By Christina Mendez and Edith Regalado, September 3 2018; Philippine Star


Image Credit to Philstar.com

Philippines edging toward food crisis – senators

DAVAO CITY, Philippines — President Duterte yesterday warned rice traders he would not hesitate to order military and police raids on warehouses as part of emergency measures to address any rice shortage.

“I will not allow Filipinos to go hungry. Do not force me to resort to emergency measures,” the President said in a pre-departure press briefing at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport before leaving for Israel and Jordan on an official visit.

Duterte made the warning following reported rice shortages in certain parts of the country.

He said he would exercise his powers as chief executive should an artificial rice shortage prevail.

“If I see something amiss, I will not hesitate to exercise the powers of the President. And I will ask the military and police to raid your warehouses, bodegas, and I will just subject (you) of course to just compensation,” Duterte said. “I can do that, but do not force me.”

Duterte warned traders against resorting to hoarding.

“Because if you do that and time is very limited, and if there is an artificial scheme going around, I do not care if it is really the forces of the market that will impact on the situation. I will really raid your warehouses,” he said.

Sen. Francis Escudero said the President should instead declare a state of calamity given the dire situation of the ountry’s food supply.

He said the country is edging towards a full-blown food crisis and with declaration of a state of calamity, the government could impose price controls and bear down on greedy rice traders.

“What if we declare a state of calamity and impose price controls lest the situation worsens and the people suffer more?” Escudero said.

He warned that it was not only rice and galunggong (round scad) that are in short supply but also other food items like vegetables.

Escudero earlier asked the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the National Bureau of Investigation to look into the possible filing of economic sabotage charges against certain rice importers and traders, who are not only undervaluing their imports but also jacking up prices.

“It’s clear that we’re being exploited by greedy businessmen,” he said, adding even if the unscrupulous importers and traders would declare the correct value of their rice imports and pay the right duties, they would still earn a healthy profit.

Escudero agreed with Sen. Cynthia Villar who said that if the President is not inclined to declare a state of calamity, he can order the Department of Trade and Industry to set price ceilings on rice and other commodities where violators can be penalized, including closure of their establishments.

Villar last week warned rice cartels that continue to operate with impunity. She chided the Department of Agriculture and the DOJ for not going after them.

Escudero attributed the country’s current food woes to the bickering, as well as lack of expertise of officials, particularly Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol and National Food Authority (NFA) chief Jason Aquino.

He claimed Aquino used up bulk of the NFA budget allocation for rice this year to pay the agency’s debts while officials close to Duterte failed to advise him to set rice tariffs when Congress went on a break last month.

“The question is why did he (Aquino) do that (pay debts instead of buying rice)? Is he just pea-brained? Is he useful? If you have some logic, you won’t do that,” he said.

Escudero also lamented that current officials do not seem alarmed while remaining clueless on how to resolve the situation.

Former solicitor general Florin Hilbay urged Piñol to resign for inflicting a double-whammy on fishermen and the country by pushing importation from China as a means to lower prices of fish in the market.

“Our fishermen are losing their livelihoods and they (Piñol) are letting China profit from it when the fish was caught in the West Philippine Sea,” Hilbay said in a statement.

He said fish supposedly imported from China would be laced with formalin, a preservative, as a “bonus” for Filipinos.

Hilbay said the Department of Agriculture (DA) should look for other means, rather than focus on importation, as it will affect the livelihood of fishermen.

Hilbay earlier called on authorities to investigate whether the NFA distributed the imported rice to its intended beneficiaries and not to rice hoarders who want to control the price of the staple food.

Piñol, Aquino and the NFA council have been blamed for the prevailing rice shortage and rising rice prices for their failure to handle the situation.

No need to fire people

Duterte said he is not firing Piñol and Aquino over their supposed failure to control the problem on rice supply.

He said the problem could be a result of weak laws but that it doesn’t mean there is a need to fire people.

“Maybe the laws are weak or uncomfortable. All we have to do is improve on those laws. Not necessarily fire people,” the President said.

“You know, all officials, including me are bound by laws on the matter of rice or whatever it is, there are laws of the land,” he said.

Duterte said he does not see any serious offense committed by Piñol and Aquino to warrant their dismissal from office.

“And I do not see any serious offense there. We have not lost anything except that there is an aberration in the market,” the President added.

Rep. Jose Panganiban Jr. of party-list ANAC-IP agreed with the President against firing Piñol and Aquino.

Panganiban said heads should not roll because closer coordination is all that is needed.

Panganiban noticed that the DA’s two agencies – the Aquino-led NFA and the NFA Council which solely approves rice importations – only need to have better coordination in the future.

Minority Leader Danilo Suarez of Quezon, however, said Piñol’s remarks on the importation of agricultural and fishery products instead of protecting local farmers and fishermen, and pushing the legalization of rice smuggling are enough reasons for his resignation.

“Their solutions will put further strain on our agricultural sector. The importation of rice and galunggong will impress upon the idea of encouraging further importation, potentially on other agricultural products at the costly expense of our farmers and fishermen,” Suarez said.

‘Legalize’ rice smuggling

Duterte, on the other hand, disagreed with Piñol’s proposal to legalize rice smuggling.

Piñol earlier proposed to make rice smugglers turn their operations into legitimate rice trading, subject to tariffs and import rules, to address the supply shortage in southern Mindanao.

Piñol stressed this was the most practical option to address the rice shortage.

“No, of course not. The smuggling itself? No, of course not. It is destructive to the economy,” Duterte said.

Piñol had envisioned the establishment of a “trading center” for rice in the region of Zamboanga-Basilan-Sulu-Tawi-Tawi, which he claimed has always been the traditional practice in the area.

The island provinces actually source their rice from the neighboring areas of East Malaysia, particularly Sabah.

The President rejected Piñol’s proposal even if the move would make government earn as much as P2 billion from tariffs that would be collected.

“Smuggled rice, unrestrained, will promote disorder in this country. Well, those smuggled rice have not paid any taxes, or tariff or whatever,” Duterte said.

The President said he would rather confiscate the smuggled rice and sell them to the public at a lower price even if government loses revenues.

“So, they are confiscated at a disposal of government. Maybe I will distribute it for free or go down to the market prices. Maybe I will distribute it for free or sell at lowest prices,” he said.

The DA pointed out that Zamboanga City only has a rice sufficiency rating of 55 percent; Basilan at five percent; Sulu, two percent, and Tawi-Tawi with only one percent registered. The lower figures were a result of local traders having given up on selling since their price ceilings could not compete with smuggled rice priced at only P29 per kilo.

Duterte stressed he wanted to import rice and risk losing revenues but he could not allow smuggling.

“Maybe we can import and lose. We import rice then sell them at a lower price any Filipino can afford,” he said.

Duterte said government could lose along the way if it sells rice at very low prices.

“We can lose (revenues) but we cannot allow smuggling in this country. The other way around, we import rice even if it is a losing venture to sell them at lower prices. At least we have that benchmark how much we are willing to lose in terms of revenues,” the President said. – With Delon Porcalla, Christina Mendez, Paolo Romero, Jack Castaño