Shuf­fling NFA Coun­cil won’t solve rice loss

The Philippine Star - - OPINION - JARIUS BONDOC

Sec­re­tary to the Cab­i­net Leon­cio Evasco was re­moved Mon­day as Na­tional Food Au­thor­ity chair­man. He had just re­ported to Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte cor­rup­tion at the NFA. Su­per­vi­sion of the food-se­cu­rity agency also was re­verted from Mala­cañang to the Dept. of Agri­cul­ture. Both moves came af­ter the sud­den de­ple­tion of the NFA’s cheap rice for the poor. Nei­ther move, how­ever, pin­points the cause of the short­age nor averts fu­ture re­peats, sup­ply ex­perts say.

Those events un­folded as rice prices con­tin­ued to rise this week. Com­mer­cial va­ri­eties re­tailed at P44 per kilo in ur­ban cen­ters, up from last month’s P40. That rate is for the “can-af­ford.” Poor con­sumers no longer have sim­i­lar qual­ity NFA rice to buy at the sub­si­dized rate of P27 a kilo. The P39-per-kilo cut-price com­mer­cial va­ri­ety, which whole­salers promised to Duterte, was avail­able only in ware­houses like in Divi­so­ria, Manila.

Evasco’s re­moval came hours af­ter hand­ing to Duterte a memo against NFA ad­min­is­tra­tor Ja­son Aquino. He stated that Aquino had sold 10.4 mil­lion ki­los of NFA rice in Eastern Visayas ware­houses to fa­vored grains traders in Bu­la­can prov­ince. The sale was for only P235 mil­lion – dis­ad­van­ta­geous to the gov­ern­ment, Evasco said, since the agency had pro­cured it for P261 mil­lion. The NFA gov­ern­ing Coun­cil, con­sist­ing of reps from var­i­ous eco­nomic de­part­ments and fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions, had in­tended that rice for poor con­sumers, Evasco added. Yet Aquino dis­patched it dur­ing the sea­son of lean sup­ply and ty­phoons that an­nu­ally rav­age the re­gion, like Yolanda in 2013. Soon af­ter­wards, Aquino de­clared the de­ple­tion of NFA stocks in all re­gions. Duterte’s for­mer agrar­ian re­form sec­re­tary Rafael Mar­i­ano ex­posed the same de­tails to the press Mon­day, call­ing on fel­lowLeftists in Congress to in­ves­ti­gate.

Aquino pre­vi­ously had claimed that the stocks he sold from Cen­tral Lu­zon, Bi­col, and Mus­lim Min­danao were “aging.” Hav­ing been pro­cured as far back as 2014-2015, the agency had to sell at a low price to re­coup costs. Im­me­di­ate past ad­min­is­tra­tors dis­puted him, say­ing they du­ti­fully had sold out their stocks to poor con­sumers be­fore step­ping down in June 2016. Coun­cil mem­ber Atty. Teodoro Ju­mamil, rep­re­sent­ing the De­vel­op­ment Bank of the Philip­pines, had told this to in­quir­ing se­na­tors in Fe­bru­ary.

Ju­mamil re­port­edly opted out of the Coun­cil Mon­day, when the DBP seat was given to the Dept. of So­cial Wel­fare and De­vel­op­ment. DBP chair­man Al­berto Ro­mulo re­cently pointed up to Aquino com­plaints about the lat­ter’s con­struc­tion of a new NFA cen­tral build­ing. Al­legedly over­priced, the project was by a con­struc­tor black­listed by the gov­ern­ment. It is un­clear what hap­pened to an­other Aquino critic in the Coun­cil, as­sis­tant sec­re­tary Mercedita Som­billa of the Na­tional Eco­nomic and De­vel­op­ment Au­thor­ity.

Aquino had blamed the NFA rice short­age on the Coun­cil. Sup­pos­edly the lat­ter kept de­lay­ing ap­proval of his plan to im­port 250,000 tons of rice on gov­ern­ment-to-gov­ern­ment ar­range­ment. The Coun­cil re­torted that G-to-G, usu­ally by closed-door ne­go­ti­a­tion, was prone to cor­rup­tion (like dur­ing the time of for­mer agri­cul­ture sec­re­tary Pro­ceso Al­cala and NFA ad­min­is­tra­tor Or­lan Calayag). It pre­ferred gov­ern­ment-topri­vate, by open bid­ding. Be­sides, the NFA’s 2017 im­port of 250,000 tons had just ar­rived last Oc­to­ber-De­cem­ber. Had the NFA used its P7-bil­lion bud­get to buy palay from farm­ers, it would have had suf­fi­cient buf­fer stocks till the first quar­ter of 2018. The Coun­cil also dis­agreed with Aquino’s 2018 im­port timetable, since it would co­in­cide with the dry sea­son har­vest in March-May. That would drive down palay prices to the detri­ment of Filipino farm­ers.

But due to the run-out of NFA stocks in Fe­bru­ary-March, Duterte over­ruled the Coun­cil and fa­vored Aquino’s G-toG im­port, to ar­rive this May. To fol­low is the Coun­cil’s G-to-P of an­other 250,000 tons, thus dou­bling the usual im­port this 2018. The im­ports may flood the mar­ket with sub­si­dized NFA rice, but de­press farm-gate prices. It would also bloat the NFA’s year-on-year losses, so far at P265 bil­lion. The NFA im­ports at nearly P34 a kilo, in­clud­ing ship­ping, bag­ging, and cargo han­dling, but re­tails at only P27.

Duterte ini­tially had wanted to abol­ish the Coun­cil. Ex­ec­u­tive Sec­re­tary Sal­vador Me­di­aldea ad­vised that it was un­fea­si­ble since the Coun­cil was es­tab­lished by leg­is­la­tion of the NFA char­ter. Pres­i­den­tial spokesman Harry Roque then said that Duterte stood by the Cab­i­net, mean­ing sec­re­taries who sit in the Coun­cil. But Duterte has down­graded it via the for­ma­tion of an Ex­ec­u­tive Com­mit­tee, con­sist­ing of the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture, the NFA ad­min­is­tra­tor and a Mala­cañang fac­to­tum. Ven­er­a­ble jour­nal­ist Nestor Mata, 92, didn’t want to die yet, his son shared at the wake last week­end. He was still writ­ing his mem­oirs.

Cer­tainly high­light­ing Nestor’s rec­ol­lec­tions was how he re­fused to die too 61 years ago, at age 31. He was then a re­porter cov­er­ing Pres­i­dent Ra­mon Magsaysay’s hec­tic pro­vin­cial inspections, seated rear­most in the air­plane over Cebu is­land, when dis­as­ter struck. The plane slammed onto Mount Ma­nung­gal, in­stantly killing all but one of the 26 pas­sen­gers and crew. Nestor, se­verely burned and frac­tured, crawled out of the wreck­age then half­con­scious, called out to his com­pan­ions. Res­cuers took 18 ex­cru­ci­at­ing hours to carry him down the slope. The next six months were spent in hos­pi­tal. Nestor re­turned to fam­ily (the first four of six chil­dren) and work, and thence cel­e­brated two birth­days a year. The nat­u­ral one was Jan. 16, 1926; that sec­ond gift of life was Mar. 17, 1957.

As Nestor pro­moted cul­ture and the arts while con­tin­u­ing to write, he out­lived not only most of his peers but even his many ap­pren­tices. Those he left be­hind paid trib­ute Mon­day night to their beloved boss, col­league, friend. Though hos­pi­tal­ized for weeks last month for pneu­mo­nia, Nestor was still writ­ing for Malaya Busi­ness In­sight when com­pli­ca­tions over­took him April 12. Catch Sapol ra­dio show, Satur­days, 8-10 a.m., DWIZ, (882-AM).

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