RCEP: From hope to despair
For agriculture stakeholders, the hope that the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) provided for agriculture transformation is turning into despair—and even anger.
During the May 9 “Bantay RCEP, Buy Pilipino” assembly initiated by the 131 organizations that signed a Jan. 31 document opposing RCEP, two constructive advocacies were discussed. The first, Bantay RCEP, was to determine how the implementation of the trade deal could be monitored so that conditionalities in favor of agriculture would result in protection of the sector.
The second advocacy, Buy Pilipino, called for increased nationalism. It called for buying and patronizing our own products. It also advocated a new direction for agriculture through emphasis on global competitiveness, as well as farmer and fisherfolk welfare and justice, instead of heavy reliance on imports.
Bipartisan legislative support was shown during the assembly. Sen. Risa Hontiveros said she would take the necessary action to prevent any abuses related to RCEP. Sen. Loren Legarda, chair of the Special Oversight Committee on the RCEP Agreement, said she would ensure implementation of the conditionalities.
Acknowledging the dangers, Legarda insisted on including the conditionalities in the ratification and succeeded. She promised to meet the anti-RCEP groups every month to address their concerns.
But the hope everyone felt turned into disappointment when no one from the Department of Agriculture (DA) came (although some DA-attached agencies were present). There was no significant initiative from the DA to call any of the original anti-RCEP organizations to find out their concerns. The May 9 event would have been an opportunity for the DA to hear them out.
I previously mentioned there was a welcome change on the part of the DA based on statements given by Undersecretaries Mercedes Sombilla and Agnes Miranda. However, several of the remaining self-serving officials are resisting this change. Both Sombilla and Senior Undersecretary Domingo Panganiban were abroad on May 9. Some of the undesirable officials may have been responsible for the DA’s absence on May 9.
That night, a Department of Trade and Industry official told the media that the agriculture concerns were being addressed. This is inaccurate. It was also previously claimed that the private sector was consulted during the final RCEP negotiations. The fact is, the consultations were stopped by these same unscrupulous forces through the abolition of the DA-attached public-private international trade committee, which was only recently restored.
Here are the three critical RCEP conditionalities recommended by the agriculture sector, and specified in the RCEP ratification, that have not been addressed. There are only eight days left before the submission deadline:
To compete globally with RCEP, we must have the DA budget used properly to develop our agriculture competitiveness. The private sector monitoring at the provincial and municipal level must be restored. This has not been done, despite the Commission on Audit findings of more than P20 billion in unliquidated and unexplained expenses in both 2020 and 2021 budgets.
The public-private antismuggling committee must likewise be restored. It successfully reduced the smuggling rate by 25 percent and 31 percent in the past. Note that UN Comtrade statistics show our smuggling indicator had more than doubled from P500 billion in 2019 to P1.2 trillion in 2021.
The Market Information Network providing intelligence and interconnectivity legally mandated by the 1997 Agriculture and Modernization Act must finally be put into place. Up to now, any satisfactory identification of its content has not been done. Without the necessary information, our agriculture planning has been disastrous, which we cannot afford with RCEP accession.
The good forces at the DA must not be overcome by the remaining bad forces. The private sector must give them full support. This is the only way that hope can result into positive action. Misgovernance vis-a-vis RCEP will only result in devastating disaster.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.