Bu-lat-lat (boo-lat-lat) verb: to search, probe, investigate, inquire; to unearth facts

Volume III,  Number 43              November 30 - December 6, 2003            Quezon City, Philippines


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Rubbing an Old Wound
Coco farmers file plunder case vs Cojuangco, et al

Militant farmers organizations revive the controversial coconut levy issue by filing a plunder case against businessman Eduardo Cojuangco, former Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile and Rep. Maraia Clara Lobregat. But they also denounce President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo for accommodating the business interests of Cojuangco, a Marcos crony, for political concessions.

By Felicisimo H. ManalaNSAN, Jr.

Photo courtesy of Newsbreak

If an old wound just does not heal, some kind of amputation may be the last resort. 

Militant peasant organizations including coconut farmers sought just this in a plunder case they filed two weeks ago with the Office of the Ombudsman against businessman Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco Jr., Juan Ponce Enrile and Maria Clara Lobregat, public personalities who figured prominently in the controversial 32-year old coconut levy issue.

The filing of the case on Nov. 14 followed shortly after the impeachment case against Supreme Court (SC) Chief Justice Hilario Davide, Jr. was shot down in a ruling by the high tribunal itself. The House of Representatives, in a majority vote, decided not to transmit its initiated impeachment complaint to the Senate.

The impeachment case was seen as inspired by Cojuangco after a series of SC decisions tended to weaken the latter’s case in several corporate holdings he supposedly amassed from the time of the Marcos dictatorship using the controversial levy, a two-tiered tax collected upon coconut farmers for the copra they produced from 1971 up to 1982.

In its first ruling on the issue in 1989, the high tribunal declared the coco levy fund as “clearly affected by public interest.” In December 2001, the high tribunal reiterated this by ruling the fund as “prima facie public funds.” Finally, in July this year the Sandiganbayan, a government anti-graft court, ruled as illegal 27% of Cojuangco’s shares in the government-owned United Coconut Planters Bank (UCPB), purchased as those shares were, as the latter admitted, through the coco levy funds.

Last September, however, in another case, the Sandiganbayan ruled in favor of Cojuangco. In a resolution, the anti-graft court lifted government’s sequestration order on Cojuangco’s shares at the San Miguel Corporation (SMC), strengthening the latter’s hold on the chairmanship of the beverage and food giant.  The Sandiganbayan ruled thus on a mere question of technicality that the sequestration order on 20% of SMC shares held by Cojuangco was signed by only one commissioner of the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG), although at the time the sequestration was made that was enough, according to the PCGG’s first rules on sequestration.

Ten years

For 10 years since 1971, coconut farmers were levied P0.55 for every 100 kilogram of copra or dried coconut meat they sold to millers and exporters. This became known as the Coconut Investment Fund (CIF). 

Subsequently, for nine years since 1973, the Coconut Consumers Stabilization Fund (CCSF) was created and through it farmers were taxed an additional P15 for every 100 kilos of copra they initially produced. In the following years, this was raised to P100 per 100 kilos of copra, according to a primer prepared by the militant peasant organization Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP or Peasant Movement in the Philippines). 

According to the initiators of the plunder case, the coconut levy fund has since grown to P130 billion. Yet coconut farmers claim never to have benefited from it.

In their Nov. 14 letter-complaint, KMP, Pambansang Lakas ng  Kilusan ng mga Mamamalakaya sa Pilipinas (Pamalakaya), Amihan – National Federation of Peasant Women, Pinag-isang Lakas ng mga Magbubukid sa Quezon (Piglas-Quezon), and Bicol Coconut Planters Association, Inc. (BCPAI), asked Ombudsman Simeon Marcelo to investigate and prosecute Cojuangco, Enrile and Lobregat for violation of Republic Act 7080 or the Anti-Plunder Act.

The complainants said that plunder is a continuing offense and that the respondents are continually benefiting from the coconut levy which, they added, belongs to about 4 .5 million coconut farmers who were originally taxed by the coconut levies.

Moreover, the complaint also held as legal ground the 2001 SC decision holding the levies as prima facie public funds.

Although the Anti-Plunder Act became a law only in 1997 and the alleged acts of plunder of the respondents took place within the effectivity of the levies from 1971 to 1982, the complainants allege that the respondents up to now continue to enjoy power and benefit using the coconut levy fund.

Cojuangco was the director of the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) and chairman of the UCPB at the time the supposed plunder act was committed. Former senator Enrile, on the other hand, was then chairman of the board of PCA and minister of national defense, while Lobregat, now a congresswoman, was PCA director.

Schematic and systematic plunder

The farmers’ group also said that the respondents, together with former President Marcos, committed “schematic and systematic plunder” of the funds generated by the coconut levy by:

1. Buying into the former Cojuangco-owned First United Bank, which was later renamed UCPB, using P150 million from the CCSF, “contrary to the intent” of Presidential Decree 276 which created the CCSF;

2. Unlawfully distributing 64.98% of the shares of stock of UCPB to 1,405,366 supposed farmers who were later found out to be business associates, dummies and nominees of the respondents;

3. Disbursing P10.97 million worth of UCPB shares to Cojuangco without the latter parting with a single centavo;

4. Causing the enactment of P.D. Nos. 755, 961 and 1468 which declared the coconut levy funds not as trust or special fiduciary funds and therefore not a part of government’s general funds;

5. Using the coconut levy funds to buy in and gain control of various corporations like the UCPB and the SMC;

6. Misappropriating a large part of the coconut levy funds by giving themselves excessive salaries and huge cash advances which remain un-liquidated and unaccounted for; and

7. Continuously dissipating the coconut levy funds despite the Supreme Court declaring the latter as prima facie public funds.

Coco farmers want Cojuangco out of SMC

The coconut levy, a Marcos legacy, continues to hound the country’s coconut farmers who, despite being the first and last impoverished by a crisis in the coconut industry since the 1980s, could only wish that the fund should have been used to rehabilitate them and the industry. It is an issue that is close to the heart of some now 8 million coconut farmers. It was also among the rallying cries of farmers and their leaders who founded KMP in 1985, according to KMP Secretary General Danilo Ramos.

Just where the coconut levy fund is now is a question that begs an answer. Danding Cojuangco was forthright enough when he admitted before the Sandiganbayan that he purchased shares from the formerly Ayala-owned SMC to gain control of the conglomerate through the coco levy funds. That is why KMP and other militant organization of farmers and coconut planters are agitating to cause the removal of Cojuangco as SMC chairman and chief executive officer.

“Cojuangco should be stripped of his control of the coco levy by his removal from the SMC. It is the only way by which the coco levy funds can be reverted to small coconut farmers and make Cojuangco pay for his crimes against small coconut planters,” says a KMP statement.

Justice by rehabilitation

But indemnifying coconut farmers may not come in the form of a refund of the P130 billion coconut levy exacted from them during the Marcos years. Not only will it be cumbersome, the refund may also end up in the pockets of the big-time copra traders and exporters, a KMP regional leader told Bulatlat.com.

Francisco Baylon, deputy secretary general of the Samahan Han Gudti Nga Paraguma (Association of Small Farmers)– Eastern Visayas, says that not all coconut farmers were issued receipts for the copra they sold from 1971 to 1982. Besides, particularly in the provinces of Samar and Leyte, he adds, there were instances when traders bought the coconut farmers’ receipts or exchanged these receipts for the debts of poor coconut farmers.

Baylon envisions instead for the funds to be returned to them through support services and rehabilitation of the industry that, he adds, can also pave the way for local industrialization.

He says this can be done by setting up small- to medium-scale coconut and coconut by-products processing facilities in the provinces and barrios where small coconut farmers will be benefited more through livelihood opportunities such as soap and shampoo-making using coconut oil or the processing of coconut husks into fertilizer and coconut shells into carbon.

The KMP leaders admitted however that this vision is still being mulled and while he is hopeful for “a breakthrough,” coconut farmers like him, he adds, face more daunting challenges like their struggle against arbitrary deductions – such as a 20% off for “resikada” or moisture content and other miscellaneous charges – in the net price of copra that goes to the farmer.

This alongside a continued slump in the prices of raw copra where a farmer is more often at a loss with a copra buying price that averages at P9 per kilo. At this price, explains Baylon, a coconut farmer earns a measly P20 per day if one computes the amount of time and resources invested by a coconut farmer for producing an average of 1,000 kilos of copra, not counting the number of years the farmer rears a coconut tree until it bears fruit.       

He also disparages at the thought of seeing justice done for coconut farmers through the Arroyo administration. For Baylon and other KMP members who gathered last Thursday and Friday in Cavite for the KMP Congress, the Arroyo administration is just as corrupt. This probably explains why it has chosen to reward Cojuangco rather than making sure that justice is served to millions of coconut farmers victimized by Cojuangco and the coco levy, he adds.

“The Arroyo administration would rather accommodate Cojuangco and get his support for 2004 than make sure that justice is given to coconut farmers,” says Baylon. Bulatlat.com

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