Use DA fund hike to aid farmers’

By Jennifer A. Ng, Reporter

Businessmirror, September 17, 2008

The Department of Agriculture (DA) is allotted a much higher budget next year, and rice farmers grouped in the Rice Watch and Action Network (R1) are worried it would be “squandered and plundered by corrupt officials,” even as Sen. Chiz Escudero rebuked the National Food Authority (NFA) for importing “too much rice for this year” at the expense of domestic farmers.


Escudero thus demanded on Tuesday that in view of the expanded agriculture budget, the NFA should be extended more funding to be able to improve its buying price for local rice.


In an unintended corollary to Escudero’s separate observation and demand, the R1 said, “Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap should prove that the enhanced agriculture budget of P39 billion in 2009 will not give corrupt officials of the DA a better opportunity for plunder.”


R1 lead convenor Jessica Reyes-Cantos, who issued the group’s statement, also denounced the “apparent disregard” by the DA leadership of the clamor to “cleanse the agency” of “callous, corrupt officials.”


The statement followed reports that the Commission on Audit (COA) had found irregularities in the distribution of subsidized rice seedlings and fertilizers to farmers in a distinct echo of the P719-million fertilizer scam in 2004 that remains unresolved. The former agriculture undersecretary at the center of that scam, Jocelyn “Jocjoc” Bolante, recently lost his bid for asylum and is supposed to be deported by US authorities.


“Yap should stop washing his hands off the reported scam because it is still his responsibility to ensure that the people’s money is not squandered and give to the beneficiaries what is due them,” Reyes-Cantos said.


But the department said its regional field units have already adequately answered the issues raised by the COA on certain programs and projects that occurred at the local level last year. “Unfortunately, most of these responses were not included in the final COA report.”


Yap welcomed, however, plans by Congress and the Office of the Ombudsman to investigate the farm programs questioned by the COA, saying these parallel moves would help the government get to the bottom of the alleged irregularities.


On the other hand, Escudero said rice farmers also have at least one more issue with the department, specifically its agency, the National  Food Authority (NFA). When he visited Pangasinan over the weekend, he said farmers complained about the NFA’s propensity to swap rice for their palay “usually at a low rate of P17 per kilogram.”


Escudero said this practice is “not only ridiculous but is also highly suspect on the part of the NFA. Farmers sell their produce to earn money which is, more often than not, barely enough to cover their production expenses and with a very slim chance to save for expenses for the next planting. Barter of goods has long been gone, why is NFA offering rice for palay?”


At present, government-subsidized rice sells for P18 per kilo and the agency’s imported rice is paid by an average of P42 per kilo; and the NFA sells this imported item at an average price of P24 per kilo, leading Escudero to say in frustration, “If we stand to lose this much from foreign suppliers, we might as well lose from buying our own people’s palay produce. At least our money revolves around our own farmers who badly need the boost.” 


Escudero said the government has spent almost P89 billion on rice imports from Vietnam and Thailand. This does not yet include imports from the US and Japan, and now, the farmers whom he spoke to said they had received word from NFA insiders that the agency plans to import another 400,000 metric tons on top of their current imports.


“Is the NFA out there to kill our rice farmers? They scrimp on and haggle with our local farmers for the cheapest buying price while they bring in rice from outside sources without any resistance about the pricing. This is a mockery of our land-tillers.”






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