Marching on Behalf of Millions

(published 24 November 2014, MST)

Dionisio Abao of Misamis Oriental just arrived at the gymnasium of the Philippine Coconut Authority complex on Elliptical Road, Quezon City. He had spent the earlier part of the day at nearby SM North Edsa where he other Kilus Magniniyog members watched the winning punches of “Pambansang Kamao” Manny Pacquiao on the big screen.
“I used to be a boxer myself,” the 68-year-old said in halting Tagalog. He had never been on any ring, but he had practiced for years in case he needed to defend himself or a loved one. Now he believes his herbal concoction—leaves boiled in water in exact proportions, with a dash of sugar —as the reason for his extraordinary fitness.
The best proof of this is that he walked from Davao to Manila and is still standing straight to tell the story of the coconut farmers.  The 71 farmers arrived here last week; they are bringing their plea to everyone who would listen: academic institutions, the religious, lawmakers, and ultimately, President Benigno Aquino III.
The farmers marched out of desperation. Despite the passage of many years, a favorable Supreme Court ruling saying that the coconut levy fund should redound to the benefit of small coconut farmers, and the promises of an administration that says it follows the straight path, the farmers are still poor and powerless.
The fund is the aggregate amount of collections from per-kilogram copra sales levied on the farmers between the years 1973 and 1982. The money was supposed to be for the benefit of the coconut industry and the farmers themselves. Alas, after upheavals in the Philippine government, several administrations and the 11-0, September 2012 Supreme Court decision saying that the 24-percent share in San Miguel Corporation (roughly P71 billion) was owned by the government to be used only for the benefit of the coconut farmers and the coconut industry, nothing has happened. 
Adelmo Arandela, one of the nine leaders of the farmers, says they went to Mendiola as soon as they heard about the SC ruling two years ago. The President, through then-spokesman Ricky Carandang, promised them three times that there would be a dialogue on the matter.
“It never happened,” according to Arandela.
Aurelio “Ure” Umilda of Calauag, Quezon cannot understand why the President seems to refuse to even listen to them. “We organize ourselves not to fight the government, but to bring to him our woes. Just in case he does not appreciate them yet.”
The woes are many, and Ka Ure cannot help shedding tears just remembering them.
Because of persistent poverty among coconut farmers, he said, families break up. He knows it too well: his son and daughter-in-law’s relationship crumbled when they had to go to other places to find jobs. He has an 11-year-old grandson whom he last saw when the boy was just an infant. He heard the boy and his mother had settled in Capoocan, Leyte, and thought they had been killed by typhoon Yolanda last year.
Ka Ure’s parents, who were also coconut farmers, died without ever receiving benefits of any kind. And just this year, typhoon Glenda destroyed their farms, leaving them more desperate than ever.
Ka Ure also has stories about their extraordinary journey. In Compostela Valley, they narrowly missed an exchange of gunfire between the military and the New People’s Army. In Samar, they met people who have never even heard about the coco levy fund. In Sorsogon, they were heckled, branded as out for personal gain. Worse, in the middle of the march, Ka Ure was informed that his wife had to be taken to the hospital: her blood pressure had shot up out of worry for him. When they finally saw each other on November 11, during the march’s Quezon leg, she noted how thin and how frail he had become.
Then again, there was no shortage of people who offered them food, board and lodging, well wishes, tears and hugs of solidarity. Ka Ure also got a big surprise when he learned that his grandson was alive. The boy spoke to him by phone during the Leyte leg of the march.
The farmers’ lead convenor, Eduardo “Ka Ed” Mora, said that in their meeting with President Aquino on Wednesday, November 26, they intend to request him two things. First, issue an executive order to protect the P71 billion already in government hands by creating a Perpetual Coconut Farmers’ Trust Fund. Second, certify as urgent a bill that they have filed through people’s initiative at the House of Representatives and the Senate. The bill seeks to create the Coconut Farmers’ Trust Fund.
According to Arandela, even so-called investments in the coconut industry have done them only limited good. In these cases, coconut farmers are merely one-time suppliers of raw materials.  It is the multinationals and other big corporations who profit from everything that happens after the raw material is sold to them. Remember President Aquino’s big speech about coco water? That did not help the small farmers much, he said.
The coco levy fund could change the tide for small farmers if it is used to establish village-level integrated coconut-based processing companies, owned by the farmers. Fruits and other benefits of the hub remain within the farmers themselves—for genuine, inclusive and sustainable empowerment.
It’s an issue of political will on the part of the President, according to Ka Ed. Mr. Aquino only has to say the word. And make good on it.