MANILA -- Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Piñol said Tuesday he was proposing the establishment of a rice "trading center" in the southwest to ensure supply of the staple grain in the region.
Rice prices in the Zamboanga, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi or Zambasulta area shot up as the government cracked down on smugglers, who have long supplied the region with the grain, he said.
"Rather than allow smuggling and illegal activity to continue, we might as well legalize it," Piñol told ANC's Headstart.
"My proposal is for the establishment for a rice trading center in Tawi-Tawi where government will now take full control. You come in, you bring in your rice, you pay a little tariff, as long as we control the volume of rice coming in," he said.
The rice shortage in the southwest is "peculiar" to the area, which has "relied on smuggled rice," he said. "For them its traditional trading, for centuries they've been trading."
A recent meeting between President Rodrigo Duterte and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad, he said, led to the intensified anti-smuggling drive in the area known for porous sea borders.
"'Wag na tayo magbolahan. 'Wag na tayo maghugas ng kamay dito.
(Let's not kid ourselves. Let's not wash our hands of it.) They all, tolerated it. In fact some of them benefited from it. Everybody enjoyed it until the tap went dry so everybody panicked," he said.
The National Food Authority Council will meet later Tuesday to discuss further measures to tame rice prices in the region, he said.