By Ali G. Macabalang
DAVAO CITY – Mindanao leaders, including the Chief Minister of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, lawmakers and governors, have urged Congress to review the law which allows unimpeded rice importation as farm gate prices of paddy rice dropped from P22 two years ago to P11 per kilo in many areas of the region this harvest season.
In its 12th virtual meeting on Tuesday here, the Governing Board of the Mindanao Development Authority (MinDA) unanimously adopted a resolution urging both House of Representatives and the Senate to review and amend R.A. 11203, also known as Rice Tarrification Law (RTL), which allows unimpeded entry of imported rice into the country.
The MinDA governing board includes Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri, Bangsamoro Chief Minister Ahod Murad Ebrahim, governors and mayors representing regional development councils and private sector representatives.
The MinDA Board meeting was convened by its chairperson, Secretary Manny Piñol, primarily to tackle issues and concerns affecting efforts for Mindanao’s economic recovery following the COVID-19 pandemic.
The island region’s recovery campaign includes the Mindanao Rise Program, which is funded by the European Union with a Grant Fund of P2.1-B, the Balik Probinsya Program, and other specific recovery projects.
In his online post, Sec. Piñol said the MinDA Board, on motion of private sector representative Engr. Sherwin Begyan and duly seconded by Agusan del Norte Governor Dale Corvera, unanimously adopted the resolution for Congress to “review the Rice Tariffication Law in the face of irrefutable evidence that the unimpeded rice importation has caused injury to the local rice industry and the rice farmers of Mindanao.”
Piñol said it was pointed out during the meeting discussions that the “very low farm gate prices of paddy rice, some at P11 per kilo which is below the production cost of P12, is causing economic hardships for Mindanao’s rice farmers and could adversely affect the economic recovery efforts of Mindanao.”
Senator Zubiri, unable to join the virtual meeting in view of their ongoing events in the Senate, relayed to the MinDA Board later his support to the intent and purpose of the resolution, according to the board secretariat.
“If it is really causing injury to the rice industry and hardship to our farmers, then it is only fair that we review the law,” Zubiri was quoted as saying.
Zubiri, who was among the Senators who passed the RTL, hails from Bukidnon, which is one of Mindanao’s biggest rice production provinces. He reportedly admitted having received similar appeals from rice farmers for a review of the RTL.
R.A. 11203 or RTL was signed by President Rodrigo Duterte on February 14 and took effect on March 5, 2019. Its provisions, introduced mostly by senators over the version of the House of Representatives, removed government limits known as quantitative restrictions (QRs) on rice importation.
Senators, according to published reports, believed that the RTL could help “affordable rice prices for consumers, coupled with the goal of raising the income of palay/rice farmers.”
The law consequently allows importers to bring in as much imported rice provided they pay the tariffs which in turn will be placed under the Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund (RCEF) which assures the rice industry of a P10-billion annual support for the next six years.
But studies conducted by the Federation of Free Farmers showed that while rice consumers benefited from the lower rice prices at an estimated value of P6-B, rice farmers lost about P80-B because of reduced income as a result of very low farm gate prices.
Additional losses which have yet to be quantified were also reported in ancillary activities to rice production, including land preparation equipment utilization, milling and processing and by products like rice bran and rice hulls.
The MinDA board secretariat said copies of the resolution will be formally endorsed to both chambers of Congress for their review and action.
During the deliberations of RTL-related issues in the cabinet, Piñol sitting then as agriculture secretary had reportedly argued for the protection of farmers’ welfare. But the President had reportedly preferred the version of other Cabinet economic cluster members like Finance Secretary Sonny Dominguez backed by Senator Cynthia Villar.
Among other reasons, the arguments over the RTL had prompted Piñol to resign his top agriculture cabinet post. The President appointed Pinol as MinDA chairman in August 2019 to succeed Sec. Abdul Khayr Alonto, who succumbed to lingering ailment a few months earlier.
Regulate agriculture imports
In another online post, Secretary Piñol has outlined some measures to restart Mindanao’s economy from the adverse effects by the disruption of supply chain because of COVID-19 pandemic.
He reportedly made the recommendations during the recent virtual meeting in Zamboanga Sibugay of the Mindanao Regional Development Councils chairmen headed by Agusan del Norte Governor Dale Corvera.
“I shared with the MIndanao RDC chairmen the appeal of agriculture stakeholders, especially rice farmers, for the government support as farm gate prices fell below break-even levels,” Piñol said.
He said “the economic recovery of Mindanao, including the whole country, could be jump-started if we consider the following practical solutions:
“1. Just like in a basketball game, let us look at our deep bench, meaning our local resources, and exploit these rather than depend on imports;
“2. Our local government leaders in Mindanao should spread and promote the “Buy Local” Advocacy to support not only our agricultural producers but also local manufacturers;
“3. By promoting and buying local products, we provide income-earning opportunities and jobs to Filipinos and at the same time, allow the circulation of money intended for imports in the country to perk up the economy.”
He said the foregoing “suggested solutions which will not cost government anything and will certainly be welcomed by the agriculture and fisheries sector.”
During the “lockdowns” in the pandemic, he said, “local farmers could have (remained gainful and stable) had local government units opted to procure local goods over imported products, like rice.”
“By regulating the entry of imports and promoting local products, we will see an immediate recovery of Mindanao’s economy,” he pointed out. (AGM)