By Alexis Romero, September 12 2018;

Image Credit to Manila Bulletin

MANILA, Philippines — With the country’s rice supply still dwindling, President Duterte is now in search of a new head for the state-run National Food Authority (NFA) after his appointee Jason Aquino requested to be relieved.

In a televised interview with chief presidential legal counsel Salvador Panelo yesterday, Duterte announced that Aquino has requested to be removed after leading the agency for one year and eight months.

“He says he’s tired and he cannot cope with the dynamics inside, which is always ordinary happening, happening in government because we cannot be in agreement all the time,” Duterte said, referring to the NFA administrator.

Aquino is being blamed for the lack of rice supply in the market, prompting prices to spike.

Aquino could not be reached for comment while NFA special assistant to the administrator Rachel Miguel is currently out of the country.

Even NFA spokesman Rex Estoperez, who is on leave, has not responded to queries and clarifications.

A source from the NFA, however, said the announcement from the President was unexpected as Aquino has not mentioned any plan to resign from his post.

NFA deputy administrator Tomas Escare told a recent House hearing that the grains agency asked the council last October to allow the importation of one million metric tons of rice. He claimed the council permitted the NFA to import rice only last May.

NFA Council member and Trade Undersecretary Ruth Castelo countered Escare’s claim, saying the approval was delayed because of the NFA’s failure to submit information about its inventory.

Duterte has claimed that the Philippines has more than enough supply of rice and expressed readiness to order the opening of warehouses to prevent hoarding.

Officials have said the government would open stores selling cheap rice to stabilize prices.

The Chief Executive said he would appoint someone who would implement the policies of the economic managers but did not elaborate. He also did not say what position would be offered but revealed he was just waiting for the person to retire.

Best option

Several lawmakers and agriculture industry groups have been calling for Aquino’s resignation because of his supposed failure to address rice supply issues.

The Samahang Industriya ng Agrikultura (Sinag) welcomed the decision, saying voluntary exit is the best option for Aquino.

“I don’t think he could solve the situation right now so it is better that he just leave,” Sinag chairman Rosendo So told The STAR in a phone interview.

“He has to be accountable to the farmers and to the people for the rice shortage in the market,” he added.

The group will also review the graft charges it filed against Aquino on Aug. 29, saying there is a chance that the Office of the Ombudsman may just dismiss it given that he will be out of office anytime soon.

As to the next NFA chief, So said stakeholders trust the President to choose the right person to replace Aquino.

“The person to replace him should be pro-farmer and who will buy and protect our local farmers and not just think of importation,” he said.

“Someone who will help the local farmers and not the other countries,” So added.

NFA Council abolition

The industry also lauded the administration’s plan to scrap the interagency NFA Council, echoing the President’s sentiments that it is useless and has supposedly failed to perform its function.

Duterte revealed his plan amid the increase in prices of rice in the market.

“I will recommend to Congress the abolition of the (council). It has not done any purpose; it only hinders the operation,” he said.

The NFA Council, which formulates policy on rice and food security, like importation, was formed by Presidential Decree No. 4, later amended by Presidential Decree No. 1770. It consists of representatives from the finance department, National Economic and Development Authority, Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, Landbank and the farming sector.

Duterte reiterated the need to remove rice quotas and to just allow anyone to import rice to ensure that the country has enough supply.

“I have been advocating tariffication… anybody can import,” he added.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque Jr. previously said the bill that imposes tariffs on rice imports could lead to the abolition of the NFA. The measure was approved by the House of Representatives last month.

The entire council, which used to be led by Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco, has been in disagreement with Aquino in particular since last year due to opposing decisions on the extension of import arrivals.

The issue worsened with several deferments and non-approval of importation as well as rejection of the increase in the buying price of palay.

Rice from Sabah

Meanwhile, Duterte said he was considering buying rice from Sabah to address the country’s rice supply issues.

“Shortages are always there… The economic life of a country cannot be all bed of roses. I have several options. The importation did not stop. If worse comes to worst, I will open Sabah,” the President said.

“The rice from Sabah is cheap. If we let the authorities, those from Basilan, those from Jolo or Zamboanga to buy rice there, they can get it at a very low price,” he added.

Duterte also expressed willingness to set up barter trade in the area, which is now being administered by Malaysia. – With Louise Maureen Simeon