RCEP: Promise or peril?
The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the largest free trade agreement in the world, may initially look like the solution to improve agriculture. But because we are ill-prepared, RCEP poses a significant peril.
During our accession to the World Trade Organization in 1994, promises were made in areas such as jobs, incomes, production and exports. These materialized for countries like Vietnam, which made preparations. We did not, so the opposite happened. Some of these perils exist even today.
A glaring example is that we still do not have the necessary quarantine facilities at our borders, allowing the dreaded African Swine Fever to enter the country and severely damage our swine industry.
Last Jan. 5, Albay Rep. Joey Salceda said: “Our country’s agricultural sector still needs infusions of domestic and public investments to compete effectively … The two concerns that we have to discuss as we ratify RCEP are: Do we have the necessary mitigating measures to protect farmers from the downsides of global trade, and are our industries prepared to take in those displaced farm work?”
Sorsogon Gov. Chiz Escudero urged the Senate to carefully study the terms stipulated under the RCEP. He said, “Growth must always be inclusive, or it will only perpetuate the cycle of poverty. We must not leave behind the most vulnerable sectors of our local economy when entering into more trade deals. We must make sure that we are not crippling our ability to produce our own food, support our sectors, and improve the lives of our own people.”
It is critical for the senators who will vote on RCEP next week that they understand the all important issue of consultation before ratifying the deal.
In a document submitted to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations—which was possibly not read in detail by the entire Senate—the Alyansa Agrikultura stated:
Not once in two years did the International Trade Committee of the legally mandated public-private Philippine Council of Agriculture and Fisheries (PCAF) meet before the first Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing on RCEP. During this hearing, no threats to agriculture were identified and recognized.
When the PCAF International Trade Committee finally met, an official letter was sent to the Department of Agriculture (DA) asking to identify the RCEP threats. The committee members were told these would be identified by the Department of Trade and Industry during the next Senate hearing.
At that hearing, no threats were again identified.
In a Nov. 29 letter to the Senate, a senior DA official responded to a formal Senate query on the matter. Again, no threats were identified.
In the Jan. 5 semiannual meeting of the PCAF, a request was recorded for the PCAF International Trade Committee to meet immediately to identify RCEP threats. The private sector was able to do the task, complete with solutions. But the meeting never came about.
If the private sector input is proven valid, then these solutions should be provided before, and not after, RCEP ratification. Otherwise, RCEP will be a dangerous bane for Philippine agriculture.
The DA continues to say to this day that RCEP poses no threat to agriculture. This assertion is strongly contested. The specific threats identified by Joseph Purugganan of Focus on the Global South published previously in this column have not been refuted (“Crucial 18 months,” Jan. 1, 2022).
Since DA believes there are no threats, how can the two requirements of Salceda be met? If there are no threats, then there are no mitigating measures. And since no one will be displaced from the agricultural sector, there is no need to set plans to have the industry take those displaced from farm work.
Yet, 51 agriculture organizations signed a document that said there are very significant threats. Purugganan identified some of them: more importation, less exports, less jobs and less revenue. Purugganan was disappointed there were no subsequent discussions with the DA on the matter.
With the right study, consultation and preparation, RCEP can still become a promise rather than a peril.
With two-thirds vote needed for immediate ratification, only nine senators can delay this either by asking for a deferment or by abstaining. If India and others are humble and wise enough to ask for a late entry until they are ready, can nine senators not do the same?
About 30 million agriculture stakeholders will long remember them for responding to their often ignored and neglected plea.
The author is Agriwatch chair, former Secretary of Presidential programs and projects and former undersecretary of DA and DTI. Contact him at [email protected]
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