$100-M commission from '08 rice imports'


The Philippine Star, April 5, 2008


http://www.abs- cbnnews.com/ storypage. aspx?StoryId= 114081


There is as much as $100 million in commissions to be made from rice imports this year, Pangasinan Rep. Jose de Venecia Jr. revealed Friday.


"The rate before was $25 to $30 per ton. But since prices have more than doubled, the commission has gone up to $50 per ton," he said.


De Venecia said he received such information from "industry sources."


Asked who is making money in rice importation, the former speaker said, "It is the corrupt officials involved in rice procurement and some people close to Malacañang."


De Venecia said it is common knowledge in the industry that these personalities have been raking in hundreds of millions of dollars in commissions from rice imports.


If De Venecia's information is correct, the alleged beneficiaries of commissions stand to make $100 million this year since President Arroyo has authorized the importation of a total of two million tons of rice.


The STAR verified the former speaker's information with sources in the House of Representatives and one opposition congressman knowledgeable in rice importation confirmed it.


He said one top agriculture department official approached a group of rice traders shortly before the May 2007 elections and asked them to raise campaign funds for administration candidates.


"They told the official that the easiest way to raise funds is for them to be allowed to import rice because of the commissions involved. So they were allowed to import, and they contributed about P1 billion to the administration' s campaign funds," the source said.


He identified the leader of the group as a certain Co.


The source added that he knew for a fact that since martial law, there have been commissions made from rice importation.


The source also questioned why Mrs. Arroyo and other officials have found National Food Authority (NFA) rice in the warehouses they have visited.


"This only means that NFA sold thousands of bags of imported rice to private traders or allowed them to import. But that is anomalous since NFA is not supposed to sell to traders, only to end-users," he said.


On Tuesday, De Venecia blamed the rice crisis on the government's policy of "massive importation" of the basic staple and on its failure to modernize agriculture.


"It is more lucrative to import rice than to produce it. There is no compulsion to make the country self-sufficient in rice," he told reporters.


He said this is the reason why the government did not fully implement the 10-year modernization program embodied in the Agriculture and Fisheries Modernization Act (AFMA) of 1997, for which Congress had appropriated a total of P145 billion on top of nearly P44 billion in annual operating budget of the Department of Agriculture (DA).


De Venecia said the same group of corrupt officials and their Palace patrons who are benefiting from rice importation is behind rampant rice smuggling in Northern Luzon, Subic, Manila, Cebu, and Mindanao.


"Rice smuggling is the result of our failure to attain rice self-sufficiency, which also perpetuates the policy of massive importation of rice," he said.


De Venecia lamented that despite the appropriation of billions yearly for AFMA projects, the government failed to modernize agriculture, especially rice production.


He said a large part of the money was obviously misspent.


Data released by the House committee on agriculture chaired by Palawan Rep. Abraham Mitra last week showed that in 1997, Congress appropriated P145 billion to improve agricultural production, principally rice, since it is the national staple that is directly linked to food security.


Some P12.9 billion was set aside in 1998, P11.6 billion in l999, P16.6 billion in 2000, P11.4 billion in 2001, P14.4 billion in 2002, P12.1 billion in 2003, P9.4 billion in 2004, P10.3 billion in 2005, P11.5 billion in 2006, and P20.4 billion in 2007.


As operational funds for the DA, Congress appropriated a total of P43.8 billion over the same period.


With the expenditure of nearly P190 billion for agricultural modernization, De Venecia said the country should be self-sufficient in rice by now.


De Venecia said the government should account for the money.


Too many mouths to feed


Other lawmakers, however, attributed the looming problem of rice shortage to the increasing population in the country.


"No amount of bountiful harvest can adequately feed the growing multitude of Filipinos," Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman said.


Lagman claimed the population boom, which has brought the number of Filipinos to 90 million people, is the main factor that triggered the looming rice crisis.


He said the increasing number of Filipinos had overwhelmed all efforts to produce more rice, which forced the government to resort to importation.


The population growth of 2.35 percent has made the Philippines the number 10 most populated country in the world, he said.


Unless drastic measures like the passage of the population management law is passed, Lagman said the food crisis problem will escalate.


Aside from looming population program, Lagman pointed out the conversion of agricultural lands into housing units to accommodate the growing population.


He also blamed the lack of support for farmers which has worsened the problem in the agricultural sector.


Lagman said Filipinos have remained mere palay planters rather than rice producers.


Lagman said Congress must pass a law to address the conversion of agricultural lands into commercial use to assure food security.


Sen. Pia Cayetano, for her part, urged the government to go after the big time rice smugglers rather than focus efforts on rice distribution.


Cayetano joined opposition Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr. in criticizing the government for using the police and military in rice distribution efforts.


The senators said the use of security forces by the government for rice distribution is an "overreaction."


A militant farmers group, on the other hand, also criticized the government for holding the national food summit Friday.


The Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) said the government should have used the money spent for the summit to buy more rice from local farmers.


The Alliance for Rural Concerns (ARC) also urged the government to heed calls for the redirection of its policy on rice and agriculture.


ARC president Roy Ribo said the government's continued adherence to the importation strategy for the nation's food security is the main culprit for the staggering prices of rice in the market Saturday.


Ribo also warned the government against tariff cuts on rice imports, saying it will not translate to a lower price of the staple in the market.


The Rice Watch and Action Network (R1), for its part, said the looming rice crisis was caused by a shortage of supply of the staple, which triggered the increase in demand.


"The government cannot confuse the people. The government cannot say that there is no rice shortage, and that all these are just happening because the price of rice is increasing. There is increase in the price of rice because there is shortage... it's a natural phenomenon. It's simply the law of supply and demand," said R1 lead convenor Jessica Reyes-Cantos.


With Perseus Echeminada, Christina Mendez, Katherine Adraneda





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