A plea for unity and compassion
As we approach a possible Senate vote next week on the ratification of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the agriculture sector is appealing for unity and compassion from the industry and service sectors.
Last May 21, the leaders of the core coalitions that make up the Agri Fisheries Alliance (AFA) met and unanimously took the following position: “If RCEP is to be ratified, it must meet four conditions that will address the increase in agriculture imports resulting from this agreement:
1. The Department of Agriculture (DA) budget must at least be doubled. At present, the Philippine agriculture share of the national budget is only 1.7 percent, less than half of Thailand’s 3.6 percent and Vietnam’s 6.5 percent.
2. The tariffs collected from a specific agriculture subsector should go to that sector, instead of to the General Fund. The Rice Tariffication Law has that provision, where tariffs collected are earmarked to support the rice subsector.
3. Measures should be implemented immediately to address the rampant smuggling that will get worse with more imports expected from RCEP. The high level public-private antismuggling body that [previously] met monthly with the Bureau of Customs, which reduced the smuggling rate by 25 percent and 31 percent during the two separate periods [they were in existence], should be restored. This will ensure transparency and accountability. Other border controls, such as … quarantine and health and safety measures, [which we sorely lack], should be implemented.
4. [We must have preparatory measures before accession. Like what Vietnam did, which helped them benefit from the World Trade Organization or WTO], we must now similarly identify the key threats of vulnerable sectors and the corresponding measures needed to address them.”
The AFA core coalitions that approved this position represent three critical agriculture-related sectors: Alyansa Agrikultura (AA), representing farmer and fisherfolk; Philippine Chamber of Agriculture and Food, Inc. for the agribusiness; and Coalition for Agriculture Modernization in the Philippines, representing science and academe. They are headed by Arsenio Tanchuling, Danilo Fausto and Emil Javier, respectively.
A leader said the agriculture sector should demand that these four conditions be met prior to RCEP ratification. When asked why he suggested the strong word “demand,” the leader responded that this would convey the extreme frustration the agriculture sector has had in the past RCEP negotiations.
This frustration is understandable. During the latter part of the negotiations, the International Trade Committee of the public-private Philippine Council for Agriculture and Fisheries (PCAF) was abolished. Raul Montemayor, the committee chair, stated that our agriculture stakeholders were not informed of what was going on, and were consequently prevented from suggesting any amendments.
It was restored only after the RCEP was presented to the Senate for final ratification. In an official letter to the Senate, the DA did not cite any threats emanating from the RCEP, had no preparatory measures, and thus recommended immediate ratification. Private groups numbering 104 strongly disputed this in a letter to the Senate.
At the Jan. 5 semiannual meeting of the PCAF, the AA unanimously approved a motion that the DA must take action on the RCEP threats prior to ratification. Specific steps were subsequently approved. Four months later, not one step has been taken.
But if the government did not even start committing to those recommended steps which should have been completed (with political will) by now, what assurance is there that the government will finally act after ratification? In the meantime, we risk facing the same disaster that happened during our WTO accession.
In his May 28 interview, President-elect Bongbong Marcos said we must ensure that our farmers and fisherfolk are not unduly harmed by RCEP.
The agriculture sector now pleads for unity, for the sake of our farmers and fisherfolk.
The author is Agriwatch chair, former secretary of presidential flagship programs and projects, and former undersecretary of the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Trade and Industry. Contact is [email protected]
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