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Filipino farmers demand government funds

MANILA (UCAN): Some 200 farmers arrived in Manila on April 19 after walking the 135 kilometres from Quezon province to make a special appeal to the government to release the billions of pesos collected by the more than three-decades-old Coco Levy Fund.

The tax was introduced during the dictatorship of former president, Ferdinand Marcos, in the 1970s, purportedly to support the development of the coconut industry, a major export crop of The Philippines.

The farmers want to tap into the accumulated fund which today stands at US$1.6 billion ($12.4 billion) and is being held by the National Treasury and the United Coconut Planters Bank.

Originally intended for the development of the coconut industry and coconut-based enterprises, the controversial fund is believed to have been a personal investment of Marcos, Eduardo Cojuangco and Juan Ponce Enrile.

Mostly it was used to purchase the United Coconut Planters Bank and the San Miguel Corporation.

“This is not just for my own welfare but for all farmers,” Lorna Alcaide, a coconut farmer from Sariyaya who joined the long march, said.

Marcos and his allies taxed coconut farmers in the 1970s and the early 1980s, purportedly to improve the country’s coconut industry and help farmers. From 1973 to 1982, the fund collected at least US$222.89 million ($1.7 billion) and has been rising ever since.

In 2012, the Philippine Supreme Court said at least US$1.6 billion ($12.4 billion) belonged to the farmers, who are now asking the government to put the money in a trust fund. 

An earlier decision in 2011, however, ruled that Cojuangco, a Marcos ally, was the rightful owner of 20 per cent of the shares in San Miguel.

The farmers are challenging the decision, saying the Cojuangco shares are part of the ill-gotten wealth of Marcos and his cronies. They called on the Supreme Court to reverse its 2011 ruling.

Data from the government anti-poverty commission show that coconut farmers, who earn from $2,325 to $3,100 a year, are among the poorest of the poor in The Philippines.

At least 41 per cent of coconut farmers—who number about 3.5 million—live below the poverty line.

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