DAVAO CITY – Seventy-one farmers. Seventy-one days. Seventy-one billion pesos.
These numbers symbolized the campaign of a national group of coconut farmers Kilus Maniniyog (Act Coconut Farmers), comprised of nine coconut farmers’ organizations nationwide.
The group mobilized 71 of its members last Sunday to embark on a 71-day march from Davao to Malacanang, where they will appeal to President Benigno Aquino III to enact a law that will channel the sequestered P71 billion coco-levy for a trust fund for coconut farmers.
The group’s campaign coordinator Soc Banzuela said they want to dramatize their call for government to support 3.5 million coconut farmers, who are the poorest group among the farmers in the country.
The 71-day march took off on Sunday, which was also the anniversary of Martial Law, in Davao City’s San Pedro Cathedral. The contingent arrived in Tagum City where a mass was held in support of the farmers.
The campaign was supported by the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines and its NASSA along with non-government organizations.
Banzuela said coconut farmers have earned an average of P12,000 to 18,000 a year, and are tied to debts and risks of no income such as the plight of coconut farmers hit by Typhoon Pablo in Southern MIndanao two years ago.
Typhoon Pablo damaged coconut crops that amounted to a loss of P33 billion.
He appealed to Aquino to fulfill one of his campaign promises to address the coco-levy issue in favor of the farmers.
“It’s been four years and we must go back to his promise. We hope he would listen to his boss,” Banzuela said.
The coco-levy fund was collected in 1973 to 1982 from coconut farmers during the dictatorship of President Ferdinand Marcos. The fund was supposed to support coconut farmers, but instead some P150-billion were invested in San Miguel Corporation (SMC), which was owned by Marcos crony Eduardo Cojuangco.
Two years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that P71 billion of SMC shares be opened as public fund and deposited in the National Treasury and the United Coconut Planters Bank.
Kilus Maniniyog claimed that the government has not acted on how to use the sequestered funds.
The group feared that government officials and agencies may dip their hands into the P71-billion fund for other uses.
The group demanded the goverment declared this fund as a Coconut Farmers Trust Fund that would support the development of skills and systems for the coconut farmers.
Banzuela said one of their proposals is to develop an integrated coconut hub and integrated processing facilities in barangays.
He explained that the integrated approach seeks to go beyond the traditional use of coconuts as copra, one of the chief exports in the country.
“We want to veer away from the industrial concept of using coconut as copra, which is a waste of the potential from coconut,” he said.
Banzeula pointed out there is more income to be derived from utilizing the many uses of coconuts.
“There are 1,000 products that can be made from coconut. You can produce chesse, milk, coconut oil,” he said.
But all these plans need funding and incentives especially from government, he said.
Banzuela said they had gotten initial support through a dialogue with Presidential Food Security Adviser Francis Pangilinan, who he said had planned to form a technical working group to explore the utilization of the funds.
Kilusang Maniniyog had talked to three members in the House of Representatives to endorse their demands: Dinagat Island Representative Kaka Bagao, Camarines Sur Rep. Leni Robredo, and Ifugao Rep. Teddy Baguilat. (davaotoday.com)