Of the numerous industries that compose the agricultural segment of the Philippine economy, the coconut industry is arguably the most important. Not only does the coconut industry cover more land area—around 46 of the nation’s 81 provinces—but it also accounts for the greatest number of agricultural workers and the largest source of this country’s non-labor export income. Indeed, the Philippines is the world’s No. 1 producer of coconut oil.
With these claims to fame, one would have thought that the coconut industry would be at the top of the what-I-will-do-if-elected lists of the 62 men and women vying for Senate seats in the coming election. But that, unfortunately, is not the case. Only one of the 62 candidates has been steadfastly championing the cause of the Philippine coconut industry and the hundreds of thousands of Filipinos who depend on it for their livelihood. That candidate is Lorenzo ‘Erin’ Tañada III.
Erin Tañada, who is one of the Otso Diretso candidates, championed the cause of the coconut farmers and their communities throughout his nine-year membership of the House of Representatives, which was capped by his election as Deputy Speaker. He either authored or co-sponsored every legislative proposal providing for assistance to, or support of, the Philippine coconut industry. To give him the nickname “Mr. Coconut” would be entirely appropriate.
Hailing from the heartland of the coconut industry—the municipality of Gumaca in No. 1 producer Quezon—the former Deputy Speaker knows the ins and outs of the problem and poverty conditions of Quezon’s coconut farmers and their brothers in the nation’s other coconut-growing provinces. He is familiar with the official statistics that place farmers within the ranks of the poorest Filipinos. The mired-in-poverty living conditions of most farmers is the very reason why he authored the Peoples’ Survival Fund and the Coconut Farmers and Industry Trust Fund bills that went on to become laws.
The return to the coconut farmers of the coconut levy funds—believed to now total more than P200 billion— has been one of Lorenzo Tañada III’s principal preoccupation in and out of Congress. It was during his days at the Ateneo de Manila that he read about Ferdinand Marcos’s martial-law order requiring all coconut farmers to pay a levy—the Supreme Court later pronounced it a tax—on every 100 kilograms of copra that they sold. The levy collections were later shown to have been used in ways that had little or nothing to do with the stated purpose of the Marcos order—to provide direct support to the coconut farmers and the coconut industry—including the purchase of coconut mills, San Miguel Corporation shares and a commercial bank and the establishment of a life insurance company.
The long, sad story of the effort to return the coconut levy funds to the coconut farmers began with the fall of the Marcos regime and the creation by newly-installed President Corazon Aquino of a commission—PCGG (Presidential Commission on Good Government)—to recover all the ill-gotten wealth of President Marcos and his cronies and business associates. It has been a very long road spanning 43 years, and six administrations, and countless court cases, and at the end of it, in 2019, the coconut farmers still have not seen the return of their funds.
The latest turn of events has been the recent veto by President Rodrigo Duterte of an approved bill creating a trust fund and creating a board of trustees to administer the fund and supervise the return—finally—of the levy funds to their rightful owners, the coconut farmers. Mr. Duterte offered a reason for his veto of the bill, but Erin Tañada has strongly criticized the Chief Executive for his action. The grandson of the legendary Senator Lorenzo Tañada realizes that the farmers who paid the levy have grown old and cannot afford to wait for their money very much longer.
There are other legislative measures—including universal health care and providing trabaho—that the former Deputy Speaker has been and will continue to be preoccupied with, but there can be no mistaking the fact that the return of the levy funds to the coconut farmers of his beloved Quezon and of other provinces will be his principal passion.
The rightful owners of the coconut levy funds will need a steadfast champion in the incoming Senate. That man will be Lorenzo Tañada III.
(ERRATUM: The correct title of my April 23 column was “Administration Senators Beaten 1-7 in 1971 Election.”)