By Hannah Torregoza
Senator Cynthia Villar on Sunday said she is confident that the safeguards and reforms introduced by the Senate on the proposed measure strengthening the coconut industry would pave the way for the granting of better and improved benefits to the country’s 3.5 million coconut farmers.
The Senate has earlier passed on second reading Senate Bill No. 1233 or An Act Creating the Coconut Farmers and Industry Trust Fund, Providing for its Management and Utilization, and for Other Purposes during its plenary session last March 12 and is is set to approve it on third reading on Monday, March 19.
Villar said the passage of the bill creating the coconut industry trust fund addresses the decades-old issue surrounding the coconut levy fund and how it can be used for the direct benefit of the coconut farmers.
“We are confident that with safeguards and reforms in place, we can finally see the day when poverty incidence is no longer the highest among our coconut farmers,” said Villar who chairs the Senate committee on food and agriculture.
Villar was one of the senators who supported the amendment introduced by Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto who suggested to do away with a trust fund committee that would decide on the investment of the fund as this will only resurrect the botched Coconut Industry Investment Fund (CIIF).
During the period of individual amendments on the bill, Villar also introduced provisions in the measure to safeguard the P100-billion coconut levy funds composed of cash and assets and to ensure increased income for all coconut farmers.
In particular, the senator pushed for the inclusion of a provision that will mandate “the investment of the trust fund principal only in Philippine government securities to ensure the safety of the fund and for assured returns.”
“In terms of the deployment of the trust fund for investment purposes, this representation strongly feels that as a business woman, investing in stocks, commodities, futures and options would be very risky for a trust fund that is endowed with public interest, even where the services of fund managers are engaged,” she pointed out.
Villar, likewise, also pushed for specific earmarking of the income or interest earning of the trust fund to the following programs: shared facilities program, 35percent, scholarship program, 15 percent; empowerment of coconut farmer organizations and their cooperatives, 15 percent and farm improvements to encourage self-sufficiency, 35 percent.
She also added that an increased representation of coconut farmers in the reconstituted Philippine Coconut Authority (PCA) will ensure that the protection of farmers’ interest is the paramount consideration in the agency’s decision-making process.
Instead of a trust fund committee, the PCA will now manage the trust fund once the bill is enacted into law. Villar said she has introduced amendments to make sure that the PCA will have a yearly appropriation in the national budget to fund programs for the development of the coconut industry.
The amended version also provides that the PCA will have a mandated appropriation of not less than P10-billion to augment the coconut farmers and development fund, increase the income of coconut farmers and support the developmental activities of the PCA.
Twenty (20) percent of the said amount would be allocated to infrastructure program especially for the creation of farm-to-market roads,; 20 percent for planting and replanting; 10 percent for intercropping; 20 percent for shared facilities; 10 percent for research and development; five percent for fertilization; five percent for marketing of new products; and 10 percent credit through Landbank and Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP).
The senator also added amendments in the bill that would promote the propagation of hybrid coconut seedlings that can produce 150 nuts per year per tree, intensive effort on inter-cropping of alternative farm crops such as cacao, coffee and banana; livestock raising.
The senators also put in place the establishment of Coconut Industry Farm Schools in every coconut producing province to support and enlarge the trained human resource pool of coconut farmers by the PCA and the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority.
“Of the eight million crop farmers in the Philippines, 3.5 million are rice farmers and 3.5 million are coconut farmers. They comprise 90% of all the crop farmers in the Philippines,” she said.
“So if you solve the problem of the rice farmer and the coconut farmer, we solve the problem of majority of our farmers,” Villar stressed.