President Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday ordered the removal of all administrative constraints and non-tariff barriers on the importation of agricultural products, even as his spokesman said he would personally file charges against outgoing National Food Administration chief Jason Aquino over the rice crisis.
Administrative Order No. 13 directs the NFA, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Trade and Industry to take immediate measures to remove administrative constraints and non-tariff barriers.
These measures include streamlining procedures in the accreditation of importers, and shortening the processing time for applications to import, and exempting traders who are already accredited from registration.
“Non-tariff barriers and certain administrative constraints, procedures, and fees unduly add to the costs of importation and limit supply, which in turn push up the prices of agricultural commodities to the detriment of Filipino consumers, especially the poor,” the order read.
Other measures include facilitating the importation of certain agricultural products beyond their authorized minimum access volume and where applicable, reduce or remove fees, liberalize issuance of permits and accreditation of rice importers to break the monopoly, and temporarily allow direct importation by sugar-using industries to lower their input costs.
The order also authorizes the NFA Council to approve additional rice importation beyond the MAV commitment. The DA will then issue the appropriate Certificate of Necessity to allow importation of adequate volumes of fish to augment the 17,000 metric tons of fish imports.
The Bureau of Customs will prioritize the unloading and releasing of imported agricultural products, while the DA and DTI will work to improve logistics, transport, distribution, and storage of agricultural products to reduce input costs.
Duterte also authorized the formation of a “surveillance” team composed of the DTI, NFA, National Bureau of Investigation and Philippine National Police to monitor importation and distribution of agricultural products to ensure distribution to warehouses and retail outlets.
Also on Tuesday, Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque vowed to file charges against the NFA’s Aquino over the rice crisis.
“Because of this single issue of rice, people have forgotten the other achievements of the administration,” Roque told reporters in a Palace press briefing.
He said he would personally file charges of technical malversation and possibly graft and corruption, if no one else would.
“And because he did not spend the money to buy from local farmers for our buffer stock, we are importing today and giving money to foreign farmers. I won’t just file a technical malversation if no one else would dare, I will also file graft and corruption [charges]. To set the record straight, I will file more,” Roque said.
“The penalty for technical malversation is minimal. I want the one with a long jail sentence,” he added.
He also said he learned that some traders were preparing to sue Aquino as well, because he delayed imports by private traders due to his preference for government-to-government deals.
Roque acknowledged that the President might not hold the same position on the filing of charges against his appointee, Aquino.
“Probably not, but this has been confirmed by the Commission on Audit. And as I said, I only speak for the President. I am not obliged to speak for Jason Aquino. And I speak in this manner because the President is still tasked with implementation of laws,” he said.
Aquino has been blamed for the increase in rice prices after he declared a shortage of NFA rice as he failed to buy enough grain from local farmers.
Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol clarified that Aquino is still the NFA chief until Lt. Gen. Rolando Bautista takes over in mid-October or unless Duterte says otherwise.
Senator Risa Hontiveros, meanwhile, claimed in a radio interview that Aquino and other officials pocketed about P2 billion yearly in grease money over rice imports.
Citing only information from traders and insiders, Hontiveros said NFA officials received bribes of P100 to P150 for every bag of imported rice, and noted that the country imports about 200,000 bags a year.
“Imagine the multi-billion-peso enterprise that went into the pockets of Jason Aquino that caused so many Filipinos to go hungry,” she said in Filipino. “This was economic sabotage.”
In a privilege speech at the Senate on Monday, Hontiveros presented documents from her sources showing the supposed release of import permits to “favored” traders, the removal of some NFA
inspectors from ports and Aquino’s order allegedly banning officials from speaking to media without the approval of his office.
She referred the issue to the Senate Blue Ribbon and agriculture committees for further investigation.
Also on Tuesday, Senator Cynthia A. Villar guaranteed that the Senate would pass the rice tariffication bill before Congress adjourns in October.
“If not, then we do it in November,” Villar said, noting that the President’s administrative order was a clear indication he wants to liberalize rice imports.
Under the current situation, she said, rice importation is limited to the NFA and a certain group of people. With the supply controlled, prices will rise, she said.
Liberalizing the rice trade would change this and make rice cheaper, she added.
Meanwhile, the Philippine Crop Insurance Corp. said it will release as much as P1.65 billion worth of crop insurance to farmers affected by the recent Typhoon “Ompong,” the Agriculture department announced Tuesday.
“We will speed up the adjustment/inspection of the farms and process the claims immediately. Our regional offices are now functioning 24 hours daily to ensure non-stop processing of the huge number of claims and Financial documents,” said Jovy C. Bernabe, PCIC president.
The insurance agency estimated that about 262,057 farmers whose crops were insured would benefit from the pay-up. Affected farmers included those who planted rice, corn and high-value crops in the six regions affected by Ompong.
Among the regions devastated by Ompong, Region II suffered the most damage. It will get the biggest pay-up of P585 million, followed by Region I, with P510 million worth of insurance.
The insurance agency said it is willing to provide the best terms to all affected farmers to allow them to recover their investments.
Damaged rice crops amount amounted to 765,484 metric tons (MT) worth P14.5 billion while the affected corn crop stood at 496,881 MT with value of P8.1 million.
Damaged high value crops hit 163,91 MT worth P3.4 billion.
Other crops damaged by the typhoon included vegetables, root crops and fruit trees.
“It’s important that we give timely assistance so farmers can replant quickly so they can bounce back from their losses more easily and that we will have a stable food supply,” Bernabe said.