Lawyers: A threat to rice self-sufficiency
Lawyers are precious assets needed to achieve our country’s goals.
But recently, some have become a threat to rice self-sufficiency, a pillar of food security.
Take the National Food Authority lawyer who, by design or by accident, was a major factor in the court injunction issued by Justice Emmanuel Carpio in Davao City last Dec. 13. This compelled the Bureau of Customs (BOC) to release a seized shipment of smuggled rice.
This lawyer, assigned to defend the government position that there are still rice import restrictions allowed by the World Trade Organization (WTO), did exactly the opposite. Here are the exact words quoted from Carpio’s injunction:
“Court: But you acknowledge that the right of the NFA to issue permits already expired based on the records?
NFA lawyer: Well, based on the records shown by the plaintiff in his complaint, Your Honor. We have also read it in the papers, Your Honor, that it has expired. But there was no … (interrupted)
Court: No extension of their right to…
NFA lawyer: That is what is stated in the papers, Your Honor. But there is no exact legal opinion on that, Your Honor. We are waiting actually for a legal opinion from our Manila office, Your Honor.”
Why was there no legal opinion when the importer’s lawyer officially wrote NFA much earlier on this issue twice—on Aug. 20 and Sept. 10? This laid the basis for the court injunction. The latest news is the BOC will soon release the shipment. The release of other seized shipments will likely follow. On Dec. 20, another regional court, this time in Manila, issued a similar injunction.
Last Jan. 7, Customs Deputy Commissioner Jessie Delloza said that there were 1,937 containers of smuggled rice held by the bureau. Of this number, “411 containers have been abandoned by their supposed consignees.” Why would 411 containers be abandoned, unless there was justifiable fear that import restrictions are indeed valid, and that the importers of these containers might well be prosecuted as smugglers?
The irony is that these two injunctions, if not challenged by conscientious lawyers, may provide the precedent for the release of the 1,526 containers back to the alleged smugglers.
Government records from Vietnam and Thailand show that they exported 1.5 million tons of rice to the Philippines. But data from the Bureau of Agriculture Statistics show that only 672,000 tons went through official Philippine channels. The difference likely constitutes 808,000 tons of smuggled rice. This is equivalent to the yield of 200,000 hectares, or the work of 200,000 farmers, in one season!
Rosendo So states that smuggled rice costs P903 a bag, while local rice sells for P1,500. Consequently, the government has asked for some time for the Philippines to be more competitive price-wise. It has invested heavily for the first time in irrigation and rice technologies. The results have just begun to show.
After the given period agreed with WTO, the Philippines will voluntarily lift the rice import restrictions. But it needs this time to catch up with subsidized countries. Otherwise, the rice industry will be killed by cheap rice imports.
According to Index Mundi, the price was $448 per ton for Thai rice in December 2013, but 42 percent more at $634 in February 2009. Should our people be subjected to this food insecurity?
Last Dec. 18, the Alyansa Agrikultura leaders contacted a senior Department of Agriculture (DA) official on this injunction. He said he did not know about it. He then gave the Alyansa a document on the recently concluded Dec. 3-7 Ninth WTO Ministerial Conference in Bali, Indonesia.
The Alyansa submitted this to the BOC, in the hope that the NFA lawyer’s previous statement would be corrected through a motion for reconsideration. The document clearly showed that the WTO Bali Conference recognized and accepted the Philippines’ rice import restrictions.
Because of such lawyers, there is now a threat to our rice self-sufficiency program. The new BOC management should be commended for having seized 1,937 smuggled rice shipments, a feat never seen before.
But all this good work is now jeopardized because of lawyers who do not argue anti-smuggling cases properly. The Alyansa had filed an Ombudsman case against BOC personnel for allowing smuggled onion shipments, despite the solid proof presented.
Now, the Alyansa is looking for ways to guard against lawyers who, by design or by accident, jeopardize our country’s food security.
Government lawyers should follow those within their ranks who, because of their responsible and conscientious work, are assets rather than threats to our nation’s well-being.
(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, e-mail [email protected] or telefax (02) 8522112.)
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