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COCONUT FARMERS’ GRANDSON SEEKS JUSTICE
Ederic Eder’s grandparents, whose livelihood was their family’s main source of income, made several coco levy payments but got nothing for them. Now his grandfather is dead and still he and his grandmother have yet to receive from the coco levy. He seeks justice for coconut farmers like his grandparents.
By Alexander Martin Remollino
When Ederic Eder, 24, was a little boy, he would frequently play with some pieces of paper kept by his grandparents in a chest. He would pretend the pieces of paper, which he describes as having different colors, were money bills—these have numbers on them anyway, and to his child’s mind, these numbers were their denominations.
Later on, he would grow up and learn that these were receipts of coco levy payments made by his grandparents from the money they earned by making copra in a rural village in Sta. Cruz, Marinduque province.
He understands well the implications of the issues surrounding the coco levy funds. Though he did not learn to make copra or even to climb coconut trees (for fear of falling, he says), he used to help his grandparents out by peeling coconuts.
His father passed away in his infancy. Mother was a full-time catechist who received a small allowance, for her church activity. Their main source of income, then, was his grandparents’ livelihood as coconut farmers.
Coco levy blues
The coco levy is a tax exacted from coconut farmers from 1973 to 1982. It came in two forms.
First there was the Coconut Investment Fund. It was established on June 13, 1971 through Republic Act 6260, which provided for the exaction of a Php0.55 tax for every 100 kg. of copra. The coconut farmers were given receipts for payments made.
Second, there was the Coconut Consumers Stabilization Fund (CCSF). Presidential Decree No. 276 provided for the exaction of a Php15 tax for each first sale of every 100 kilos of copra from Aug. 20, 1973. Eventually the tax increased to Php100 for every 100 kg.
There were three major institutions which took care of the coco levy: the Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA), the Philippine Coconut Planters Federation (Cocofed), and the United Coconut Planters Bank (UCPB). These institutions were established in 1975 through the money that coconut farmers invested in the CCSF, and were directly administered by Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco, former defense minister Juan Ponce Enrile, and Ma. Clara Lobregat.
With the political support of then President Ferdinand Marcos, Cojuangco, Enrile, and Lobregat and the three institutions were able to control the Philippine coconut industry.
In 1983, Marcos issued a decree giving Cojuangco’s Unichem the sole right to import petro-chemicals to be used with its products. The next year—by Cojuangco’s own admission before the Sandiganbayan (anti-graft court)—he bought the majority shares of San Miguel Corporation (SMC) using coco levy funds.
In 1986, in the wake of the People Power uprising that toppled the Marcos dictatorship, the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) issued a sequestration order on Cojuangco’s SMC shares. The PCGG appointed its own personnel to the SMC Board of Directors, replacing Cojuangco’s men.
From 1987, the government filed graft cases against the perpetrators of the coco levy scam before the Sandiganbayan and the Supreme Court (SC).
In 1989, House Bill 25928 intending to declare the coco levy funds as public funds was filed. Congress refused to go beyond the committee level on this measure.
That same year, however, the SC ruled that: “The coco levy funds are clearly affected with public interest.” Twelve years later, the SC would rule that the coco levy funds are “prima facie public funds.”
That was happy news for Ederic. “When I heard the 2001 ruling,” he says, “I felt good about it. It was one of those now-rare instances that the government actually acted in favor of the people.”
He remembers writing on the coco levy, in an essay in 2001 for the e-zine Tinig.com which he edits, thus: “For several years it was exacted from the scant earnings of coconut farmers like my grandparents, but why is it that only a few benefited from it—in Pacman fashion?”
Two days after the SC ruling, however, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo would allow Cojuangco to remain as SMC chair.
GMA and Danding
The “civil-society” group People’s Consultative Assembly (PCA), one of the groups that participated in the January 2001 People Power 2 uprising which ousted the Estrada regime largely because of corruption, would shortly after claim that President Macapagal-Arroyo, in September of that year, had secretly met with Cojuangco to ask for a Php20-billion from the coco levy funds from which the businessman had amassed some Php130 billion over the years—in exchange for concessions to the businessman.
Malaca?ang publicist Dante Ang admitted that there had been a meeting between Macapagal-Arroyo and Cojuangco that September, but denied that there was talk of a Php20-billion commission from the coco levy funds.
The Macapagal-Arroyo administration would even allow the Malaysian company Kirin to purchase some of Cojuangco’s SMC shares and vote with him—as a single bloc.
In July this year, the Sandiganbayan ruled that Cojuangco’s SMC shares were illegally acquired.
Just two months after, however, the same anti-graft court reversed its own decision by declaring that the 1986 sequestration orders issued by the PCGG on Cojuangco’s SMC shares were null and void for violating a technicality. According to the court, the 1986 sequestration orders were signed by only one PCGG commissioner, when in fact sequestration orders require the signatures of two commissioners.
When the sequestration orders were issued, however, the law required only one commissioner to sign them.
This pattern of events seemed to confirm the PCA’s claims of collusion between Macapagal-Arroyo and Cojuangco. Last month, the Ilaw at Buklod ng Manggagawa—the union of workers in the San Miguel group of companies—said in a statement that Macapagal-Arroyo, through her husband Mike Arroyo, had collected a P20-billion commission from the coco levy funds.
This statement was issued at the height of the NPC-led impeachment case against SC Chief Justice Hilario Davide, Jr., which was supported by some representatives from Macapagal-Arroyo’s Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats. Davide was already chief justice when the SC issued its December 2001 ruling on the coco levy funds.
“It’s a sad indication of the current administration’s failure to fulfill its promises of good governance and new politics,” Ederic says of the issue regarding the GMA-Danding collusion.
Ederic was one of the hundreds of thousands of young Filipinos who trooped to Edsa in January 2001. On the last day of the People Power 2 uprising, he joined the 70,000-strong crowd that marched to Mendiola although he was starting to feel the first signs of an illness. He would be hospitalized for days after the march to Mendiola, but he never regretted joining People Power 2; in fact he was genuinely hopeful that the ouster of Estrada would usher in an era of new politics.
Cojuangco has recently declared that he would not run for president in 2004. He thus takes back an earlier expression of intention to run for president.
When Cojuangco manifested an intention to run for president, Ederic was enraged. “It was like, somebody like him who is accused of duping small coco farmers has no right to even think of running this country,” he says.
Ederic completed Journalism through a scholarship at the University of the Philippines in 1999.
His mother died in a sea tragedy shortly before he entered college: she was rushing to Manila from Marinduque to attend to his application for the journalism scholarship. His grandfather passed away shortly after.
His grandmother is no longer able to make copra, and now hires someone else to work on their small coconut farm.
Still he and his grandmother have yet to receive anything for the payments she and his grandfather made to the coco levy fund. Asked whether he wants to see Cojuangco in prison someday, he replies, “Sure. I want justice for the coconut workers like my grandparents.” Bulatlat.com