OPPOSITION Sen. Paolo Benigno Aquino 4th on Friday expressed concern about the possibility of the imported rice procured by the National Food Authority (NFA) ending up in the hands of rice traders again, leaving the buffer stock of the grains agency depleted.
Aquino raised such possibility since the corruption allegation surrounding NFA Administrator Jason Aquino has not been acted upon by Malacañang.
“The government should look into allegations against Aquino rather than entrust him with the task of importing thousands of metric tons of rice,” the opposition senator said.
The NFA administrator was blamed for the depletion of NFA buffer stock early this year, which led to the sudden spike on the prices of commercial rice in the market.
“It was his blunder that caused the rice price increase and added to the burden of Filipino families,” Sen. Aqiuno pointed out.
The initial shipments of the 250,000 metric tons of imported rice approved by the NFA council last February arrived in the country early this month in Subic and Surigao.
The 16,000 tons of rice were distributed in provinces surrounding Subic and Surigao to stabilize rice prices in the area. The supply for Metro Manila and other regions in the country are expected to arrive in succeeding trenches.
“What happened to the allegations against the NFA leadership? Now the imported rice has started to arrive, we should make sure that things would not happen again wherein the NFA rice and its buffer stock would just end up in hands of rice traders,” Aquino added.
During a Senate hearing on the rice issue, the NFA admitted it failed to comply with the required 15-day buffer stock since last year because of natural and man-made calamities experienced by the country in 2017, including the five-month Marawi siege.
The NFA head claimed that the agency anticipated the rice shortage and submitted a request for rice importation as early as October 2017 to the NFA Council, but its request to import 250,000 metric tons (MT) of rice in January was denied due to the stable price in commercial rice and the good local rice production forecast.
But some resource persons who attended the hearing alleged that while the NFA is only allowed to sell rice to retailers, the agency allowed its stocks to be sold to favored rice traders through dummy rice retailers.
Allegations were also made that the NFA rice was illegally sold to traders who then re-bagged and sold it as commercial rice at P42 to P45, or about 55 to 66 percent higher than the NFA selling price of P27 to P32.
Mayor Teresa Alegado of Cebu during the hearing noted that the practice was so blatant that traders were selling the NFA rice without even bothering to re-bag this.
Rice watchdog Bantay Bigas also pointed out that smugglers are taking advantage of the entry of the rice imported by the NFA fromVietnam and Thailand as it coincides with the scheduled arrival of the rice imports.
“Rice importation only breeds rice smuggling,” Bantay Bigas spokesperson Cathy Estavillo said in reaction to the interception Thursday of shipment of 100,000 sacks of Thailand rice worth P187 million by the Bureau of Customs (BoC) at the Manila International Container Port (MICP).
Based on BoC’s assessment, the shipments came from Vietnam and consigned to Sta. Rosa Farm Products Corporation.
The current rice importation policy is causing the increasing number of smuggling cases in the country as it only gives opportunity for illegal rice imports from private traders to enter the Philippines, Bantay Bigas said.
Experience tells us that rice importation permits sold to private traders were used to create an opportunity for illegally imported rice to enter the country,” Estavillo said.
According to her, the proposed rice tariffication would even worsen rice smuggling as the government welcomes any private trader who can afford to import rice.
Despite the NFA controversies President Rodrigo Duterte has retained Aquino as NFA head but returned the agency under the control of the Department of Agriculture.
The president also ordered the removal of the powers of NFA Council chairman and Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco Jr., a move which Sen. Aquino said was unnecessary and leaves the NFA even more prone to corruption and impunity.
Evasco was pushing for a government-to-private mode of procurement to make the process more transparent while Aquino wanted a government-to-government mode, which is prone to corruption.
WITH EIREENE JAIREE GOMEZ