COMMENTARY

Redemption of coco farmers

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First of two parts

THE Supreme Court ruled with finality the other day that the coco levy funds impounded for so long by vested interests should finally be returned to the coconut industry. This comes close to the heels of the long march by dozens of weary farmers who trekked for 71 days from Davao to the Palace placing their tales of woe at the feet of the President. This was an act of desperation for the representatives of a couple of million coconut farmers who were robbed of their livelihood by a tax that was more hated than that imposed by the Romans to the Jewish community in Biblical times.

Indeed it has been almost half-a-century since the tax on farmers had been imposed and many a lawyer who had intervened on behalf of the farmers have left this world including former Vice-President Emmanuel Pelaez who almost lost his life for daring to speak for the alienated and marginalized coconut farmers in the 70’s. Getting the highest court to rule in favor of the farmer was like climbing Mt. Everest. When the farmers nearly got to the top they would be pushed back by the curse of Sisyphus.

With the first ruling of the court in favor of the farmer years back, it was thought that the farmers would now enjoy the money they had earned through blood sweat and tears. But alas and alack some lawyers de campanilla in our midst who exercise undue influence on the courts were able to delay the process. Today the levy money is impounded in the coffers of the government. Not even the coconut rot that threatens the whole industry or Yolanda that devastated Eastern Visayas coconut trees or statistics that show our coconut farmers to be the poorest in the farming community have moved this administration to release the levy funds. In the meantime the wheels of justice grind slowly – justice delayed has been justice denied to a subsector in agriculture whose hand-to-mouth existence has bred so much agrarian militancy ranging from NPA’s to Abu Sayyafs.

While other countries have pampered their farming communities as in the Kibbutz in Israel, the Feldas in Malaysia and cooperatives in other countries which supply ample credit, the transfer of technology, market intelligence, processing facilities and the lot, we have simply oppressed ours by the lack of the above and the implementation of anti-farm policies like the coconut levy which has effectively pauperized them. Moreover we gather from official investigations that legislators and government officials have even helped themselves to whatever financial assistance was due the farming community.

Last week the coconut farmers were told by the President that he will certify a bill creating a trust fund to manage the levy to Congress. He also mentioned that the problem is complicated by the appeal of the coconut cronies and their allies regarding the court ruling on the levy. Moreover throwing the levy issue to the lap of Congress which is swarming with NPC congressmen and senators who acknowledge Danding Cojuangco as their capo di capi tutti is tantamount to consigning the levy case back to the archives where it is likely to rot in suspended animation.

Parenthetically, the weakness of the current economy is attributed among other things to an underperforming agriculture. The way we treat farmers in this country, whether they be coconut farmers or sugar farmers as in Hacienda Luisita or rice farmers in general who have to compete with smuggled rice, is it any wonder that levels of productivity in this important sector is probably the lowest in the Asean!

Ironically the laws of the land which are designed to alleviate the conditions of the people have in the case of the coco levy provided a tool of oppression that has enslaved one third of agriculture in this country – the mainstay of millions in the countryside.

Reportedly the :President is now poised to come out with an executive order to provide a road map for the utilization of the coco levy. In so doing, we recommend the following:

Review of development parameters
There is need for a coconut industry development paradigm shift. To arrest the potentially inequitable situations, government should now spearhead the restructuring of policies for economic growth. This should emphasize that from now on priority will be to ensure that the benefits of growth shall accrue to small coconut farmers, farm workers and coco-based entrepreneurs, who should become the primary determinants and benefits of policies effecting the coconut industry.

The new development philosophy must aim at increasing the levels of productivity, incomes and employment in the coconut farm through vertical farm integration and product diversification. Monocropping must give way to multi-cropping, subsistence farming to cooperativism. With the call for an increase in Buko Pie (Productivity, Income and Employment), the new policy must be farm-focused, rather than product-centered.

The underlying principle of a new development concept is growth with equity in a free market environment. This means ending the regime of imperfect competition and redistributing income by giving preferential option to the 30 percent of the farming population mostly engaged in coconut farming.

It must be realized that coconut farming in this country is predominantly a subsistence farming operation which hampers the farmer’s efforts at obtaining services for production otherwise available to large-scale undertakings, as well as the necessary credit, placing him at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the middlemen. It must also be borne in mind that historically agricultural prices and profits often fluctuate violently, as supply fails to adjust itself to demand in the short-run.

The government must provide an efficient and affordable input delivery system. This includes the provisions of farm machinery, the purchase of requisites such as fertilizers and feeding stuffs at bulk prices, the organization of societies of fledging producers, cooperative credit facilities to obtain capital on cheaper terms, and economies of large-scale production. The government must either provide these services itself or encourage and assist cooperative societies to supply them, thus improving and making more efficient this input-delivery system to the farms.

Two chief methods have been adopted in normal times to make this possible.

■ First, in many countries, governments have encouraged cooperative marketing associations in order to put producers on a bargaining equality with distributors. In some countries, such producers’ organizations have been given compulsory powers over recalcitrant minorities as in the case of the Australian marketing boards.

■ Secondly, direct efforts have been made to prevent monopolistic and restrictive practices, which operate against the public interest. Various countries have passed different laws with aim. Also, the state has often prescribed standards of quality for various grades of produce, so that consumers will know what they are getting and pass back their preferences to producers.

In sum, the full benefits of small-scale agricultural development cannot be realized unless government support systems are created that provide the necessary incentives, economic opportunities, and access to needed inputs to enable small cultivators to expand their output raise their productivity.

This is likely to be ineffective, however, and perhaps even counter-productive, unless there are corresponding changes in rural institutions that control production (e.g., banks, moneylenders, seed and fertilizers distributors), in supporting government aid services (e.g., technical and educational extension services, public credit agencies, storage and marketing facilities, rural transport and feeder roads), and in government pricing policies with regard to both inputs (e.g., removing factor-price distortions) and outputs (paying market-value prices to farmers).

(Concluded tomorrow)

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