P100-b coco levy bill up for finetuning

THE congressional bicameral conference committee  will try  this week to  reconcile  conflicting provisisions in the proposed measure that will create the P100-billion coconut levy trust fund, Senator Cynthia A. Villar said on Sunday.

Despite substantial differences between the versions of the House of Representatives and the Senate, Villar expressed  “confidence that members of the panel will be able to find a common ground.”

“It will not be very difficult to convince our colleagues to agree on provisions that will make sure that benefits from the coconut levy fund will be protected, maximized and will directly go to the 3.5-million coconut farmers themselves,” Villar said.

Senate Bill 1233 or the Coconut Farmers and Industry Development Act was among the priority legislative measures   President Rodrigo Duterte pushed during his third State of the Nation Address.

The bill is among Villar’s pet measures  to address the need to develop the coconut industry as it has the highest potential for growth through productivity enhancement, diversification, and industry value-adding.

Villar noted that reforms are urgently needed given that the Philippines has the lowest yield in coconut production among Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries, with only 4.4 metric tons as compared to 9.6 MT of Vietnam, 5 MT of Thailand, and 6.5 MT of Indonesia.

During the Senate interpellations on the bill, Villar introduced amendments gathered from her consultations with industry stakeholders, among them are provisions safeguarding the coconut levy funds and making its earnings available to support the livelihoods of small coconut farmers.

Villar pushed for a provision that will mandate “the investment of the trust fund 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, I strongly feel 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 said.

She also pushed for the earmarking of the income or interest earning of the trust fund to the following programs: Shared facilities program, 35%; b. Scholarship program, 15%; c. Empowerment of coconut farmer organizations and their cooperatives, 15%; and d. Farm improvements (to encourage self-sufficiency), 35%.

The  senator also introduced amendments to make sure that the Philippine Coconut Authority will have a yearly appropriation in the General Appropriations Act to fund programs for the development of the coconut industry.

The amended version 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.

Villar said the amount will be allocated as follows: a. Infrastructure program (farm-to-market roads), 20%; b. Planting and replanting, 20%; c. Intercropping, 10%; d. Shared facilities, 20%; e. Research and development, 10%; f. Fertilization, 5%; g. New products and marketing, 5%; and h. Credit through Landbank and Development Bank of the Philippines, 10%.

Villar also added amendments in the bill that will 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; and 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.

The Senate bicam panel is headed by Villar, with members Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto, Senators Francis Pangilinan, Francis Escudero, and Joseph Victor Ejercito.

The House   panel is composed of Representatives Sharon Garin, Jose Panganiban, Jericho Nograles, Celso Lobregat, Manuel Sagarbarria, Edcel Lagman, Evelina Escudero, Angelina Helen Tan, Conrado Estrella III, and Cecilia Leonila Chavez.