late mother was also a coconut farmer.” It remains to be seen if the bill on the release of the coco funds will be finally approved and given to its rightful owners. Will he dare to recover the funds that remain with the Danding Cojuangco-led SMC?

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 I have not followed up on the coco fund issue until today. It was my daughter, Veronica who did so and she will be writing the article tomorrow.

Running true to form, former president and Hacienda Luisita landlord Noynoy Aquino issued two executive orders on the inventory, privatization, and transfer of the funds to the government.

The Confederation of Coconut Farmers Organizations of the Philippines (Confed) challenged the orders in court.

Coconut Industry Reform Movement (COIR) executive director Joey Faustino said the group is “a Danding Cojuangco-related group of big business and landowners who lorded over the coco levy funds under the dictatorship (Cocofed).”

In response to the petition, the Court temporarily stopped the implementation of the two EOs.

But this is only a side issue given the bigger picture. The Court, after all, declared that for the release of funds to be properly done, Congress has to enact a law on it. (Sounds like People’s Initiative for constitutional reform.)

“Through the years the presence and influence of Danding Cojuangco, through his partymates and allies in Congress, have made it difficult for any bill on the coco levy to pass,” Faustino said.

In one of my trips to China we visited the Hainan Nanguo Natural Food Co. where we were given boxes of coconut products made in the factory. “We will always be grateful to Filipino technicians who taught us the expertise to develop these products from coconut,” Liu Han Xi, chairman of the company said.

 “Without them we would not have this factory and the thousands it now employs. They have had to source coconut from Indonesia because what is imported from the Philippines is not enough.”

 I tasted for the first time coconut drink which included the juice from the flesh of the coconut. Very refreshing and had the taste and look of milk. I was surprised why we didn’t produce that.

A petition on change.org. in FB asked for signatures urging the President to sign an executive order creating a “Coconut Farmers Trust Fund” and be certified as urgent the initiative bill version filed in both Houses of Congress. We should start another until it is done.

The Philippines is the world’s second-largest producer of coconuts and plays an important role in the economy. Had the 45 years of money given by the farmers been put to better use we would have developed many products like the  Hainan Nanguo Natural Food Co.                   

Coconuts seem to be everywhere these days with natural food in fashion. It is used as“water” in PepsiCo Inc.’s Naked drink range, as “milk” in Starbucks Corp.’s coffees, as shampoo in L’Oreal SA’s products or even as a patty in Beyond Meat’s vegan burgers. These uses of coconut have captured new markets because it is seen as a healthy, natural product. Coconut oil has more than doubled since its low in 2013.

The reason for coconut’s popularity comes from its versatility.   A single nut can be used as a high-energy food, a versatile oil, a nutrient-rich water, and coir - a fiber that’s used to make rope and bedding.

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