MANILA - A Senate panel crafting a law on the distribution of billions of pesos in coconut levy funds is inclined to let government manage the money, despite the position of various groups that farmers should be given a free hand in deciding how to spend it.
At a hearing of the Senate agriculture and food committee on Monday, Benigno Peczon of the Coalition for Agriculture Modernization in the Philippines said government must keep its hands off the coco levy funds.
The funds amounting to P72 billion were from taxes that the Marcos administration collected from coconut farmers supposedly for their own welfare but were instead used to buy shares in some companies.
The Supreme Court recently affirmed its 2012 decision awarding shares of San Miguel Corporation to the government for the benefit of some 3.5 million coconut farmers and the development of the coconut industry.
"The money has been judged by the Supreme Court to belong to the farmers and the coconut industry, so we should give them [farmers] more leeway on how to handle the money," Peczon said.
Rafael Mariano, national chairperson of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas, proposed that farmers be allowed to manage the funds through a council with themselves as members.
"Ang magpapasya kung paano at saan gagamitin at dapat lagakan ng ating trust and confidence ay ang ating maliliit na magniniyog (Small farmers should be the ones to decide how and where to spend the money and be given our trust and confidence)," he said.
But Senator Cynthia Villar, the agriculture committee chair, reminded stakeholders of the Supreme Court's decision designating government as the funds' trustee.
Villar, whose committee was hearing five measures on the matter, stressed that the government must handle the money, particularly by leading a committee that will be tasked to do it.
She said farmers will be represented in the committee, but they should not head it to avoid a clash of interests among various groups.
"It should be a government official who's there permanently," said Villar. "Otherwise, this fund will have problems because of the bickering among the industries."
Villar is in favor of putting the money in a trust fund and using only the interest amounting to an estimated P2 billion yearly for various programs, such as scholarship schemes for coconut farmers' children, livelihood activities, and research and development.
"Ang intention natin is the preservation of principal (Our intention is the preservation of the principal amount)," she told reporters after the hearing. "It will be there perpetually for the small farmers."
The Senate agriculture committee has yet to decide which government agencies will comprise the trust fund committee.
Villar's panel aims to pass a law on the distribution of coco levy funds in the first quarter for 2015. The law will supersede an executive order that President Aquino plans to sign anytime soon to implement the Supreme Court's ruling.