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Poe pushes for farmers’ voice in coco fund agency

SEN. Grace Poe on Wednesday moved to ensure legitimate small coconut farmers’ stake in the multibillion-peso coconut levy fund, pressing for guaranteed representation in the body that will be created to manage the funds under the remedial legislation being crafted by Congress.

In her interpellation on Senate Bill 1396, to be known as the Coconut Farmers and Industry Trust Fund Law once enacted, Poe said this would guarantee small farmers a significant voice in the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) Board that decides how the funds would be used to benefit the coconut industry as well as the growers “long deprived of the money that rightfully belongs to them.”

The senator suggested “some sort of a provision, if ever we consider including more farmers to the decision-making body of any group, let’s say the Philippine Coconut Authority, that the ones who will be considered as members from the coconut farmers will actually be the farmers who have owned 3 hectares or less for the past 10 years?”

Poe proposed that this be incorporated in the law “to avoid a scenario where big-time coconut farmers will buy parcels of 5-hectare lands and name the title under different persons for the sake of being able to comply with the faux small farmers definition.”

She noted that Senate Bill 1396, as endorsed for plenary consideration and early approval under Committee Report No.65, provides for the creation of a Coconut Farmers and Industry Trust Fund to be managed by a board that will “craft plans on how to utilize the levy collected from coconut farmers’ since the 1970s which has now grown to an estimated P105 billion.”

The bill, she recalled, was passed in the 17th Congress, but vetoed by Malacañang, which cited lack of “vital safeguards” that could “disproportionately benefit wealthy coconut farm owners” because the law did not have a limit on the covered land area for entitlement of benefits.

Poe pointed out that “at the core of this bill are the coconut farmers and their dependents who have long been denied of what rightly belongs to them.  We want a legislation that will show true justice at work for our farmers,” noting that the fund rightfully belongs to them.

Once enacted, the remedial legislation paves the way for the release by the Bureau of the Treasury of P5 billion for the Trust Fund and another P5 billion as initial allocation to the PCA.

She expects that the PCA will be strengthened to ensure the participation of farmers, noting that under the proposal, its Board will be composed of the Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Secretary of the Department of Finance (DOF), Secretary of the Department of Budget and Management (DBM), Secretary of the Department of Science and Technology, Secretary of the Department of Trade and Industry; Administrator of the Authority; and three members from the coconut farmers sector representing Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao, who will be appointed by the President.

Moreover, she added, the remedial legislation paves the way for the creation of a Trust Fund Management Committee with representatives from the DOF, DBM, and Department of Justice, with the DOF to be “designated as the Fund Manager.”

Coconut farmers and their dependents should be able to benefit from programs using the Trust Fund through scholarships, health and medical benefits, training, farm improvement and projects leading to empowerment of farmers’ organizations, Poe said.  Butch Fernandez

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