Only the President can resolve these two agriculture challenges
No person other than President Marcos can decisively settle the stalemate we’re seeing insofar as smuggling and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) are concerned.
The two issues are related. RCEP, pursuing the free trade philosophy, will result in more agriculture imports into the Philippines. If much of this is smuggled, our local products will suffer.
Smuggling makes all these trade mechanisms irrelevant. It will result in job losses, more poverty and an unfavorable environment for both local and foreign investors.
The next step is to minimize smuggling before we open our borders to more smuggled products through broader free trade arrangements like RCEP. Unlike the industry and services sectors, agriculture was not given an opportunity to suggest improvements in the RCEP.
This is because the international relations committee of the legislated public-private Philippine Council of Agriculture and Fisheries (PCAF) was abolished. All the agriculture sector can now ask for is protection from unfair imports.
Smuggling dwindled twice in recent history. It was accomplished by a structure that reported directly to the President. The smuggling rate decreased by 25 percent the first time under President Gloria Arroyo, and by 31 percent under President Benigno Aquino Jr.
That structure was a public-private oversight antismuggling committee that reported to the President and had meetings with the Bureau of Customs (BOC) Commissioner and his senior officials.
In that committee, there was high level representation from the departments of Agriculture, Trade and Industry, Finance, Justice, and Interior and Local Government. There was also one representative each from the agriculture and industry sectors.
I personally saw how the BOC responded effectively because their actions were systematically reported monthly to the president. However, the committee was abolished, revived then abolished again. One thing was clear: smuggling flourished each time the structure was abolished.
President Marcos recently asked the Department of Agriculture (DA) for its position on RCEP. With Marcos’ call for unity, he will consider not only the DA view, but also an opposing position officially submitted to the Senate by 104 signatories (83 organizations and 21 leaders).
The private sector strongly disputed the DA claim that RCEP poses no threat to agriculture and that it will not implement measures in preparation for the country’s accession to the trade deal. The position from the private sector is contained in a 23-page RCEP Primer submitted by the Agrifisheries Alliance to each senator’s office.
Last July 12, at the quarterly meeting of PCAF’s international trade committee, it was reported that the DA had not called any of the 104 signatories to find out why they believed RCEP has significant threats. With his unity advocacy, Marcos can now urge both sides to discuss a win-win solution that will address the concerns of the private sector.
While RCEP is disadvantageous to agriculture, it may be advantageous to both industry and services. If RCEP’s net benefit is positive, then the winners will prevail. But we must act as a unified people. The winners should not only think of their interests, but also see what they can do for the losers.
Expertise from the industry and service sectors may be harnessed to support agriculture. Some areas are our very inadequate border controls and quarantine, health and safety measures. Another critical area is where Vietnam excels, and where our industry and services sectors are more experienced: identifying the most vulnerable sectors, recognizing the threats and formulating the strategic responses to address these threats.
Only the President can significantly decrease smuggling. And only the President can unite the agriculture, industry and services sector behind a mutually beneficial RCEP which protects our farmers, fisherfolk and agriculture stakeholders. We must now all work together to address these two significant challenges.
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@example.com.
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