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BOC resignation, DA inaction and farmer frustration

The recent resignation of Customs Commissioner John Sevilla has increased significantly the farmers’ frustration over the lack of inclusive growth. This is on top of the farmers’ problem with the Department of Agriculture (DA)’s lack of decisive action on smuggling.

To achieve inclusive growth, it is imperative that the government pay preferential attention to the underprivileged. Farmers and fisherfolk not only comprise our society’s largest sector; they are also the poorest. In addition, they are subjected to many forms of injustice. One of the cruelest ways is to use them as excuses for implementing programs like the fertilizer and alleged Napoles scams.

Not so obvious but much more significant is the rampant smuggling of agricultural goods. The Alyansa Agrikultura, a farmer-fisherfolk coalition of 42 federations and organizations covering all major agricultural sectors, was the first to estimate the amount of annual smuggling at approximately P200 billion.

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In a letter to President Aquino jointly signed by business groups and foreign chambers of commerce, the Alyansa took the lead in identifying smuggling as a key issue the President should address in his 2013 State of the Nation Address (SONA). The President indeed highlighted this and promised reform.

Anti-smuggling committee

Subsequently, an Anti-Smuggling Committee was formed under the National Competitiveness Council (NCC). The government co-chair is from the Department of Finance (DOF), while the private sector co-chair is from Alyansa Agrikultura. Members of this committee are four departments tasked with jointly addressing these smuggling problems: DOF, DA, Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and Department of Justice (DOJ).

Also members are private sector leaders from agriculture and industry who are severely affected by rampant smuggling. The BOC attends all monthly meetings held at the DOF. During its monthly meeting last March 18, the committee thanked Sevilla for the consistent support he gave this committee. Partly because of this, in dollar terms, 2014 showed an increase in imports by 2.5 percent while BOC collections increased by 12.9 percent. Smuggling had indeed decreased.

The Alyansa congratulated the BOC for unprecedented successes in fighting agriculture smuggling. One was the unprecedented seizure of 2,000 containers of smuggled rice led by Deputy Commissioner Jessie Delloza. The other was the provision of import data information led by Deputy Commissioner Primo Aguas to the DTI and DA that was previously kept only by the BOC. This way, the DTI and DA, with the help of the private sector, were able to detect smuggled items that would arrive without the proper phyto-sanitary requirements or correct valuation.

When I was in Hanoi last week, I received alarming texts from senior BOC officials who have been helping Alyansa in the anti-smuggling drive.

Here are examples: “Commissioner Sevilla resigned already. What will happen to reforms?”…… “Some have expressed intentions to resign, uncertain if the administration’s desire is still for BOC reforms.”……..“If the objective of easing out the reform team succeeds, Happy Fridays are back again.” Fridays were when the corrupt Customs officials met to compute their week’s take from bribes.

DA inaction

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Why are the farmers also frustrated with DA inaction regarding smuggling?

Since the NCC Anti-smuggling Committee started its monthly meetings in 2013, the DOF, DTI, and DOJ have sent official representatives to its meetings. But until now, DA has not designated any official representative. Some DA personnel come to the meetings, but say they are not authorized to represent the department. Thus, unlike what we get from other departments with official representatives, we cannot get any decisive action from DA.

In the Feb. 10-11, 2011, AF2025 Conference of 200 participants organized by the DA Secretary, the Senate and House agriculture chairs, and private sector leaders, smuggling was identified as a key priority that needed to be addressed. Two years later, farmer leaders, frustrated with DA inaction in this area, met with the highest DA officials. Three agreements were made: (1) a point person officially designated by DA to handle smuggling problems, (2) a composite anti-smuggling team composed of the appropriate agriculture bureau representatives, and (3) an anti-smuggling plan. None of the three actions has taken place.

Last February, Sevilla gave a list to DA of regulated agriculture items that were imported in 2014. He asked the DA to identify those which did not get the required clearances and were therefore guilty of smuggling. As of yesterday, he has received no response from DA.

Political will

Many farmers and fisherfolk believe Alcala’s good intentions are being sabotaged by some of his subordinates. Alcala must now put in a management system such as ISO 9000 to prevent this from happening. It is especially important that he act on the anti-smuggling problem. This is because the Liberal Party is rumored to be the culprit behind Sevilla’s resignation. Since Alcala is not only the agriculture secretary but also the LP treasurer, he must dispel such rumors and in the process, protect the farmers and fisherfolk against smuggling.

In the remaining 14 months of his term, President Aquino must not allow his “tuwid na daan” legacy to be shattered by increased smuggling and malevolent political interests. If BOC and DA follow PNoy’s direction, farmer frustration will be transformed into appreciation for PNoy’s political will in his fight against smuggling.

(The author is chair of Agriwatch, former Secretary for Presidential Flagship Programs and Projects, and former Undersecretary for Agriculture, Trade and Industry. For inquiries and suggestions, email agriwatch_phil@yahoo.com or telefax (02) 8522112).

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TAGS: Business, column, ernesto m. ordonez, farmers, inclusive growth, John Sevilla, resignation, Smuggling
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