By DAWN CECILIA PEÑA
MANILA – Consumer groups expressed their disappointment over the government’s move to intensify importation of food products amid massive reported smuggling of agricultural products and low land productivity.
In a statement, fishers’ group Pamalakaya said Agriculture secretary William Dar is “always resorting to importation as a solution to shortage and inflation.”
“The Department of Agriculture never learns. Every time there is an alleged shortage, the default solution is to flood our market with imported fish. Yet this measure never addresses and resolves the crisis in our fisheries production that happens on a yearly basis,” said Pamalakaya spokesperson Ronnel Arambulo.
The statement was echoed by women farmers group Amihan and consumer group Bantay Bigas as they urged farmers and food producers to collectively press the government to resolve the continuing trend of low farm gate prices of palay and stop the smuggling of vegetable products such as carrots in the local market.
Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas demanded that the Bureau of Customs should go after large-scale vegetable smugglers and not just small retailers.
“Stalls just distribute. The ones who must be urgently caught and penalized are those who facilitate the entry of huge volumes of smuggled vegetables. The government should inspect warehouses, not just market stalls,” said KMP chairman emeritus Rafael Mariano.
The statement came after the BOC seized P4.8 million-worth ($94 thousand) of smuggled carrots, garlic, and other agricultural products last September 30.
The peasant leader insisted that this was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. “If three lowly stalls can sell huge amounts of smuggled vegetables, what more can warehouses sell?” Mariano, also a former agrarian reform secretary, asked.
The group cited a 2014 SEARCA study, which estimated the value of smuggled agricultural goods in the Philippines at $52 billion, on average, annually from 1986 to 2009.
“The buck should not stop with these stalls. Their suppliers should be aggressively hunted down and penalized as economic saboteurs,” the former Agrarian Reform Secretary demanded.
KMP also pointed out that increasing smuggling is the direct consequence of increasing importation.
“Smuggling flows through the same processes and the same vessels as legal importation. Every time agricultural trade is further liberalized, technical smuggling – misdeclaration, undervaluation, and misclassification — also becomes easier. Agriculture Secretary William Dar’s persistent ‘import, import, import’ direction is also accountable,” the group said.
Pamalakaya also expressed their disappointment over government plans to import 60,000 metric tons of galunggong, bonito, among other pelagic fishes that are expected to enter the country this month.
The fishers’ group argued that imported fish, which can be sold in local public markets at a very low price, is a “threat to the livelihood of Filipino fisherfolk because imported fishes outcompete their fishery and marine products.”
“Fishermen lose money every time imported goods flood the markets. Because of the low value of imports, the fishermen are pushed to lower the price of their catch… otherwise no one will buy them,” Arambulo explained.
Similarly, the SEARCA study noted that smuggling increased considerably and more quickly after 1995, the year the Philippines joined the World Trade Organization which pushed for “free trade.” It also estimated that rice smuggling in the country was at its highest in 2008 after then-President Gloria Arroyo lifted rice importation quotas.
In the same light, RA 11203, or the Rice Liberalization Law, is said to be the root cause of farm gate prices dropping to a new low.
Bantay Bigas spokesperson Cathy Estavillo exclaimed that the livelihood of rice farmers are devastated as the sector becomes “fully liberalized” or with private traders totally dominating the buying of palay and dictating farm gate prices.
“Farmers are already hurting over the very low price of palay. Its price only reached P10 – P14.50 ($0.20 – $0.30) per kilo. Meanwhile, when it reaches the market, its prevailing price climbs to at least P38 – P44 ($0.75 – $0.87) per kilo and P42.50 – P45 ($0.84 – $0.89) for imported rice,” Estavillo added.
Amihan and Bantay Bigas urged Filipino food producers to organize and let their voices be heard in pressing the government to immediately halt the smuggling of agricultural products and support local production as a strategic step towards self-sufficiency and food security.
“The long-term solution here is to repeal the Rice Liberalization Law and the agricultural liberalization policy, and fully support farmers and the agricultural sector so that we can achieve national food security based on self-sufficiency and self-reliance,” Estavillo said.
KMP’s Mariano likewise proposed that while seizing smuggled vegetables was a welcome development, it doesn’t have to end there.
“A legislative inquiry is the least we can do to expose the extent of our agricultural smuggling problem today, especially after the enactment and implementation of the Rice Liberalization Law,” he ended. (JJE, RTS)