A Boholana who was appointed Palace secretary directly working under Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco, Jr. called on Pres. Duterte to investigate the circumstances behind the recent controversy over the manner on how rice importation is being proposed.
Former Palace Undersecretary Halmen Apalisok Valdez said that while she respects President Duterte’s decision to fire her, she appealed to him to look more closely into which policies truly benefit the farmers and which do not.
Ms. Valdez who hails from Balilihan town represents Sec. Evasco in several meetings as the Cabinet secretary is tasked to look over 12 government agencies including the National Food Authority (NFA).
She was a victim of “intrigues and harassment” amid the stand of Evasco to eliminate corruption in the importation of rice.
“The question in this issue is what government policy should be undertaken by the NFA (National Food Authority) which will better support our farmers,” the dismissed Palace undersecretary said.
On Wednesday, April 5, Duterte accused her of wanting to pursue a rice importation scheme that is detrimental to Filipino farmers.
Valdez said she had been merely implementing a decision already reached by the National Food Authority Council (NFAC) – to extend the deadline for the arrival of rice imports under the minimum access volume (MAV) scheme from February 28 to March 31.
The extension of permits for these MAV rice imports had been denied by NFA Administrator Jason Aquino, a retired Army officer who was once jailed for joining the botched February 2006 mutiny against then president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. He was eventually cleared by a military court.
“In my humble opinion, discussions on policies that protect farmers can be discussed within the NFA Council, which is comprised of very able government agencies, and not through decisions monopolized by one administrator,” she added.
Duterte, in a speech in front of Nueva Ecija farmers, claimed the permits should not be extended because the rice imports will flood the market with cheaper rice, which Filipino farmers can’t compete with.
But Valdez said the issue is much more complex.
“The MAV is part of our compliance with the WTO (World Trade Organization). It was already approved by the NFAC (National Food Authority Council) which is composed of many other officials aside from Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco Jr,” said Valdez on Friday, April 7.
MAV is a scheme where private importers are given permits to import rice within a pre-determined quota.
NFA Administrator Aquino, whom Duterte seems to be siding with, refused to extend the permits of private importers under the MAV scheme.
Valdez, when she pressed Aquino to approve the extensions, said Aquino dismissed the plea, saying, “Ah, hindi natin ‘yan i-extend kasi mga cartel lang ‘yan.” (We won’t extend that because those are just cartels.)
The importers deemed qualified to be given an import permit are determined by the NFA management, not the NFAC.
Valdez defended the MAV scheme, citing improvements made by NFAC to ensure the system is less prone to abuse.
For instance, the NFAC under Evasco, cuts the quota into smaller units to accommodate small farmer cooperatives. The move was intended to lessen the monopoly of long-time rice importers who abuse the system through cartels.
Valdez said that there are 30% more rice importers given permits under the MAV scheme compared to during the Aquino administration.
The cooperatives have a representative in the NFAC.
Valdez also said the MAV schemse has also become less prone to abuse because of Republic Act No 10845, a law that declares agricultural smuggling as economic sabotage.
The law, authored by Senator Cynthia Villar, has made it “almost impossible” for smuggling to happen under the MAV scheme.
Abuse-prone G2G transaction
NFA Administrator Aquino, while against extending the deadline for imports under the MAV scheme, prefers government-to-government (G2G) rice importation.
He has argued that the process is simpler and will provide cheaper rice for Filipinos.
But G2G rice importation is also vulnerable to abuse. A risk unique to this mode of importation is the debt to be incurred by government in using it.
Each time the government imports rice from another government, it needs to get a loan from the Landbank.
Aquino wants to import one million metric tons of rice through government-to-government transaction, which, according to Valdez, amounts to a P24-billion debt from the Landbank.
This adds to the “legacy debt” of the government already at P211 billion, whereas, under the MAV scheme, private rice importers pay for the imported rice.
Valdez also argued that government-to-government transaction is less transparent and more prone to abuse than the private-sector-led MAV scheme.
“Government-to-government scheme is exempted from the Procurement Law. Thus, the NFA management has full control on how to import the rice, on who gets contracts to facilitate the importation,” she said.