Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The right time is now

published October 25, 2015

At the right time,” in Tagalog, is “sa tamang panahon.”
This is not about the Alden Richards-Maine Mendoza event that set new social media records anew yesterday. Sure, many things can happen at the right time, and you just have to sit back and wait for the time when everything would fall magically into place. 
But those fighting for their livelihood just cannot afford to wait for the right time, especially when they have been doing so for decades. For so many years, coconut farmers all over the Philippines have been taken advantage of and sidelined. They do not want to let fate, or faith, take over­—they are taking matters into their own hands. 
This is why some of them are back, camped outside the premises of the Philippine Coconut Authority at the Elliptical Road in Quezon City. 
Last year, they trekked for two months from Davao to Manila to bring their case to the government. Specifically, they asked for the creation, by law, of a coco levy trust fund that would eventually be used for the benefit of coconut farmers in general. They would need all the assistance they could to be more competitive in the face of commercialization and globalization. They even managed to seek an audience with President Benigno Aquino III sometime in November 2014 after their march attracted the attention of media, civil society, and the youth.
To be sure, there’s been progress. The House of Representatives has approved on final reading the proposed Coconut Farmers and Industry Development Act. Over at the Senate, just one more hearing needs to be conducted; the farmers are told they have several champions there, as well. 
The bill establishes the coconut levy trust fund from the per-kilogram copra sales levied on coconut farmers between 1973 and 1982. The money, estimated at P71 billion, was supposed to be for the benefit of the industry and the farmers themselves. The bill also provides for the creation of a committee that would prepare a Coconut Farmers and Industry Development Plan.
But the election circus has begun and the farmers are worried that officials who had promised them help would have other priorities now. They believe they have to do everything within their means to ensure that their efforts—the long years of injustice and waiting, the painful two-month trek to Manila to drive home their point, and the possibility that what they have been asking for could just be within reach— would not go to waste. 
“If the election overtakes us, then we will have to start anew with the next administration, and we have waited far too long,” said 41-year-old Domingo Espeda Jr., a farmer from Sorsogon. 
That morning, Espeda was resting on the makeshift plywood beds at the camp, oblivious to the noise and pollution of the bustling Quezon City traffic. He said he and six other farmers would stay there, along with some of their leaders, just in case the officials who had gallantly promised them help last year forget, or decide that their priorities now lie elsewhere.
Actually, Espeda said, passing the law is just one thing. A greater challenge would be translating its spirit into meaningful implementation. If a workshop held last year, and the words of some PCA officials, were to be an indication, he thinks there is more difficulty ahead. 
Espeda and some other farmers from Sorsogon submitted a proposal to establish a buko-juice processing facility. Unlike private enterprises, this cooperative-style venture would seek to employ farmers as well, with the earnings redounding to the many. 
Alas, top PCA officials told him: “Are you sure you can do this and not go bankrupt?” “How can you make sure good quality and viability against the firms that are already doing it?” “You may not have the know-how to do this: these companies have computerized accounting, they know how to run a business.”
These, for Espeda, were downright condescending and disenfranchising to farmers who must learn new ways to protect their industry and themselves. 
“And I thought the government was on our side as we empower ourselves,” he said. “We need help to make ourselves competitive.”
Espeda and the rest of the farmers are staying at the camp until the first of December. They have waited a long time for their rights to be recognized and their sector to be given the attention they deserve. He and the others are desperate for change to come soon. 
Enough of “forever.”
adellechua@gmail.com

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