DA bows to DOJ on rice imports policy, but...

By Edu Punay, The Philippine Star

Posted at Mar 11 2014 09:27 AM | Updated as of Mar 11 2014 05:27 PM

MANILA - The Department of Agriculture (DA) has bowed to the position of the Department of Justice (DOJ) that its policy on rice imports may be a “technical breach” of the government’s commitment to the World Trade Organization (WTO).

But Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala yesterday said there is nothing wrong with the continuing imposition of the quantitative restriction (QR) on rice importations despite the expiration of the extension period granted to the Philippines – contrary to the reported position of the DOJ.

In a two-page confidential letter, Alcala told Justice Secretary Leila de Lima that since the negotiations for the extension of the QR were allowed by the WTO beyond June 30, 2012 “even with the expiration of the extension period... the QR remains in place.”

“To subject rice importations to ordinary Customs duties is tantamount to abandoning our request for extension of QR. No member-state would negotiate a QR extension if the Philippines has already lifted the same or imposed customs duties in the interim,” he said.

Alcala’s statement directly contradicted De Lima’s assertion that the Philippine government gave its consent to the WTO agreement that the extension of its authority to impose QR on agricultural products “shall only be by agreement after the conduct of negotiations.”

De Lima stressed in her Dec. 16, 2013 memo to Alcala that “since the Philippines’ request for the extension of its QR on rice until 2017 is still pending, there is thus no existing agreement” to extend the NFA’s authority to impose rice import quotas.

Alcala, on the other hand, pointed out that the government’s efforts to put in place a new QR regime would be wasted if it will impose ordinary customs duties.

He noted that the country has actively sought consultations with nine-member states that have so far yielded positive feedback.

“To date, only the government of Thailand, United States and Canada have unresolved issues with the Philippines. But even with the unresolved issues with the three countries, the developments are encouraging,” he said.

“All these would be put to naught if the Philippines will agree to the position of a few individual private rice traders that the QR should be lifted,” he added.

Negotiations for the extension of the QR will resume in April this year, with additional rounds in June and October.

The WTO granted the Philippines a 10-year “special treatment” for rice starting in 1995. Prior to its 2005 expiration, an extension was negotiated and granted in 2004. The extension lapsed on June 30, 2012.

Even before current negotiations for a second extension until 2017, the country had twice been denied appeals for postponement of “special treatment’s” expiration.

De Lima’s letter was not made public as she said they would issue a more “definitive legal opinion” after considering “varying interpretations.”